Archive for the ‘entrepreneur’ Category

Cream, Sugar, and Choice

Is the customer always right? Is it more important to protect consumers, or to give them options and let them choose? This is a real-life dilemma that was posed to me recently. I’ve changed the names and some other details in what follows, but the basic dilemma is real.

Abe and Ben are starting a coffee shop together. Situated in a trendy neighbourhood, the shop will feature high-quality, fair-trade, organic coffees and a range of gourmet pastries from a local bakery. They’re in the process now of deciding on their menu, and on smaller details like the condiments (sugar, cream, etc.) that will be available for patrons. It is this latter issue that has brought Abe and Ben into conflict.

Abe contends that the only condiments they should provide are cane sugar, organic milk, and soy milk. Abe wants no white sugar or artificial sweeteners. After all, he says, the health of our customers matters, and white sugar and artificial sweeteners are unhealthy.

Ben says, Look, the customer is king. Some will appreciate cane sugar, sure, but some want the white sugar they grew up with, and some diet-conscious folks will want zero-calorie artificial sweeteners, and we should give them what we want. Who are we to tell them what to do?

So who is right?

I would say choice is a good thing. To the best of my knowledge, the evidence is very weak that “other” condiments are bad for you (especially in the relevant, tiny quantities). For that matter, if Abe is that concerned about his customers’ health, he should argue for not serving sugar at all. There’s plenty of evidence that that is bad for you. As a scientist friend of mine puts it: there’s much more evidence that sugar is bad for you than there is that artificial sweetener is bad for you.

Of course, if Abe and Ben decide to make “100% natural,” or something like it, a part of their branding — as many companies do — then it makes sense to offer only condiments that are consistent with that ethos. But there’s no reason to think of that as a more ethical policy.

The Ethics of Innovation

Innovation is a hot topic these days. It’s been the subject of studies and reports and news reports. In fact, I spent the entire day this past Monday at the Conference Board of Canada’s “Business Innovation Summit,” listening to business leaders and civil servants talk about how Canada is lagging on innovation, and how much is left to be done to promote and manage innovation. And certainly technological innovations like Google’s new glasses and 3D printing make for compelling headlines.

So sure, hot topic. But how is it connected to ethics? What is an ethics professor like me doing at an event dedicated to innovation?

If you understand the domain of ethics properly, the connection is clear. In point of fact, innovation is an ethical matter through and through, because ethics is fundamentally concerned with anything that can promote or hinder human wellbeing. So ethics is relevant to assessing the goals of innovation, to the process by which it is carried out, and to evaluating its outcomes.

Let’s start with goals. Innovation is generally a good thing, ethically, because it is aimed at allowing us to do new and desirable things. Most typically, that gets expressed in the painfully vague ambition to ‘raise productivity.’ Accelerating our rate of innovation is a worthy policy objective because we want to be more productive as a society, to increase our social ‘wealth’ in the broadest sense. The 20th Century has seen a phenomenal burst of innovation and increases in wellbeing, exemplified not least by the fact that life expectancies in North American have risen by more than half over the last hundred years. The extension and enriching of human lives are good goals, which in turn makes innovation generally a good thing.

Indeed, when looked at that way, innovation isn’t just a ‘good,’ but a downright moral obligation. Yes, lives for (most) people in developed countries are pretty good. But many still don’t have happy and fulfilling lives; many children, even here, still go to bed hungry. Boosting productivity through innovation is a key ingredient for making progress in that regard. And if less developed nations are going to be raised up to even a minimally tolerable standard of living, we need innovations that will help them, and we need innovations that will make us wealthy enough that we can afford to be substantially more generous toward them than we currently are.

Which brings us to ethical evaluation of the specific fruits of innovation. Some innovations are plainly good: they make human lives better in concrete ways. Penicillin was a very good innovation. So was the birth control pill. So was the advent of the smartphone. Other innovations are less good: nuclear weapons are a clear candidate here, as perhaps are complex financial instruments such as derivatives, which Warren Buffet famously referred to as “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

The problem, of course, is that innovation brings risks. Some of those risks are of course borne by the innovator, by the entrepreneur. Others are borne by society. For one thing, we often don’t fully understand which category a particular innovation will end up in until years later. Is the net benefit of splitting the atom positive or negative? The jury is still out.

But ethical evaluation doesn’t just apply to individual innovations: systems of innovation bring a mix of risks and benefits. If we set ten thousand entrepreneurs loose on the world, and tell them (or incentivize them) to make something innovative that sells, some will bring us the proverbial ‘better mouse trap,’ and others will bring us video lottery terminals, biological weapons, and other bits of detritus that only serve to increase human suffering. If you give your tech company’s R&D department free reign, someone may invent the next ‘killer app,’ and someone else may simply crash your server. And the only way a system can preclude ‘negative’ innovation altogether is probably to discourage innovation altogether.

