No technology comes into being by accident, and inequalities are baked in from the outset. Algorithmic bias, for example, reflects the biases and prejudices of its creators. Embedded inequity is rearing its ugly head in everything from video doorbells to driverless cars to smart devices to tech in health care and criminal justice. The long-term implications are far-reaching and scary. Big Tech is belatedly waking up to this reality, as seen from the likes of IBM and Amazon announcing that they’re pausing facial-recognition deployment because it can enhance bias in police surveillance.
But these measures often come too late, as a response to harm that has already occurred. If we want a better future, we need to design it from the beginning, and that requires looking beyond a siloed, organizational approach.
One approach is increasing diversity in technology, as a measure to reduce inequity in product development. Diversity efforts aren’t new, yet they’ve yielded minimal results. The percentage of Black employees in major tech companies has only risen by low single digits, and the number of Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has dropped from a high of six in 2012 to four. Although extremely important, diversity isn’t a numbers game, and as one commentator bluntly put it, hiring a chief diversity officer won’t fix your racist company culture, let alone the issues with your software being biased against Black people.
Issues of exclusion and inequity are systemic, and as such, they will not be remedied by one-off changes or a top-down institutionally siloed approach. These problems need multilayered solutions and participation from everyone across a company. In reflecting on the experimentation I’ve participated in across various sectors, from finance and tech to the arts, philanthropy, and social justice, I’ve seen the most success with the following solutions, which can be applied by everyone within a company:
1. Actively and intentionally seek input.
Building communities that reflect those in the real world is very hard work. But it is the only way to ensure that the product you are creating tackles bias. Building community that accounts for demographic, geographic, and intersectional representation is a commitment we have to continuously revisit and hold ourselves accountable to.
Here are some questions to ask in your strategic discussions:
- To whom are we actually accountable?
- Who’s included—and who’s not? To whom should we be accountable?
- How do we seek differing opinions? How is their feedback incorporated?
- Who would make us uncomfortable in the conversations we are having?
- Who would find the proposed output irrelevant, counterproductive, or harmful?
- Are we building with, as opposed to for, a community?
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, consider a combination of increasing board diversity, comparing your staff to your consumer base (both actual and potential), and deliberately soliciting the perspectives you’re missing. This involves critical, regular examination of the assumptions you’re making and the patterns they are creating, whether in your distribution channels, with competitors, or in dismissing entire market segments.
Across the World Economic Forum’s blockchain and data projects, we solicited input from in-country roundtables, at sessions of our annual meeting in Davos, on GitHub, and via workshops and focus groups. Our blockchain deployment tool kit engaged more than 100 organizations of various sizes, and our roadmap for sharing data across national borders considered perspectives from over 20 countries representing significant geographic and economic diversity. This input helped us consider angles, key elements of success and failure, and risks that we may not have otherwise considered with our experiences and research alone. And we still think we can and should be doing better.
Projects that could take us six months take much longer because of our approach to inclusion, but it’s worth the time to not only create the best output possible, but also to avoid inadvertent harm. Rather than moving fast and breaking things, we choose to move slowly and build consensus.
2. Evaluate, reevaluate, and reevaluate your processes.
Equity and inclusion start as intentions that become rooted in practice through an iterative process that never stops. These values need to be integrated end-to-end rather than treated like a box-checking exercise. Otherwise nothing changes.
Questions to ask:
- Where does equity actually show up in your process? In design? Sales?
- How seriously are your stated principles taken as a gating mechanism?
- Who is responsible? In an ideal world, each individual will feel responsibility for adherence to the principles an organization purports to prioritize.
A process approach doesn’t need to be invented from scratch. Civic tech and related organizations have been thinking about process development for a long time, especially when it comes to building diverse communities.
One example is the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which in the late 1990s was a pioneer of the arts as a method for sparking difficult conversations by creating “safe space for unsafe ideas” and emphasizing the process of public engagement in the creation of art. Or Caravan Studios, whose approach to community involvement is deeply embedded within their operations from the beginning. (Disclosure: I’m on the Board of TechSoup, of which Caravan Studios is a division.) This type of approach is also reflected in the “human-centered design” or “responsible innovation” efforts seen within companies such as Microsoft, Salesforce, Adobe, and Mastercard as they attempt to codify user-centric approaches.
3. Build coalitions that hold members accountable.
Tech can learn a lot about coalition building from social justice organizations. As a board member of the Equal Justice Society, I’ve seen how much can be accomplished by building alliances with, listening to, and learning from those doing related work. EJS actively contributes to social justice and civil rights communities, and staff routinely discuss when to lead and when to follow. The goals are bigger than any organization can achieve on its own, just as equity and inclusion are similarly lofty goals that the entire tech ecosystem should be tackling with a coalition mindset.
It’s important to note that conversations with coalition partners have to be honest, acknowledging both success and failures. This can be hard, especially with organizations that might be competitors for the same markets, funding, or resources. But we fail everyone when we fail to discuss failure.
Further, companies take direction from their competitors and partners, so it’s important to collectively shape expectations and commitments around equity, inclusion, and user protection. If there is a signal that an issue is important to a group, it is likely to quickly permeate. We are seeing this now as company after company issues announcements about their commitment to racial justice.
None of this is to say that organizations (or individuals) that care need to become judge and jury for their ecosystem. Rather, it’s about putting in place systems to facilitate concrete action and accountability, beyond just carefully worded statements.
For instance, we codesigned the Presidio Principles, which articulate user rights for blockchain applications, with individuals representing various ideologies. To demonstrate their commitment, organizations and individuals are signing on to advance and implement the principles. This was an exercise in collective self-direction, and an expectation for organizations and their peers to do better by their users. Another example is Black Tech for Black Lives, which asks Black technologists and allies across the tech ecosystem to commit to one or more specific actions that address systemic racism.
Questions to ask:
- Who is doing similar work? How are we interacting with and learning from them and holding each other accountable?
- Should we lead or follow?
- Do commonly held principles or values exist within our broader ecosystem? If so, are we adhering? If not, how can we help establish a common denominator?
- What are models for success? Where have we seen failures? How can we learn from both?
Equity in any system requires significant effort, commitment, and collaboration, and equity in tech is no exception. It often, if not always, requires working against current systems of inequity to redress them or, at a minimum, avoid exacerbating them further. We need leaders brave and hardworking enough to commit to making these kinds of changes, because equity is not only possible, it is essential for a better future.
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