A loveless corporate culture hinders the transformative potential of innovation

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Carrie is the co-CEO of SecondMusean impact and innovation company that builds resilient economies.

The first time the word “love” came up at work, I quietly gasped. I worked as a director of sustainable business development, and a colleague used the term to describe principles that he believed should be prioritized when thinking about different types of investments. As a team focused on sustainability, we always tried to find ways for the company to generate a positive impact beyond profit. But love? That was not a word for the workplace, I thought.

The second time “love” came up in a business context was at a B Corp meeting about how companies should think about reducing their environmental impact. A CEO of a sustainable brand said we should love the people on the other side of the transaction. I gasped again.

But then came Covid-19, giving me time to think more deeply about the role businesses can or should play in curbing global warming, driving economic inclusiveness and being an overall blessing to communities , employees and society. At the time, I excitedly followed the news about the latest advances in science and technology, which I still believe will help drive positive change. With some pleasure I also followed the age-old debates they sparked: will cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence and all the other developments that are going on usher in a new utopia or destroy humanity?

The questions are not without merit. As someone who has dedicated her career to corporate sustainability, I am deeply aware of the potential that any innovation has to cause harm precisely because innovations are created and used by fallible humans. But beyond mitigating potential harm, I’ve always been more drawn to thinking about how the world can get the most out of the amazing innovations emerging from universities, companies, and laboratories.

I’m all for the important work institutions like MIT and Berkeley have done to develop best practices for ethical and “people-centered” AI. And I’m a big believer in human-centered design principles that ask innovators across industries to account for human biases and other issues that may be in their creations.

But in those quieter lockdown days, I found myself thinking a lot about what else the business world needed to do to protect itself from harm and make the most of cutting-edge science and technology for more than a select few. Despite myself, I found myself thinking very seriously about something related to love.

My colleagues and I had talked a lot about how important healthy, people-centered, and just relationships are for positive change. Don’t employees who feel cared for by their bosses work better? Don’t business partners who feel safe enough to be honest with each other achieve better results? Don’t people who approach interactions with compassion rather than skepticism—who expect the best of others rather than the worst—improve the world by educating those who fall short rather than throwing them off? Aren’t innovations better when the teams that help them go out into the world lovingly work with founders to address potential negative impacts and maximize the positives of their products?

Towards the end of the lockdown, I found myself believing quite strongly in the need for more humanity and even something close to love in the business world. I believe companies are better when the people in them approach transactions relationally rather than transactionally. I believe that a more compassionate, kind, human-centered and “loving” approach to business could greatly enhance the positive effects of the latest science and technology on the world.

Unfortunately, this kind of loving business world is not the world in which most cutting-edge innovations develop. And without a broader cultural shift, even the best efforts to make these innovations human-centered and better for humanity will be in vain.

Ultimately, as history has shown us time and again, technology is just as “good,” “ethical,” and “people-centered” as the societies in which they exist. We’ve seen this over the last 40 years in all the ways telecommunications have reshaped our world – for better and for worse. The internet has lifted so many people to the next level by fostering connections, strengthening movements for peace and democracy, and bringing opportunity to the remotest corners of the planet. It has also driven us in and out, enabling bad actors, from militants to data-grabbing companies, boosted by markets that prioritize profit at the expense of people.

Innovation has always only amplified and accelerated the reality of a given society. And our society – with or without technology – has a value problem.

Humans are the ones who are wrongly programmed to prioritize profit over people and the environment – ​​the individual over the interconnectedness of humanity. Business has absorbed this and exacerbated the problem by promoting competition over cooperation and largely rejecting the idea of ​​the greater good.

So as AI continues to mature and medical advances enable genetic engineering that we can’t even imagine right now, what else can we expect other than the same results we’ve always seen? A messy mix of sincere, well-meaning people and organizations trying to handle them for good, as dark forces do what they want with the innovations.

Before we debate or discuss ethical frameworks for the development of advanced technologies, or regulations and other controls, humanity must reform itself. Businesses need to re-prioritize the value of relationships, which I believe would contribute more to the advancement of ethically advanced science and technology than any code of conduct or ethical framework ever could. It would help us consider the people on the other side of every transaction and inspire us to make an effort not to harm each other. It is said to enhance compassion, kindness and love. And like a relentless mirror, the technology we introduce into this kinder world would reflect that back to us and live up to its positive transformative potential.


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