The technology sector is facing sharper scrutiny after a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower accused the company of knowingly choosing profits over public safety, providing thousands of internal documents to support the claims.
As calls for more regulation intensify, citizens, policy-makers and innovators are wondering: how can we ensure technology serves the public good without stifling innovation? Can innovation be both profitable and take into account the public good?
Euronews assembled a panel of experts to address these questions during a live debate and to give their thoughts on how innovation can benefit everyone.
You can watch highlights from the debate in the video player at the top of this article.
Innovation is fuelling today’s global economies. The deployment and use of technology are seen as key to driving up productivity and growth whilst reducing the impact on the planet’s precious, finite resources. With this, should come wealth, increased living standards and a positive impact on society. That’s the theory. But with most innovation being driven by the private sector, who is benefiting in reality?
Pre-pandemic research found that “the digital economy is worth $11.5 (€10) trillion globally, equivalent to 15.5 per cent of global GDP and has grown two and a half times faster than global GDP over the past 15 years.”
COVID-19 and the new digital habits it brought about have further strengthened the profits and power of tech giants, with the five largest companies (Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook) reporting in April a combined revenue of over €1.04 trillion.
With so much power in the hands of private firms, how in tune are they with the mood of today’s wider society? Those who increasingly want to know that new tech is safe, good for the environment and doesn’t breach their privacy and human rights. And all this in a world of disinformation and declining trust.
Watch the full live debate here:
The challenge of trust
According to Andrew Smith, Professor of Consumer Behaviour & N/LAB Director at the Nottingham University Business School, consumers don’t want to be overloaded with information.
“Very often we assume that consumers have all the information needed to make rational choices. As a matter of fact, they don’t always have that information, and that is an issue for companies that want to innovate,” said Tommaso Di Giovanni, Vice President and International Communications at Philip Morris International.
“We are illiterate in general,” said Elena Bou, Innovation Director at EIT InnoEnergy. “We need more communication and pedagogy and a lot of education to have enough information in order to decide.”
The need for an ecosystem
The future of technology and innovation looks set to rely on the collaboration between private and public sectors. With start-ups being the closest we have to that ideal, there is still a need to have both working together.
Annalise Eggiman, CEO of Innosuisse, said that her organisation’s mission “is to bring the science sector and the private sector together,” which is not always easy, especially because of how “intimidating” science can be. But in the end, this collaboration can be very beneficial for both sides.
“It’s an ecosystem that needs to be created to be successful, not just one company,” agreed Di Giovanni. “There’s product development, and then comes science to validate it.”
Is more regulation needed, or just the right kind of regulation?
Euronews polled readers ahead of the debate and 83% of those surveyed said they thought more regulation is needed in order to ensure technology serves the public good.
Smith backed up this result regarding the digital space: “We sometimes can’t control our own behaviour, we need regulation to help us stop our own behaviour becoming harmful to ourselves and others.”
However, according to Di Giovanni, too many regulations can sometimes become an obstacle for companies.
“Regulations should create incentives for companies to pursue the public good,” said Di Giovanni. “The more you create a way to marry profit and the public good, the more we will see innovation coming through. It’s more a matter of the quality of the regulations.”
“It depends on what type of legislation, the legislation should help to create the market conditions for innovation,” added Elena Bou.
“Companies that innovate should get some kind of privilege for innovating, also depending on the product they put on the market,” Annalise Eggiman said when asked about the taxes surrounding innovation.
“But regarding the innovation process, it’s important that the public sector gives some kind of incentive.”
Meet our panel
Annalise Eggimann, CEO, Innosuisse – The Swiss Innovation Agency executive supports Swiss start-ups, promoting science-based innovation for the good of the economy and society in Switzerland.
Tommaso Di Giovanni, Vice President, International Communications, Philip Morris International – The corporate communications specialist’s work focuses on raising global awareness of the opportunity presented by innovation, science and technology to achieve a smoke-free world.
Andrew Smith, Professor of Consumer Behaviour & N/LAB Director, Nottingham University Business School – The academic specialises in consumer behaviour and psychology, with a focus on ethical decision-making.
Elena Bou, Innovation Director, EIT Innoenergy – The researcher, practitioner and professor in innovation founded the European incubator EIT InnoEnergy in 2010. The company has since supported nearly 500 start-ups in the field of sustainable energy, including two unicorns.
Damon Embling,Euronews moderator – Damon is a seasoned broadcast journalist with more than 20 years of professional experience gained in the UK, across Europe and globally. At Euronews, he regularly produces and presents programmes, with a focus on business, travel and tourism, and technology.