Government Technology, Ethics and Sustainability

by Dr Kevin Macnish - Head of Ethics and Sustainability Consulting
| minute read

Governments around the world continue to make pronouncements about, and work towards, a more sustainable future. This is especially so in the aftermath of COP27. To many, sustainability has become another term for the protection of the environment and prevention of climate change. When we talk about sustainability and technology, we often mean the impact of technology on the climate (such as the mining of bitcoin creating an annual electricity demand greater than that of Argentina), or the impact on the Earth (through the failure to recycle precious metals in obsolete artefacts such as laptops and mobile phones).

Sustainability, though, has a far wider application. If something is sustainable, it will last, at least for a reasonable length of time.

When governments speak of sustainability, they should be considering not just low-carbon futures but also sustainable, and therefore ethical, technology.

There are numerous cases of unethical technology, or unethical decisions regarding technology, leading to unsustainable solutions. Consider the Ford Pinto, a mid-sized car that was rushed to market despite several design flaws that endangered the lives of its users (and others on the road). Ford decided not to recall the car to fix the flaws, which would have saved the lives of drivers and passengers, and which would have cost just $11 per vehicle. While the design flaw remained a secret, the vehicle sold in the thousands. Once it was uncovered, though, Ford was handed the largest fine in punitive damages ever given at the time. Furthermore, the remaining cars on the road were recalled and fixed. The decision to leave the Pinto on the roads was therefore unsustainable.

Further cases abound, from the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal to that of Cambridge Analytica. Technology that is poorly designed, without sufficient ethical attention being paid at the design stage, has to be replaced when flaws are made public. Technology that is implemented unethically or uses unethical supply chains, has to be scrapped when the issues are made public. In all of these cases, the technology is unsustainable.

The point is that "truth will out" and, when it does, the technology involved is replaced. Furthermore, there is fallout on the organisation involved, which typically results in reputation damage and the resignations of senior figures.

A group of people discussing government technology

Taking an ethical approach to the design of technology is therefore sustainable, not only in terms of the impact technology has on the environment, but also in terms of its own longevity. The application of ethical standards and quality assurance throughout the design and implementation of technology is therefore a significant guardrail against unsustainable solutions.

While such standards and assurance protect against unethical development and use of technology, they are not a panacea. Even with the best will in the world, technology may still turn out to be unethical through inadvertent use of biased datasets, for example, or simply not thinking through the sociological implications of its application. To protect against these, we cannot rely solely on ethical requirements or ethical design. There must also be continuous monitoring in place to ensure that any problems that emerge are recognised early and dealt with before harms are realised. Ethics for sustainability is not a one-time affair, just as safety considerations are not a single part of the vehicle design process. They should permeate the entire development and use of that technology.

Taking sustainability seriously means that technology developed for or used by government should be ethical by design. It should have ethics "baked in" throughout the design and implementation. It should also be subject to ongoing ethical scrutiny to ensure that ethical problems do not arise. In this way, ethics can effectively de-risk government use of technology, removing at least one reason for the failure of a new technological solution. As such it also future-proofs those solutions, just as the ethical design of a car to include seat belts, working brakes and air bags future-proofs the lives of drivers. Unethical and unsustainable solutions will result in replacements to those solutions, leading to delays and costs to the public purse, as well as damage to the reputations of those involved.

Ethical technology is sustainable technology, in every sense of the term. It is good for the environment, it is good for the public purse, and it is good for society.




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