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ethix – lab for innovation ethics

A conscience about the digital world

“Is what’s technically feasible also ethically acceptable and beneficial for society?” is the question posed by a pioneering project called ethix. Photo: Simon Tanner
“Is what’s technically feasible also ethically acceptable and beneficial for society?” is the question posed by a pioneering project called ethix. Photo: Simon Tanner

Which ethical principles are required for the digital transformation? The business-location-promoting initiative digitalswitzerland and leading figures from global and national technology companies sought to answer this question. It gave the pioneering project ethix the task of mediating the working process to produce a joint declaration. It soon became apparent that this did not go far enough. The story of a dynamic process.

The third Swiss Digital Day, held in September 2019, was attended by some very eminent guests. Special trains carrying politicians, business leaders and journalists ran throughout Switzerland. The ‘Swiss Global Digital Summit’, held the day before, was a somewhat less public event. This was a summit launched by Ueli Maurer, President of the Swiss Confederation, in tandem with digitalswitzerland. It was not by chance that Geneva was chosen to host the meeting. The initiative aims to build on its humanitarian tradition and establish a platform for ethical issues concerning digitalisation.

“This phenomenon is progressing at breakneck speed and much of what is dismissed today as pure conjecture could well be part of everyday life tomorrow. This makes some people anxious as the risk of not keeping pace seems too great,” pointed out Maurer in a quote. His statement shows that while digital innovation means positive progress, it can also lead to ambivalence. This is why it is vitally important that ethical considerations are incorporated into the innovation process. This approach allows the beneficial potential of technology to make an impact.

The start-up’s team grew last year. Photo: Simon Tanner

This viewpoint was also shared by the guests invited from the global and Swiss economy as well as representatives of Swiss universities who gave the go-ahead to launch the ‘Swiss Digital Initiative’ at the ‘Swiss Global Digital Summit’ with the discussion of a joint position paper. It was the high point thus far of cooperation carefully initiated months earlier by digitalswitzerland and with the support of one of the Migros Pioneer Fund’s pioneering projects.

Jean-Daniel Strub and Johan Rochel, who are both business leaders, founded ethix – the laboratory for ethics on innovation – in early 2018. It advises companies and organisations on ethical issues that crop up when new technologies are developed and used commercially. Both men have previously run companies. Strub was also a member of the Board of the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, while Rochel is not only a philosopher, but also a lawyer. They and their team moved into new premises in an office block in Wiedikon at the start of the year. Here they share a loft-style space with a start-up which brings together coffee roasting companies and producers to enable transparent commodity trading.

In the start-up district: Lots of green beans from transparent trade are ready for the first roasting process. Photo: Simon Tanner

Academia met business last spring when digitalswitzerland asked ethix to assist with producing a Swiss Digital Declaration. “We’d always secretly hoped that ethix would get this kind of assignment,” revealed Samira Lütscher, who supports the project at the Migros Pioneer Fund. It gave the pioneers the opportunity to show how ethics does not belong in an ivory tower through a specific project. The declaration is to be drawn up collaboratively to guarantee high ethical standards which are supported and accepted by as many stakeholders as possible. After a brief initial period it nevertheless soon became apparent that the project would have to become bigger and more importantly adopt a more long-term approach to achieve an impact beyond September 2019. Ultimately, there is no shortage of documents and statements that set out ethical principles for the digital world. More than 80 such documents have been produced in recent years alone – and that trend is continuing.

“It’s vitally important to think big here.”

Johan Rochel

All participants quickly agreed that another similar document would only create short-term added value in the best-case scenario. In contrast, an application-oriented initiative based in Switzerland would be quite a different matter entirely. Such a venture would successfully establish itself in a fast-moving economic and innovative environment. ethix founder Johan Rochel immediately realised: “It’s vitally important to think big here.” Otherwise the global perspective – which was crucial in relation to the issues being discussed – would be lost.

So instead of another declaration, efforts were focused on the launch of an initiative headquartered in Switzerland with a long-term outlook. A foundation is being specially set up for this purpose. Its president-elect is the former Federal Councillor Doris Leuthard. Other members to be appointed to the foundation board are Joël Mesot and Yves Flückiger, the Presidents of the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the University of Geneva, Marc Walder, CEO of Ringier and founder of digitalswitzerland, and Ivo Furrer, President of digitalswitzerland. Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr is also set to join the body.

By issuing a common policy document, all parties involved will jointly affirm the direction in which they intend to head. For this purpose, a paper was produced in an interdisciplinary expert group which sought to address the key issues and to set out specific principles for the joint projects. ethix acted as a mediator in this process and provided support with drafting. In this way, the structure of the initiative gradually emerged. As part of an impact-driven approach, every project of the newly established foundation should commit to complying with the values set out in the paper.

Preparing the presentation of the Swiss Digital Initiative’s first projects at the WEF: ethix founder Johan Rochel. Photo: Simon Tanner

Verena Vonarburg, Director of the Swiss Digital Initiative, firmly believes the success of the challenging process is also due to the excellent reputation of Rochel and Strub in the world of academia. Bringing together so many different parties would have been a virtually impossible task otherwise. The participation of civil society entities as well as companies and academia was extremely important to the two ethicists. This is why the initiative has adopted a multi-stakeholder approach. This focuses on involving all stakeholders relevant to the process from politics, civil society and the private sector.

The team agrees that civil society players also have to be involved. Photo: Simon Tanner

There are many hurdles to overcome in this kind of process. Strub recalls a difficult moment towards the beginning when it became evident that the definition of the goal by the project management still required internal consolidation – not least to determine who should be involved and in what form. Strub pointed out: “The fact that thanks to ethix we were able to draw on not just academic perspectives but also knowledge of tackling similar issues in practice definitely helped us during the process.” This experience also enabled a text for the position paper and other key principles for the foundation to be drawn up based on extensive input from experts which everyone could ultimately support, even if they did not perceive themselves as the authors.

“You have to learn to overcome moments of uncertainty.”

Verena Vonarburg

“You have to learn to overcome moments of uncertainty,” remarked Verena Vonarburg. Plans can change from one day to the next and a one-page document is often more useful in this kind of project than a long-winded, 40-page report. “We learned a great deal from one another,” indicated Vonarburg, “ethix was exactly the right choice of partner.” The customer rated cooperation with the start-up highly. ethix was also able to successfully negotiate a path between the different speeds and approaches of academia and business.

It is not just the team that has increased in recent months, but also the office space. Photo: Simon Tanner

Internal development should not be overlooked
Jean-Daniel Strub was also highly impressed by how quickly and pragmatically all players got to grips with their tasks and by their willingness to embark upon a long-term process together.

“Projects on this scale always leave a mark on newly formed companies which is a good thing.”

Jean-Daniel Strub

Strub believes ethix has learned and benefited tremendously from this project. There is now also greater willingness to develop the company from within. Strub said: “Projects on this scale always leave a mark on newly formed companies which is a good thing.” Focusing a high level of resources on one project means things can soon get overlooked. If a growth path like ethix’s is pursued, new challenges emerge, such as in relation to cooperation in the team and the support of individual tasks. ethix enjoyed a stroke of good fortune when the new lab manager Lea Strohm joined the team. She was able to provide highly effective support right from the outset thanks to her background in international relations and innovation science. There is much work to be done for ethix over the coming months: As a follow-up to the first project phase, the pioneering venture is now working on planning the first implementation projects as part of the Swiss Digital Initiative and assisting with their formulation. The next meeting is coming up soon: The project and initiative are gearing up for participation at another major event – the World Economic Forum in Davos (January 2020).