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?