What can we learn from Spider-Man at the Dawn of the 4th Industrial Revolution?

Members of the World Economic Forum meet in Davos, Switzerland in late January every year. I have always enjoyed the thought-provoking panels, specifically those that inspire us to consider implications for business leaders and marketers.

In 2016, I noted on the blog that much of the Davos agenda that year had focused on the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the complex ways it will transform lives and livelihoods.

At this year’s meeting, talk about the 4IR continued.  This year’s focus evolved to include broader discussions of the ethical implications of 4IR’s ubiquitous connectivity and fast-paced fusion of physical, digital, and biological worlds. This emphasis on ethical values was both compelling and reassuring. It is a subject that business leaders will do well to contemplate.

Unprecedented Power for Companies:

The need to think about ethics at all springs from the unique position of today's companies. Many lead private-sector R&D teams instead of partnering with academic institutions. Their rapid development of 4IR technology (think: cognitive computing, AI, blockchain) gives them unprecedented powers uncircumscribed by academic protocols and the rigors of peer review.

For-profit entities now have the ability to decide what news we see, track our movements, direct where we go, and even predict how we will think.

These abilities could be problematic because most companies exist to maximize profit and have little formal incentive to consider their impact on human life and society or the health of the planet.

Enter the B-Corp, or “benefit corporation”. This is a hybrid structure that requires a company to state a purpose beyond profit and creates accountability to comply.

The idea, of course, is to go beyond pithy corporate mission statements (like Google’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ mantra) to engineer ethics into the DNA of a business.

Imagine a company contemplating the algorithm for a self-driving vehicle. If an accident is unavoidable, does the car take the course with the fewest potential casualties even if this puts the driver at risk? This is an ethical quandary. Most would favor saving the greatest number of lives but few would buy a vehicle that puts a driver at risk.

There is no easy answer. Yet, we can imagine how a company with accountability for both ethics and the bottom line will be better positioned to work through the issues.

Some forward-thinking tech firms, like Singularity University, have already organized themselves as B-corps. In a world where technology invisibly shapes much of life, the move from profit-driven to benefit-driven corporations could be transformative.

Unprecedented Power for Consumers:

If companies need to reengineer themselves around ethical values, the great news is that citizens are already there.

The 4IR world offers consumers myriad ways to influence businesses and they are using their clout for good.

On issues ranging from sourcing and sustainable packaging to fair treatment of employees, consumers prefer – I'll venture to say demand – to do business with companies that make ethical choices.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon wrote that, in the 4IR future, retailers will survive only if their business creates value for both shareholders and society. The most successful will build social and environmental sustainability into their systems because it is the right thing to do and because it is what consumers reward with their dollars.

It is exciting to see companies like Patagonia and eBay lead the charge. And, to know that firms like Facebook and Airbnb are grappling with ethics issues in real, visible ways.

 An Unprecedented Opportunity to Do More Good:

The dawn of the 4IR presents many more questions than answers: Will robots take our jobs? Will omnipresent tech somehow make us less human? Will AI-driven technology someday threaten our very existence? These questions are equal parts dystopian nightmare and sobering meditations on the fast-paced evolution of technology.

In light of the weighty issues, a recommitment to values – one of the things that make our endeavors most human – will be our best shot at navigating the 4IR world.

As I look toward the uncertain future, I’ll remember that Spider-Man's oft-repeated mantra isn't only for superheroes. The "great power" of the coming 4IR revolution does indeed bring "great responsibility".