Could the notion of ‘purposeful business’ provide a way forward for digital ethics?

7 Dec 2021 11:39 AM

Ahead of the techUK Digital Ethics Summit on 8 December, Hetan Shah, Chief Executive at The British Academy, outlines the role purposeful business will play in the implementation of digital and data ethics.

One of the criticisms of ideas around digital and data ethics is that in practice they have been seen as optional extras, rather than being hard wired into the very way that companies behave. The largest technology companies in particular are extremely powerful and are able to choose which ethics frame they highlight, to the exclusion of others. 

One way to reframe the debate is to look at discussions which have been happening not in the sphere of data ethics, but in that of corporate governance. Over the last four years, The British Academy – the UK’s National Academy for the humanities and social sciences – has been investigating the role of business in society and the future of the corporation. The programme has been described by the Financial Times as one of the world’s most ambitious efforts to reform capitalism for the 21st century.  

Our extensive work, bringing together a huge range of research alongside convening business leaders came to the view that the purpose of business should be to create profitable solutions for problems of people and planet, and not profiting from creating problems – what we have called ‘purposeful business’. The notion of purpose and profit have gone together in business over the last two millennia and it is only in recent years that there has been a narrower focus on shareholder maximisation. 

Living in a world of global challenges – from poverty and inequalities, climate change and biodiversity loss, and most recently the Covid-19 pandemic – the usual route is to reach for government or civil society to respond. We have a curious collective blindspot when it comes to the positive contribution that business can play. Business leaders are increasingly of the view that they do have a role, with more than 4 in 10 agreeing with the British Academy’s notion of ‘purposeful business’ rather than shareholder maximisation.  

The current regulatory and corporate governance frameworks we have do not stop purposeful business, but they do not support it. This means companies – including those that work with data and artificial intelligence - that wish to take that approach risk being undercut by those that would choose to profit from the creation of problems for people and planet. 

What is needed is a new regulatory framework that supports the implementation of corporate purposes and hold company directors to account upon them. Governments should put purpose at the heart of company law and the fiduciary responsibility of directors. This in turn would mean that companies should place purpose at the heart of their annual reporting and demonstrate to their stakeholders how their ownership, governance, strategy, values, cultures, engagement, measurement, incentives, financing and resource allocation deliver it. 

Discussions about data ethics in recent years have helped us understand ways in which using data and AI can be beneficial, and others in which it can be harmful. Now we need our corporate regulatory framework to shift to support purposeful business, which will help us create sustainable prosperity.  

Hetan Shah is chief executive of the British Academy and is on twitter @HetanShah  

Hear from Hetan, alongside over 50 other excellent speakers, at our Digital Ethics Summit on 8 December.