The delicate innovation-ethics balance


As we navigate this digital age, we must be mindful that the collective actions we take today will shape the future of the digital world for generations to come. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Last week, I participated virtually in four panels in the 9th edition of the Science Summit during the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 78). The panels covered various topics, including digital regulation, food systems, and sustainability, under the UNGA's Science Summit umbrella. 

One such event was the UNGA Science Summit, where Dr Fergus Sinclair, in his keynote speech on Prospects for Achieving Equitable Food Systems through Agroecology, made a compelling case against large-scale commercial farming practices, suggesting that they have contributed to many sustainability challenges.

As a coordinator of the Smallholder Production Systems and Markets component of the CGIAR Research Programme on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry involving CIFOR, Bioversity and CIAT, Dr Sinclair's groundbreaking evidence highlighted the significance of diversity, productivity, and resilience in achieving sustainable food systems.

With the growing recognition that agroecology holds significant potential for the sustainable transformation of our food systems, the panel underscored the importance of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which calls for a fresh agricultural approach to ensure an adequate, safe, and nutritious food supply while respecting human rights.

While small-scale farmers are central in food systems, it is crucial to emphasise that this approach does not advocate for the outright abandonment of sizeable commercial farming.

Instead, it calls for a balanced coexistence between large-scale agriculture, which is susceptible to unethical practices, and micro-farming, which may not meet the needs of growing populations.

Despite the apparent diversity of these discussions, a common thread emerged: a cautionary tale about the perils of unchecked growth and the abandonment of ethics as innovators seek to scale their creations for profit.

This was very clear during the recurring theme at the UNGA Science Summit, which focused on the dangers of unchecked expansion and the erosion of ethical principles in pursuing rapid growth and wealth.

Whether in business, agriculture, or technology, we must balance innovation and development with moral responsibility and sustainability.

In a world of innovation where all seems well until expansion becomes the primary objective, the desire for rapid growth and increased wealth often tempts innovators to cut corners, neglect ethical considerations, and prioritise financial gains over all else.

This unsettling phenomenon has been gaining traction, as evidenced by recent research. In a 2020 research paper titled Blitzscaling: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Kuratko, Holt, and Neubert, the authors shed light on how venture capitalists inject substantial sums of money into startups to facilitate rapid expansion, aiming for significant financial returns, often at the expense of ethics and social responsibility.

Historically, traditional business expansion occurred within a framework where effective growth strategies were meticulously planned, adhering to stringent ethical standards.

However, this norm seems to be fading as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are implemented hastily, often without adequate ethical safeguards.

The final panel of the summit focused on the 50th Anniversary of the Internet underscored the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of the digital landscape, which has become deeply intertwined with our lives.

It emphasised the need for collaboration among governments, industry stakeholders, and civil society to create guardrails that protect consumers from the excesses of blitzscaling in the digital realm.

Similarly, many of today's big tech companies began as responsible entities. Still, they lost their ethical compass as they expanded, accumulating massive amounts of user data without sufficient regard for privacy and ethical considerations.

Despite facing fines in some jurisdictions, they often prioritise profit over moral responsibility.

Regardless of the manifold challenges, the future of the digital world depends on our ability to strike a delicate balance between fostering innovation and economic growth while safeguarding individual rights and societal well-being.

As we navigate this digital age, we must be mindful that the collective actions we take today will shape the future of the digital world for generations to come.

Only by doing so can we hope to create a future that benefits humanity while preserving our shared values and principles.

The writer is Kenya’s Ambassador to Belgium, Mission to the European Union, Organization of African Caribbean and Pacific States and World Customs Organization. The article is written at a personal level.

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