Hence the recent interest not just in innovation, but in managing innovation. The notion of managing innovation reflects the fact that innovation can be fostered — doing so is an obligation of ethical leadership — and is an activity rooted in creativity, not anarchy. So for practical purposes, the ethics of innovation ends up being a branch of the ethics of management and leadership. Organizations, from small teams to nations, face a range of ethical questions as a result. They need to figure out how much to spend on encouraging innovation, as compared to spending on existing programs. They need to figure out what combination of carrots and sticks to use to foster innovation. They need to figure out how much autonomy to give potential innovators, how much freedom to experiment. And finally, they need to figure out how to spread the risk of innovation, in order to make sure that risks and benefits are shared fairly, and to make sure that fear of risk doesn’t dampen our appetite for innovation. And all of those are fundamentally ethical questions.

3D Printing and the Ethics of Value Creation

Pandabot 3D Printer

Kelly John Rose, co-founder of Panda Robotics, with a PandaBot 3D printer

A technology that adds value to our lives is an ethically good thing. A technology that enables a whole range of services that add value to our lives is even better. Smartphones are the obvious example: Apple’s iPhone has spawned an entire industry of app-makers. Even more important, ethically, would be a technology that could make a real change in grass-roots manufacturing, one that would allow innovation to be democratized, and that would allow local entrepreneurs to solve all kinds of problems, both big and small.

So, what if a single technology could do all of the following?

What if it allowed a surgeon in an isolated northern Canadian town to manufacture custom-made surgical implants, right in the clinic, to allow reconstructive surgery to be done locally, rather than sending her patient hundreds of kilometres to a larger city? What if it allowed a self-employed courier with an electric bike in a rural African community to have replacement parts for the bike made, cheaply and quickly, in the nearest town with electricity? What if it allowed every potential entrepreneur with a great idea, and some basic computer skills, to click “Print” and have those ideas turned into physical realities? What if this technology meant you didn’t have to drive anywhere to replace the plastic bolt that was missing when you opened the box for that Ikea desk, but instead just printed it out, yourself?

All of those things — life-enhancing things, big and small — are part of the promise of 3D printing.

If you haven’t yet heard of 3D printing, now is the time. 3D printing is exactly what it sounds like — printing 3-dimensional objects much the way current desktop printers print 2-dimensional text and images. Although technologies vary, the most common method of 3D printing uses “molten polymer deposition,” basically laying down micro-thin layer after micro-thin layer of melted plastic to build things. Such printers operate much like standard desktop inkjet printers, but with an extra axis of motion and a “print” head that squirts molten plastic rather than ink.

To learn more about this technology, I paid a visit to Toronto’s own Panda Robotics, a startup in the final phases of finishing its prototype PandaBot printer. Unlike many existing 3D printers, which are aimed at industrial applications, the PandaBot is intended as a consumer gadget, priced at about $1000 and expected to ship in spring of 2013. The PandaBot plugs into a computer via standard USB cable.

I asked Pandabot co-founder Kelly John Rose why he thinks 3D printing is so exciting. “It opens up a whole new economy,” said Rose, “in customization for clients, in how designers can interact with their customers directly by creating designs and sending them cheaply over the internet to be printed out, and in how companies can provide better customer service by providing replacement parts at no cost to themselves.” To provide a replacement part, all a company needs to do is create a printable CAD file for the replacement part and make it accessible on its website. All the consumer has to do is download the file and hit “Print.”

It’s clear that the technology has significant implications for manufacturing and for supply chains. “As 3D printing continues to evolve at an incredibly rapid rate, it won’t be long before we will simply purchase designs and print them out as needed at home rather than go to a store every time we need a new part, new mug, or new tool,” Rose enthuses. “It essentially democratizes manufacturing.”

Entry-level 3D printers like the Pandabot are the all-important thin edge of the wedge, in terms of understanding the significance of this technology. Industrial-quality 3D printers are now being used for rapid prototyping and for architectural modelling. There are also reports that the US military has deployed one or more 3D printers to the front lines in Afghanistan, where engineers can use them to make replacement parts for vehicles and weapons right on the spot. Advanced 3D printers can print objects out of metals, too, so the possibilities are endless.

But cheaper, smaller-scale printers like the Pandabot are going to play a crucial role in weaving 3D printers into our lives, and into the way we think about manufacturing. According to Pandabot’s Rose, “the more 3D printers are out in people’s homes, the more companies will want to provide [printable] goods for them. The more companies provide goods for them, the more people will want these printers in their homes. It’s a positive feedback cycle that, once it starts, will change how we all purchase goods.”

Technologies like this help us see that ethics isn’t just about rules. It’s about creating value, and finding fairer distributions of value. Our interest in business ethics should include an interest in the ways in which markets and businesses create value, and the rules, principles, and innovations that help them do that.

The Virtues of Local Ownership

There’s plenty in the news these days about the supposed virtues of “buying local.” Buying local usually means buying from small businesses. As I’ve argued before, in at least some cases buying local also means opting for small-scale, inefficient production processes. And in other cases, it means an unhealthy kind of insulation from the outside world.

But what about the virtues of specifically local ownership, when the ownership in question is ownership of what is otherwise a standard-issue department store, replete with goods ‘Made in China,’ as the stereotype goes?

