Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

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.

Individual Discretion and Institutional Design

I’m just back from the University of Redlands, just outside of Los Angeles, where I spoke at the wonderful Banta Center for Business, Ethics and Society. The topic of my talk there was “Responsibilities in the Blogosphere,” but the key themes of that talk apply pretty directly to the world of business more generally.

One of the key themes had to do with the tension between a focus on individual decision-making on one hand and a focus on institutional design on the other, between a focus on individual responsibilities and a focus on how Internet giants like Google and Facebook construct online worlds that shape our behaviour.

There’s an awful lot of focus — too much, in my opinion — on individual decision making in ethics. In fact, a focus on individual decision-making is kind of the default, both in philosophical ethics and in more applied areas. The key questions, for many people, are general questions like “How should I behave?” “How should I resolve an ethical dilemma?” and “What factors should I take into consideration in ethical decision-making?”

And to be sure, that kind of focus makes for some great after-dinner speeches. The focus on the individual is empowering: “it all comes down to you.” “Your choices matter.” “We can do better, if each of us just changes how we think.” “It’s all about integrity.” And so on. More than that, individual ethical dilemmas really do have a huge impact on individuals, and so it behooves those of us in the ethics biz to do something to offer some guidance. (One modest contribution of mine to this area is my Guide to Moral Decision Making.)

But there’s a real sense in which the focus on the individual is a distraction. Individuals will make the decisions they make, and those decisions will in large part be determined by forces that are a) psychological and cultural, and b) institutional.

So the real focus should be on institutional design, on devising institutions to foster the right kinds of behaviours. And I’m talking about institutions in the broadest sense, which includes not just corporate frameworks and governance structures, but also traditions and norms and social conventions.

Greater attention to institutional design is more than just a remedy to the excessive (and perhaps futile) attention paid to individual decision-making. It changes the way we frame discussion of ethics in that it makes it clear that business ethics isn’t just a microcosm of everyday ethics. It is instead a matter of using human ingenuity to build ways of doing things that suit the situation at hand: devising rules and norms that put reasonable constraints on human behaviour, to make sure that business stays mutually advantageous. But we’re not building entirely from scratch: rules and other normative institutions in the world of business still have to be ones that can be understood and applied by the human beings who inhabit that world. The software, in other words, has to match the hardware.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against thinking about individual decision-making. I teach a course on critical thinking, and I think all of us can learn to think more critically about ethical issues in business, to avoid certain well-known fallacious arguments, and so on. But the emphasis on design helps makes clear that ethics in business is a realm for innovation, and isn’t just a matter of importing into the world of commerce the values you learned at your mother’s knee.

Note: Some of the thinking here was inspired by a conversation with my friend & former student, Garrett Mac Sweeney).

Organizational Diversity in a Capitalist Society

Today is the 2nd day of a 2-day workshop I’m attending on Regulatory Design, hosted by Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. I posted yesterday about the difficulty of developing and implementing effective regulations.

Day 2 of the workshop begain with a discussion of a stimulating paper by sociologist Marc Schneiberg, called “Toward an Organizationally Diverse American Capitalism? Cooperative, Mutual, and Local, State-Owned Enterprise”. Marc’s paper is about alternatives to the shareholder-driven corporation that currently dominates industrialized economies. He basically argues that, in the wake of economic crisis, we should at least have a renewed discussion of alternative models of economic organization. To be clear, Marc isn’t suggesting alternatives to capitalism, but rather promoting the idea of experimenting (further) with different ways of organizing business within a capitalist framework. In most jurisdictions, business law makes available plenty of non-corporate options for organizing business. But shareholder-driven firms dominate. So there are interesting empirical and normative questions about the balance between various forms.

Here are some interesting questions to ponder, with regard to this issue in general:

  • Why do cooperatives of various kinds, and other non-shareholder-driven businesses, seem to thrive in some industries but not in others?
  • If in fact shareholder-driven corporations are particularly conducive to instability and crisis, how common do alternative forms need to be in order to have an appreciable effect on the stability of the economy as a whole?
  • From a public-policy point of view, what can (or should) governments do to encourage alternative business forms? (Note that in some places, alternative forms already receive, for example, favourable tax treatment.)
  • Which particular problems (of governance or of ethics) are solved by non-corporate ways of organizing business?
  • What are the costs (socially and individually) of various forms of organization?
  • The profit motive (taken as driving shareholder-controlled corporations) is often singled out for criticism. But all organizations are, by definition, driven by some combination of motives. To what extent, and under what circumstances, are those motives more, or less, likely to encourage anti-social behaviour?

