Overview | Responsible Innovation in Canada and Beyond

Understanding and Improving the Social Impacts of Technology

Study Scope

This report examines the rapidly changing world of technology ethics and features recommendations for improving the social impacts of technology across industry, academia, government, and society.

  • Case studies — successes and failures of efforts to improve social impacts (including a timeline of AI regulation in Canada and labour market implications of automation)
  • Global efforts toward common principles for improving social impacts of technology
  • Best practices for improving the social impact of technology from the perspective of designers, developers, policymakers, educators, users, and the general public

Study Context

Myriad stakeholders shape the ethical landscape of technology. Designers, developers, policymakers, and investors have a direct impact on the technologies they commercialize. End-users also make small daily decisions intentionally or unintentionally about the ethical and safe use of technology — whether to enable location services on a new app, set up two-factor authentication, when considering a carbon-free transportation alternative, etc.

Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash

Study Findings

Cited Reasons for Social Impacts Work

  • Mitigating potential unintended consequences of new technology solutions
  • Understanding new and possibly dangerous intersections between technology and human behaviour
  • Avoiding entrenching existing inequalities and working to undo inequalities for the future
  • Keeping pace with technological change
  • Creating shared value and shared-equity solutions
  • Diversifying technology-related decision-making and development

Global Efforts to Improve Social Impacts

Organizations around the world have proposed common principles for improving the social impact of technology. Several overarching frameworks (such as the European Union’s mandate for Responsible Research and Innovation) have established core principles for ethical technology development:

Bringing Ethics into the Innovation Lifecycle

Pundits argue that widening of the innovation lifecycle in the process of creating a new technology could improve social impacts. This means extending the concept of innovation beyond design, prototyping, and assessment.

  • Canadian Algorithmic Impact Assessment tool
  • National Standard of Canada and CIO Strategy Council’s “Ethical design and use of automated decision systems”
  • Life Cycle Assessment or ISO 14040.

Pragmatic Ways to Improve the Social Impacts of Technology

Stakeholder Responsibility

The innovation lifecycle includes a wide variety of stakeholders:

  • Regulators, investors, innovators, adopters, consumers, etc.,
  • Specific groups and individuals not directly involved in the technology’s production or adoption, such as academics, consultants, not-for-profits, etc.
  • An innovation process that implicates land rights or privacy rights brings these rightsholders into the picture

Turning Responsibility into Action

Agenda-setting — Ethical technology is seeing increasing engagement by activists and implicated communities, including cyberactivism, consumer activism, lobbying, technology collectives, and ethical tech-focused hackathons

  • Different types of collective pressure, both from dedicated activists and from the broader public, has had successes in enacting reforms against the negative social impacts of technology
  • An example is the progress in removing terrorist content from social media, especially after the Christchurch shootings in New Zealand
  • Early/upstream engagement, establishing clear goals, including diverse and underrepresented voices, careful facilitation method selection, iteration, and a willingness to change a project based on feedback
  • Decisive, clear, and enforceable government-led regulation is critical
  • Market-led responses need to guard against “ethics-washing”
  • General public (cyber hygiene)
  • students (ethics in engineering)
  • industry (inclusion and diversity training)
  • government (familiarity with automated decision-making)



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Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) - Conseil des technologies de l’information et des communications (CTIC)