The New York Times recently reported on an effort by a small town in upstate New York to ensure its residents have access to some sort of local department store. When the local Ames department store went out of business a few years back, residents of Saranac Lake — pop. 5,041 — took matters into their own hands. They raised the capital, at $100/share, to open their own department store.

It’s a charming story, and an interesting experiment, but we ought to exercise some caution before attaching too much significance to it.

First, it will be tempting to see this as radical re-visioning of modern capitalism. To see examples of such a temptation, see the 2004 Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein documentary, The Take, about the takeover of a defunct Argentinian factory by its former employees. Lewis and Klein portray that takeover as an example of the pursuit of a real alternative to capitalism — despite the fact that the cooperatively-run factory is still buying inputs on the open market, selling goods on the open market, and so on.

Were it not for movies like The Take, it might go without saying that innovations in ownership structure don’t eliminate the fundamental challenges of capitalism, and certainly don’t eliminate the standard ethical issues that face all businesses. The department store in Saranac Lake is — setting aside a few nods to local sourcing — just a regular department store. It’s got employees, so it will face questions about how those employees are treated. It’s smaller than your typical Walmart, but it will still face questions (or at least it should) about where its products come from, the conditions under which they’re manufactured, and so on. And its managers will still face questions about how to balance the good of the community as a whole with their obligation to be fiscally responsible. And so on.

Not that we need to be entirely cynical about the Saranac Lake experiment, and others like it. There’s at least a prima facie case to make for the significance of local ownership. Managers of a locally-owned store have at least some sense of what kinds of things shareholders would want them to do, and hence seem less likely to violate the trust placed in them. When you know your shareholders by name, you can ask them what they want, and they can tell you what obligations they feel to the community, and they can then ask you, their representative, to make good on those obligations.

In the end, I think experiments in capitalism are good. Indeed, the way it fosters experimentation is one of the great virtues of capitalism. We ought to keep a careful eye on such experiments, both for what we can learn about their particular virtues, and for what we can learn about the nature and structure of capitalism more generally.

Ethical Issues for the Chilean Miners

On August 5, 33 miners went down into the San José copper-gold mine; over two months later, 33 entrepreneurs emerged from the mine. They were labourers once. Now they’re businessmen, and celebrities.

Their fame is already being used by major corporations for public relations purposes. The New York Times reported, for instance, that Apple has sent each of the miners a brand new iPod.

But the miners themselves will have decisions to make, about how (and indeed whether) to make use of their new fame. Hollywood will surely come knocking, for instance. Book deals have already been announced. How will they (and how should they) handle fame and fortune? And the miners have already made a good start on their entrepreneurial careers. While still down in the mine, they drew up a contract “ensuring they will equally profit from the lucrative media deals they expect to secure for sharing the story of their two month survival in the hope that they never have to work again.”

But a question arises about such a contract. Is it, in fact, legally binding? To get an indication of why that’s a real question, see this piece by Andrew Potter: Chilean miners: That far down, who decides what’s law?

What is striking about the situation in Chile is how much it resembles one of the most famous thought experiments in the philosophy of law, known as “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers.” Written by the Harvard law professor Lon Fuller and published in 1949, the paper explores the fictional case of five men who embarked on the exploration of a system of caves in a country known as the Commonwealth of Newgarth. When a landslide covers the entrance and traps the men, they sit down to await rescue….

In Fuller’s thought experiment, the miners are eventually driven to cannibalism, in order to survive. Fuller’s article is about whether such cannibalism would rightly be considered illegal, under those circumstances. Fuller makes the case that it is (at very least) possible to argue that it would not be. Laws are social artefacts, and miners trapped underground for an extended period are effectively cut off from, and hence no longer part of, any particular society. Andrew notes:

…trapped miners are living in what amounts to a mini society of their own. All sorts of problems could arise in such a cramped space, from disputes over the allocation of food and medical supplies to rules over respect for privacy to procedures for dealing with crimes like theft or assault. If sovereignty is defined by the ability to exercise a monopoly over the use of force, then whatever legal authority currently exists in the San Jose mine, it is not the Chilean government.

Now, Andrew’s hypothetical is about the reach of Chilean criminal law. As it turns out (as far as we know) no significant violence erupted among the 33, so that question remains hypothetical. But, as I noted above, other kinds of legal questions arise, including the bindingness of the contract the men made while down there.

I won’t speculate further on the question of legality, but even if the legality of the contract were to be successfully challenged, the question of whether the contract is morally binding would remain a live one. After all, 33 men gave their word, and honourable men should want to keep their promise. On the other hand, if we consider the circumstances under which the contract was arrived at, we quickly see that those circumstances were very far from the ideal circumstances for giving free and informed consent. Many things can render a contract both legally and morally suspect, including such things as undue influence and duress. It’s easy to imagine that men trapped, in close quarters, half a mile underground being subject to both of those.

At any rate, my aim here is not to cast a pall over what seems, so far, to be a happy ending to the miners’ ordeal. My aim is simply to point out that, as newly-minted celebrity-entrepreneurs, “los 33″ will face a range of ethical issues. What they have to learn, and what we have to learn from them, did not end when the last man finally saw the light of day.

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