frog: What Are The Ethics Of Research For Corporate Gain?
Jan Chipchase shares his thoughts about what it's like to work for some of the largest corporations in the world and how he stays objective.
The views expressed here are my own, and not my employer, clients or other stakeholders.
I enjoyed going to the recent Pop!Tech conference—the combination of bright minds, warm hearts and the Maine autumn is highly conducive to reflecting on what has been and imagining on what will be next.
During the event, I gave a talk to the audience about my research work, and in the panel session at the end of my talk I took two questions from a member of the audience relating to personal motivations of doing this kind of research and whether anyone has the moral right to extract knowledge from a community for corporate gain. Given the asker’s frustrated-politeness I’ll paraphrase what I (and a bunch of folks that came up to me after the talk) took as the intent of his questions:
“What’s is like working for BigCorps pillaging the intellect of people around the world for commercial gain?”
“How do you sleep at night as the corporations you work for pump their worthless products into the world?”
Short answer is that I sleep just fine.*
Those with a desire to go beyond the 110 character headlines should draw a fresh mug of their favourite brew, find a comfy armchair, and read on.
Download the related Pop!Tech presentation here [PDF, 12MB].
Before delving into a response some context here’s some context: my Pop!Tech talk wasn’t touchy-feely marketing fluff that corporate speakers tend to gravitate toward—consider Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi’s slick talk at this year’s TED Conference, and the debate that followed. Nor was it focused on the work that frog has done in the social innovation space which would have no-doubt resonated with the Pop!Tech audience. My talk focused on the social tension that occurs with the introduction of new technologies, including turn-of-the-second-to-last-century portable cameras, and could have applied equally to the Walkman (remember them?) and mobile phones. It touched on technology use and whether ‘adoption’ is pro-active, passive or even conscious: the consequences of near-time facial recognition; how DNA testing reveals parental discrepancy and will for many change the notion of “family,” how public displays are increasingly monitoring the world around us, and on what all this means for designers who are creating products, services and systems in which consumption, use, and adoption is sometimes conscious, sometimes not. A central tenet of the talk was that as more of what we design is jacked into our social network the option of whether to use, or opt-into a technology or service becomes one of opting into or out of society.
On the surface these questions are both a continuation of the design imperialism discussion that has preoccupied some in the design community, and a rally against globalisation (there’s a related interview with Fast Company here). In previous instances when I’ve been asked questions along these lines the motivation for asking was driven by an anger against the all-trampling BigCorps and me as an agent of the BigCorp, a fear/recognition of not being in sufficient control, and on occasion also guilt (where the person asking the question has trouble balancing their own consumption habits with the injustice of other people not having the same economic opportunities). Whereas the design imperialism debate honed in on local interventions, this essay will focus on my experiences working with multi-national corporations and organisations. I’m not suggesting that the lessons outlined here are the same as for more local initiatives, nor am I making a judgment on the pros or cons of local or global design solutions – that would need to be visited on a case by case basis – and yes I recognise that the international aid / donor community has for many years overlooked locally sustainable solutions often at the detriment of communities that they were there to serve – this imbalance has been a personal driver to understand for myself for much of my career. I do assume that the benefits of globalisation in the short term (~20 years) outweighs the costs and the opportunity costs.
First, for those that aren’t familiar with the practice I’ll start with a backgrounder on the role of design research / ethnography that was referred to in the talk and some of the nuances of the approach that I think make the process one that is rewarding for the individuals concerned, their communities, our teams that conduct the research and employer, and ultimately the client. After that I’ll tackle each question in turn.
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