Who is responsible anyway? Corporate Digital Responsibility, helping industry leaders manage today’s wicked problems.

Fintech Women


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After publishing an article discussing how to embed a social license to operate into financial technologies (Fintech) to protect society, I thought about my industry days, and wanted to avoid the “social” aspects becoming another “tick-box” exercise.  In the digital economy, the responsibility that such a license outlined went beyond the social, it was fuzzy, a socio-technical space, interdependent upon responsible data and digital innovation.  The process of digitisation starts and ends with people. In addition, as green finance and sustainability agendas increased within industry discourse, how can organisations possess the skill sets to address the dual demands of responsible digitisation and sustainability?  Not immediate bed fellows but, both impact economic, social, and ecological global systems.  Such ponderings led to consideration of wicked problems for industry.

For those new to wicked problems, it is not, as my son, aged 5, exclaimed during my PhD days, “Wicked!! As in cool?” Rather, a problem that is infinitely difficult to define, let alone resolve. Why? Wicked problems involve multiple social environments and actors with unpredictable behaviour and outcomes. A distinct feature of wicked problems is that they can only be managed through “real stakeholder involvement”.  Hence, complex solutions or policies are rarely implemented successfully within an organisational structure that separates stakeholders from decision-makers and is infused with bureaucrats and “experts”. Yet, we find ourselves in the eye of the perfect wicked storm―COVID-19, Brexit (UK only), COP26 and a vast skills shortage in the digital and sustainability fields required to drive the prescribed change for an equitable and sustainable (digital) society.

Reflecting the challenges identified, this makes life uncomfortable for industry leaders.  Industry remains pressurised to meet consumer, regulators, and societal demands to find “problems” and “solutions”. As complexity increases over time, industry leaders find themselves in an untenable, complex, and wicked position trying to navigate the digitisation and sustainability landscapes. An emphasis is placed on careful consideration of proposed technological “solutions” to socio-technical challenges, solutions can often turn out to be worse than the symptoms—increasing distrust and “wickedness”. This raised my curiosity to examine academic and industry literature around managing problems. A few papers discussed Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR)―the infamous “gap” researchers investigate! Speaking on an Alan Turing Panel discussing a cashless society, I touched on CDR’s potential across economic, social, and ecological systems. A eureka moment ensued―meeting Rob Price, he first explored CDR four years prior but, CDR could not garner momentum, at that time.  Fast forward eighteen months―CDR has a dedicated global collaborative presence, a recently launched manifesto, graphics, and framework.  Here’s the “Why” CDR can address wicked problems:

  1. Co-created by multi-stakeholders.

CDR is a voluntary commitment by organisations to represent societal interests to inform “good” digital corporate actions and digital sustainability (i.e., data and algorithms) via collaborative guidance on addressing social, economic, and ecological impacts on digital society.

  1. Guide for digital governance and ethics

A framework to assist navigating digital governance and ethical complexity in devising an informed strategy. In short, ensuring equity beyond the organisations vested interests to include all stakeholders invested in an organisation’s modus operandi.

  1. Moving from CSR to CDR

CDR builds on lessons learned from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) including environmental and sustainable goals. CDR is a separate proposition for organisations specifically linked to responsible digital technologies and data. CDR complements CSR, as the digital realisation of the same responsibilities, but with a two-fold appropriate use of digital and data within and by the organisation to impact society while sustaining our planet to improve organisational environmental and social governance and ethical performance. Think ESG and SDG agendas as the transparent measurement of effectiveness in CDR execution, while accessible for stakeholders to evaluate organisational performance operating within digital society.

  1. The “What” and “How” – 7 principles sit at the heart of CDR©

  1. Purpose and Trust
Clear and unambiguous public statement of intent to positively impact planet and society, in conjunction with clarity of purpose. A commitment to drive for strong and responsible digital governance evidenced by, for example, the implementation of a Digital Ethics Board and driving for exceeding and advocating for improved legislation, regulation, and ethical guidance in the geographies in which the organisation operates. 
  1.  Fair and Equitable Access for All
A commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion in the organisation and extended supply chain, ensuring that resultant products and services are accessible and consumable by all. Furthermore, that the employees involved in building, delivering, and supporting those products and services are treated responsibly and fairly.
  1.  Promote Societal Wellbeing
A stronger focus on protecting personal data, supporting improved privacy balanced with identity, addressing digital poverty in access to skills and understanding and protecting all of society from harmful consequences of digital products and services.
  1. Consider Economic and Societal Impact
Considering the economic and societal impact of decisions within the organisation. Transparency in regard to organisational use of algorithms and data with shareholders, employees, and consumers alike. Fairer share of gains both inside and outside organisations and minimise economic impact on communities through sustainable automation. 
  1. Accelerate Progress with Impact Economy
Take steps to improve consumer demand of ecologically and societally better products, support and incubate more cleantech, greentech, organic and low waste supply chain SMEs and invest in sustainable and societal impact initiatives.
  1. Creating a Sustainable Planet to Live
Understand and report corporate impact against the UN Sustainable Development Goals or similar. To innovate and go beyond Carbon Negative, to innovate & manage wicked challenges.
  1. Reduce Tech Impact on Climate and the Environment
Implement an Environmental IT Strategy, understanding the consequences of technology, shift energy use to renewables, mitigate and minimise impact and minimise use of carbon offsetting.

As we reside in wicked and uncertain times, I urge you to commit to the CDR manifesto to move from a voluntary to mandatory code: https://corporatedigitalresponsibility.co.uk/manifesto

“I believe that a growth mindset and collaboration accelerate responsible design thinking placing people first towards an equitable digital society.”

*Special thanks are extended to colleagues at corporatedigitalresponsibility.net for the permissioned use of the figure in Section 3 and content in Section 4.

About the author

Karen Elliott, Associate Professor in Enterprise/Innovation (Fintech), Newcastle University Business School, UK

Karen Elliott, Associate Professor in Enterprise/Innovation (Fintech), Newcastle University Business School, UK

Named as ‘Standout #35 Women in FinTech Powerlist by Innovate Finance’. Karen co-leads the EPSRC FinTrust and Finclusion Projects (Gates Foundation) with Prof van Moorsel optimising trustworthy technology, digital ethics, and verifiable credentials to facilitate fairness for all. Karen forms part of the Prime Ministers Challenge Group for Dementia (digital inclusion expert), an Ambassador for the Digital Poverty Alliance, member of ForHumanity and IEEE Ethical AI Committees in developing global standards for artificial intelligence adoption and a founding member of the CDR group.