Essential reading for those interested in the empirical side of this topic is a book I’ve recommended here before, and which Marc cites in his paper, namely The Ownership of Enterprise by Henry Hansmann. It’s a dense scholarly book, written by a prominent scholar of corporate law. But for anyone with a serious interest in these topics, it’s well worth the effort. Hansmann’s basic argument (derived from an examination of various case-studies as well as international patterns) is that ownership patterns are best explained by things like a) homogeneity of interests among a group of stakeholders (whether they be shareholders or customers or employees or whatever) and b) the extent to which that group of stakeholders find it reasonably easy to monitor the behaviour of the organization’s managers. In other words, for any organization, some stakeholders want (and are willing to bargain for) control, whereas other stakeholders merely want (and are only willing to “pay” for) a thinner kind of interaction with the organization. The implication is that, if Hansmann is right, any thought that there could be a “better” or even “best” mix of organizational structures, from a social point of view, is going to run up against the fact that the actual mixture is being driven by the desires and capacities of millions of individual market participants, and changing the mix will require changing some of those desires, some of those capacities, or both.

MBA Ethics Education: Designing the Designers

As a Visiting Scholar at the Rotman School of Management (more specifically at the Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics and Board Effectiveness), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we educate tomorrow’s business leaders. This is the first of a series of blog entries on that topic.

Clearly, what we need to teach future managers (especially MBA students) about ethics depends crucially on what we understand the role of managers to be. And with regard to management ethics, we should carefully distinguish two very different educational needs, rooted in managers’ two very different roles.

One role managers play is that of decision-maker, and so the first issue to consider with regard to managerial ethics concerns the ethical behaviour of managers themselves. In this regard, business schools are in the business of educating decision-makers. Such being the case, it makes sense to teach MBA students about various ethical theories, about what can be learned from various scandals, about social expectations with regard to business, and so on. We want to instill in MBA students that doing the right thing matters, and give them the skills to figure out what that requires of them. (Relatedly: I blogged recently about the MBA Oath and the question of professionalizing management.)

The other role played by managers is that of a designer: managers essentially are tasked with designing organizations (or parts of organizations — teams, branches, functional units, and so on). And so the other key ethical issue with regard to managers is whether they will have the skills to design business units that make it easier, rather than harder, for subordinates to act ethically. MBA students, then, need to be taught about the ethically-salient elements of organizational design. They need to be taught, for example, about the kinds of incentive structures and the kinds of organizational cultures that foster rather than frustrate, good ethical decision-making, so that they can try to design such structures and cultures in the workplace.

But it’s worth noting that even individual ethical decision-making (and not just the design of decision-making contexts) itself involves design. As Caroline Whitbeck points out (in an excellent article* that I recently taught to my Business Ethics class), there is a very strong analogy to be made between ethical decision-making and the kind of design thinking that engineers engage in. Ethical decision-making, like engineering design, involves an attempt to solve a problem, in order to achieve certain objectives, taking into consideration a set of constraints. And it involves attempting to find a good solution, in a situation in which there may be multiple adequate solutions, no clear best solution, but many clearly unacceptable ones. Ethical decision-making, in other words, is precisely not like a multiple-choice exam question. Real ethical questions are very seldom of the form “Should we choose option A or option B?” More often, the question is “what options are feasible?” And, “what would those options look like, in practice?” And, “what series of steps will that option include, and what will happen if we do X and so-and-so does Y in response?” Ethical decision-making is a design process.

So, whether we are thinking about training MBAs to make particular decisions, or training them to build the contexts in which particular decisions are to be made, business schools are in the business of designing designers. The question, then, is not just which ethical principles ought to be used as the building materials of good decisions, but what ethical principles ought to govern the design process itself.
*Caroline Whitbeck “Ethics as Design: Doing Justice to Moral Problems” (from Hastings Centre Report, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1996).

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