05/12/2017 17:41 GMT | Updated 05/12/2017 17:41 GMT

Why Social Innovation Could Help Us Navigate The Unforeseen Consequences Of New Technology

In 2017, we’ve seen businesses across the board attempt to give customers what they want by harnessing the digital technologies now at their fingertips. The intent of those driving this change is customer-centricity, which is admirable. However, a broader perspective is crucial. For every new innovation that is created, something else will likely be replaced or changed radically – so the road to future technology must be navigated carefully lest we fall foul of unforeseen consequences.

Nowhere is a shift towards digital more noticeable than in than in the automotive sector, with legacy manufacturers and upstart challengers alike moving to normalise driverless cars within a narrow timeframe. In his latest Autumn budget, Philip Hammond announced his desire to get autonomous vehicles (AVs) on UK roads by 2021, whilst across the pond Waymo’s development vehicles recently hit the milestone of four million miles on public roads

The success of such ventures would be a game-changer for many industries, creating an ecosystem of innovation and giving rise to a set of brand new services for consumers. We’re already asking fundamental questions: what will you do when you’re in a driverless car, and equally – what will the car itself be doing on a granular level?

These interactions between man and machine need careful thought beyond the simple mechanics. For instance, how does a driverless car signal to pedestrians that it has seen them at a crossing point? How can we understand, and consent to, what is going on in the mind of the machine if we’re not the party controlling it?

A long-standing argument against driverless cars has been that the machine will be tasked with making life-or-death decisions. Should a car crash and kill its driver, or hit pedestrians on the road, for instance? The implications of these quandaries are that machines will be programmed with some sort of digital code of ethics built-in. Such developments no longer have a straightforward or predictable impact on consumers or on society as a whole. As such, the design teams behind them have a more complex challenge to address.

Likewise, widespread concern about the impact of automated transport on jobs is another example of the new challenges we must design to solve. In the past, technological progress occurred at a rate which enabled many to reskill and acclimatise in the course of their working lives. Today, the speed of change demands a more proactive approach, and this is something best led by the companies spearheading change – government, by comparison, is often not as close to the cutting edge.

Business-led initiatives, such as the ‘Grow with Google’ fund to retrain workers for automation, set the template for innovation to be not just possible but desirable for society at large.

More immediate challenges remain, however. Imagine that AVs fulfil their primary promise of creating a safer road environment, and the number of road accidents significantly decreases in the next few years. This appears to be a great benefit, of course, but consider the fact that without numerous fatalities organ donation will fall. Such knock-on effects to health services may in fact mitigate the initial safety benefits, if not properly accounted for.

Driverless cars hold fantastic promise, but anyone who stands to benefit from these advancements must also be proactive in shaping how their consequences will be felt, for the better. Diversity of thought and ability throughout these parties, as well as a broad social focus will be crucial to setting us on the right course for future innovation.