How do we build an ethical framework for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

ICT ITU 2018

How ICT infrastructure is crucial to achieving the SDGs in the era of the fourth industrial revolution – ITU News (ITU, 2018)

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Hilary Sutcliffe, Director, SocietyInside & Anne-Marie Allgrove, Head, Global Information Technology and Communications Industry, Baker McKenzie


The technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are transforming society and reshaping our future.

While these technologies offer extraordinary opportunities, they pose a number of challenges including, for example, impacts on the workforce with advances in artificial intelligence, strains on privacy and freedom of expression, what limits – if any – should be placed on genetic technologies, and increasing economic and social disparity between the owners of capital and others.

As a result, there is a need for clearer articulation of ethical frameworks, normative standards and values-based governance models to help guide organizations in the development and use of these powerful tools in society, and to enable a human-centric approach to development that goes beyond geographic and political boundaries.

Human dignity, common good and stewardship

The 2016 report from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Values and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Connecting the Dots Between Values, Profit and Purpose, articulates three universal values: human dignity, common good and stewardship. In its 2014 work on the creation of a social covenant, the Council included the need for “agreement on basic universal values and ethics; consensus on the need to reflect these values in a country’s legislation and regulation and international economic agreements”.

Human rights are the “hard edge” of values and the international human rights frameworks provide a substantive basis for tackling these issues.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948 and signed by an unprecedented 192 countries, embraces a universal set of principles that can be applied across variable cultures.

The UDHR was adopted by the United Nations at a time when the world was reeling from the discovery of the full horror of the Holocaust, and there was a global desire to create a new more hopeful future for humanity. It was designed, first and foremost, as an expression of global values, as observed by Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, member of the drafting sub-committee:

“I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing.”

Equality, fairness and justice

The UDHR set out universal standards which have supported, to date, efforts by states and others to develop laws and policies relating to a range of issues, from criminal justice to the environment, from global development to trade, from security to migration.

The UDHR and the series of legally binding treaties that have elaborated on its provisions provide an essential foundation for private and international organizations and states to promote equality, fairness and justice in a people- and planet-centered innovation agenda, driven by new and enhanced technologies.

Though these global rights standards were adopted by states to govern official conduct, increasingly they are being applied to the private sector. For example global companies seeking to address labour rights issues in their global supply chains, or information and communications companies grappling with privacy and free expression issues, are being called on to address these concerns using a rights framework. Similarly, though the technology of gene-editing is startlingly new and exciting, human rights standards can help us address the governance choices we face as we balance efforts to alleviate human suffering, and the risks and uncertainties inherent in the application of new scientific tools.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution needs to be grounded in a discussion of broader questions about the societies in which we wish to live. Today, the possibilities for human empowerment brought by technology are immense, but we must continue to focus on the impact of technologies on people, their everyday lives and their enjoyment of human rights.

No longer is this exclusively the domain of states and international organizations. The private sector must take a leadership role. As a starting point, private organizations and their stakeholders should review their values as against the UDHR and related human rights standards and develop mechanisms against which they can measure and assess their conduct.

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