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det digitale etikkompas

Ethics Is a Design Challenge

03. Feb 2022
Quick insight

Interview with Peter Svarre, Digital Strategist and Lecturer, and Christian Bason, CEO of the Danish Design Center

det digitale etikkompas

How can we ensure that digital services and products are developed ethical – ly when things are developing at pace? Danish Design Center CEO Christian Bason and digital strategist and author Peter Svarre share their views on how Danish companies can best avoid ethical pitfalls. In 2020, the Danish Design Center devised four very different scenarios for the future of Danish design. However, there was one significant parameter that recur – red across the board: ethics. 

“No matter what kind of future we envision, ethics is one component which simply must feature,” says the CEO of the Danish Design Center, Christian Bason. “But the question is how each company can achieve this in practice.” 

Together with digital strategist and author Peter Svarre, he appeared on the 2019 AM Copenhagen Podcast Series ‘Design Kan …’ which placed focus on both the usability and the dark side of artificial intelligence. A few days before, both Bason and Svarre came together with 148 other participants at a think tank held as part of the Tech Festival to formulate the Tech Pledge – technology’s answer to the Hippocratic Oath.

“The pledge was a good springboard for further contemplation and develop – ment,” says Peter Svarre. “The question which followed was what exactly can we do to implement and live up to the pledge in our daily work?” 

This was the starting shot for the Digital Ethics Compass – a training program and educational tool which equips companies and organizations to incorporate ethics into their digital products and services. 

Ethics is a competitive advantage

Danish companies have increasingly become more digital over the course of the coronavirus pandemic and digital ethics have gone from being something we should consider to something we must consider, according to Christian Bason.

 “Consumers will increasingly demand more digital security in the future. This means it will be advantageous for companies to start building their ethical mus – cles right away,” he says. And while consumers in other countries such as China and the USA may not ask the same critical questions about ethics as consumers in Denmark, it is nonetheless wise for Danish companies to set the bar high, Christian Bason believes. 

“We are seeing that people are becoming more and more skeptical about things such as how companies use data. There is also a clear discrepancy between what the law forbids and what we would consider unethical. This makes ethics a clear advantage for companies wanting to set themselves apart in an international market.”

Legislation is not enough

When companies design new digital solutions and products, the aim is often to quickly produce prototypes that can be tested on both a small and large scale. In achieving this, design methods such as the sprint method can help to generate huge value for companies. However blind spots often emerge over the course of a design process, and they are not always issues that will be covered by compliance alone, explains digital strategist Peter Svarre. Because even if you might not have any problems from a legal perspective, this does not automatically mean that everything will be ethically sound. 

“Compliance is very black and white, but ethics is more of a gray space,” explains Peter Svarre. “There is no single checklist that the product manager can quickly run through at the very end. It can also be a huge challenge for a company to recognize the problems in its own product.” 

According to Christian Bason, the challenge is “bringing all ethical considerati – ons on board” no matter whether it is a simple program or artificial intelligence we’re dealing with. Even in the case of companies that are aware that ethics is something that needs to be considered, the exercise itself is not always an easy one. From the pixel designer and programmer to the product manager, there are many steps along the way and even more design decisions that need to be made. This creates a dilemma in terms of who has the final responsibility.

“Ethics means constant trade-offs and it will always entail some tough decisi – ons,” says digital strategist Peter Svarre. “Ultimately it is not a legal question that you can return to and hold somebody accountable for.”

A systematic approach to designing ethically

It is precisely for that reason that Peter Svarre believes that ethics needs to permeate the entire organization. 

“If you’re in a situation where the goal is simply to get a product over the line, then it is important to be trained in ethics when getting started so that you understand digital ethics in your role as an employee and have a way of articulating it,” says Svarre.

In essence, “we should always conceptualize ethics not as the means but as the end itself,” he says.  

“Design methods and UX methodologies may sometimes entail an ethical blind spot because they focus on much narrower target groups and perspectives,” he says. With their ethical goggles on, companies are forced to broaden the horizon and to bring in more perspectives. According to Peter Svarre, the trick is often to introduce ethical stop signs into the course of the design process. This is where tools such as the Digital Ethics Compass can come in handy as a useful resource to help ask the right questions at the right time. 

“Ethics is only becoming more important,” says Christian Bason.

 “That is why it is important to develop tools that make it easier for everyone in the company to think ethically. Ultimately, it is about asking ourselves: what kind of world do we want to live in?”

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