Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ethics and Innovation

When I was in Japan this summer, I attended a lecture about something called Minamata Disease, which is a form of mercury poisoning (click on the link to learn more, but be warned, the disease and its effects may be kind of disturbing). The story goes like too many others we've all heard before- a big company develops a product and begins producing it, and in the process, knowingly or unknowingly contaminates the surrounding environment with a dangerous chemical that makes local residents seriously ill. In this case, the company was Chisso Corporation, and today it is one of the world's largest producers of chemical components including those in Liquid Crystal Displays like you would find in your television or laptop. More than half of the officially recognized victims have died from the disease.

I started thinking about this situation earlier in the course when we were discussing outside factors that limit innovation, and Nida also touched on this in a peripheral way in her blog post earlier in the week about the malaria vaccine. In this case, as a result of its own testing, the company knew that the methyl mercury it was releasing was making people sick, but continued to do so anyway for reasons unknown. They have never formally admitted liability or apologized to the community, even though their own documents indicate that they were aware of what was happening at the time and they are currently still paying restitution.

So how do ethical considerations play into innovation? They can certainly be a limiting factor if you choose to embrace them, but the trick here is that unlike legal considerations or resource limitations, ethical considerations are determined almost entirely by the innovator. When you consider the implications of that fact, it becomes clear that there is a lot of personal responsibility involved in many kinds of innovation. I personally think that these considerations provide opportunities for work-arounds and further innovation, but it is interesting to think about how many products and ideas we might not have today if ethics had been a consideration in their development. What do you think? Obviously, Chisso is an extreme example, but how do we as innovators determine where to draw the ethical line?


  1. After reading Valerie's post I started thinking about technologies or innovations in our lives that may cause harm. My thoughts immediately went to cell phones. Like the wireless charging pads that we discussed earlier in class the effects of this technology is uncertain with many contradicting studies. I did some reading and came across an blog that addressing the ethical implications of the uncertain effects of wireless devices and cellphone manufacturers. Part 2 of the post gives recommendations for ethical ways of innovating. Like Valerie, I agree that ethical dilemmas should be a great motivator for innovation.

  2. I think that it is impossible for an innovator to see every possible positive and negative consequence of their innovation, but that this question does highlight the importance of small scale trials for a lot of innovations to be able to see environmental or health effects. Like in medical research, a small number of consenting adults may suffer side effects in a trial, but a lot more people can eventually benefit from a medical treatment in the future.

  3. I agree, Amanda and Katie. And I think its tricky when there are unforeseen consequences, because how do you really know what to test for? I guess that just highlights the importance of thoughtful innovation, and is probably a good example of where Design Innovation like IDEO uses could be beneficial- getting a bunch of experts in diverse fields together might decrease the risk of inadvertent harm.

    There are two sides to inadvertent consequences, though. As an example, the creation of the atomic bomb was an innovation whose ethical value is debatable, but even if one thinks it never should have been created, without the money poured into researching it by the U.S. government, we most likely would not have nuclear power today. So just like an ethically neutral innovation can lead to unforeseen negative side-effects, so can an ethically questionable innovation lead to beneficial ones.

  4. I agree with the uncertainty about the consequences of innovations. But we have more access to knowledge than fifty years ago, and the next generations will know much more than we do now.
    On the other hand, there is more concern about health, social responsibility & transparency - that I hope are more than trends- in corporations that point out more awareness from innovators.

  5. As many have stated previously, it is impossible for innovators to forsee every harmful by-product that exceeds what had been considered upon creation. I believe that the key to innovation in these situations lies in the next step: 'What do we do next?' At this point it is not sufficient for an organization to simply say that they were unaware of the adverse effects or fail to continue to transform to better address challenges. Unfortunately, I doubt that this social responsibility will be exhibited by all organizations that have a harmful product but hopefully our legal system is able to force the Chisso Corp to compensate for the harmful effects or force them to innovate even further.