Working Ethically At Speed

Image by Louis du Mont via Flickr

Faster is Different

‘Faster is different’. Zeynep Tufecki made this point in 2011, to push back on commentators claiming that the digitisation of the public sphere wasn’t materially different. It was ‘only’ accelerating existing dynamics.

As the rate of change in technology dramatically accelerates, we see a corollary acceleration in the speed with which teams are forced to make choices of huge ethical consequence. Faster is different. Inventing at speed requires different ways of assessing and designing for ethics. And while the majority of critique about how technology and innovation are causing harm has come from academia, new organisational forms like think and do tanks are working that allow for faster publication cycles and more actionable research. And increasingly, academics — like Tufecki — are adapting their own ways of working to address the way that this speed affects their ability to inform the future.

And while think tanks, activists, and academics are adapting their approaches to increase the chances that future technical innovation will be ethical and aligned with social benefit, most of the organisations doing the inventing are not. I see investment in compliance, policy, and research, but little to adapt methods to operationalise ethics in these incredibly fast-moving times.

How can organisations working at the bleeding edge of technology design for and invest in process that informs governance and operationalises ethics?

To answer this question, we need a different type of innovation. I’d like to propose a new way for organisations to address this question to get a conversation started. I have been referring to it as ‘agile ethics’. I am giving it a name to a) make it easier to discuss the process necessary to implement governance as distinct from overarching and critical questions of governance and b) rhetorically borrow from a process that has similar characteristics but that is not applied to effective ethical decision-making.

Agile ethics cannot and should not be unmoored from governance, and it does not address the foundational governance questions facing organisations and societies about how we shape the role we want technology and data to play. It is meant to support operationalising and evolving governance to address issues as speed and technical development changes their shape.

In this post, I’ll explain a bit about what I see as the current gap, the objective of ‘agile ethics’, and ways of managing agile ethics within teams, nonprofits, and companies.

The Current Gap

If we want a society that is able to work ethically at speed, then the current division of labour is insufficient. The current system of checks and balances is made up of a diverse cast of characters: (often non-diverse groups of) inventors invent, activists mobilise to advocate for better controls of the inventions when they cause harm or marginalise groups, lawyers sue and suggest policy to address obvious malfeasance, researchers detail the ethical issues of inventions and situate the harmful disruption in historical, scientific and theoretical frames, journalists investigate and narrate the harm, and policymakers debate and legislate to prevent future harm.

This has many effects, but I want to focus on the effect that this division of labour has on our capacity to work ethically at speed. Because the critical analysis of unintended effects is largely situated outside of the locus of invention, the process of inventing is not influenced by the critical analysis. The invention is modified after the fact and only after other actors within this broader system have played their part (and only after harm has been caused).

To stop this cycle, we need more effective governance and we need methods and process to facilitate operationalising of that governance. I am not an expert on governance and I am not a lawyer. I have experience facilitating and building process that allows for diverse teams to accomplish things. When I think of the failure of ethical decision-making (or success of unethical decision-making) and watch organisations struggle to operationalise ethics, I think policy direction — which is often static, prescriptive, and motivated by a desire to signal virtue — from the top is only part of the challenge. Another issue is the lack of intention in developing an enabling environment for effective situational analysis, learning, and organisational culture change. ‘Agile ethics’ is an attempt to fill what I see as a gap in process tools to address working ethically at speed. It only works if the overarching governance and ethical frameworks at play are doing their part.

Agile Ethics

The purpose of ‘agile ethics’ is to facilitate working ethically at speed, and it is a practice that can be designed to operate in tandem with agile development. For those unfamiliar with agile development, it is — in its simplest form — a process whereby ideas are researched, prototyped, and then shaped by frequent testing with a potential user group. It allows for zany ideas to take shape, and it allows for businesses to harness creativity as a way of finding market fit. It is the dominant ethos and way of working within technology organisations operating at speed, and is a process for creative and iterative invention where each iteration is an opportunity to learn more about the product and possibility you are working to shape. It is also a way of working, when not carefully managed, leads to haphazard and harmful creations that are flung into the world before their potential impacts are assessed. It is the management process for ‘move fast and break things’.

Agile development approaches are not inherently harmful. Organisations attempt to incorporate values into the method. But when non-diverse teams use agile methods they often have ethical blind spots (wilful and not) that can embed harm in their invention (diversity is a competency!).

Agile ethics is a process to operationalise values, iteratively identify and address ethical challenges of your innovations before you send them out in to the world, and adaptively refine processes so that as the capabilities of technology evolve, so does your ability to diagnose and prevent harm before it happens. Agile ethics is the explicit application of agile methods to ethical assessment, adaptation, and learning that allows for a team to mature its practices as it works at the bleeding edge. It employs agile methods to tackle ethical challenges, and inculcates ethical approaches within an agile development process.

It is not:

  • Delegating ethical analysis to a fixed part of an organisation (compliance, research, corporate social responsibility or otherwise)
  • Prescribing a fixed approach to ethics based on vague values (policies won’t cut it)
  • Encouraging your staff to reflect on ethics without designing methods or allocating resources to aid them in the process
  • A bandaid for underlying problems with governance and leadership

Agile ethics requires four things:

  • Decentralisation of critical, ethical thinking in an organisation or team
  • Iterative development of process that supports decentralised consideration of the implications of any given idea
  • Dedicated staff time to manage the process
  • Inclusion of diverse and (when appropriate) external voices

Agile Ethics Job Description

In my experience, the team members most devoted to supporting ethical practice are either not embedded in the process or practice of inventing or are engaged in their ethics practices because they are particularly interested, not because they have been tasked with or supported to carry out the work. For an agile ethics process to work, some staff time has to be devoted explicitly to it. Ethics as a dislocated practice or outsourced process will always fail.

What could that role look like?

  • Identification of moments in the design process where ethical consideration, planning, reflection, and decision-making are necessary
  • Facilitation of entire teams to reflect on ethical dimensions of their new work
  • Documentation of process that is both prescriptive (all staff know what process they are meant to be doing at any given time) and insights-focused (as you learn, you should reduce the cognitive load related to solved problems while keeping focused on upcoming ethical challenges)
  • Research and engagement with communities, researchers, and academics on the forefront of managing ethics
  • Management of a ‘diversity marshmallow strategy’ (i.e. what representatives from what communities should be included in design phases to identify and call out ethical blind spots that your team may have)
  • Influence on diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies to support the process of your organisation growing your ethical competencies by having more representative staff involved in your activities

If your company or organisation is struggling to operationalise ethics, or is working to innovate in that area, I would love to talk more with you about your approaches, and attempts.

And thank you to Sean McDonald, Elizabeth Eagen, Martin Tisne, and Emma Prest for helping shape these ideas.