Unintended side effects of innovation and how we can fix them

This article is written by Roy Averink, Program Manager at AVG’s Innovation Lab in Amsterdam. Roy acts like a skillful conductor for the myriad of ongoing projects making sure everybody delivers the right thing at the right time. He’s a promoter of a smarter and more impactful CSR program within our team. 

Today many believe that modern technology is the solution for all our problems. Not a day goes by without a new innovation that promises to solve one of society’s biggest problems (how many do we have one might ask?). But for criticism there’s little space (Privacy concerns? Why, … do you have something to hide?). According to the innovators we shouldn’t worry and be happy about the great inventions bestowed upon us by technology.

But should we really?

Today it looks like a new “Uber-for-something” is presented every day. Old structures are broken down and new ones grown quicker than the wild bamboo that’s invading my garden. And this can become a problem, both with technology and in my garden. Too many of us only see the promise of these innovations, but don’t recognize that they can also destroy what is valuable to us. Don’t get me wrong, the bamboo in my garden looks great and I actually want to keep it. Except where it destroys the flowers my mother planted many years ago, and that I really want to keep.

Innovation doesn’t take place in a bubble. Like the bamboo, it can grow far beyond the immediate environment it was intended for. Airbnb, for example, is very good at disrupting the short-stay ecosystem, but there are signs it is also disrupting the housing market, leading to a shortage of affordable housing in some areas – a situation already generating much debate, and sometimes protests, in many cities.

The internet advertising system is another example where a new eco system created benefits for both companies and consumers (better targeted advertisements), but also raises huge concerns because of its privacy invading nature. It’s frightening to think about how many companies know so much about you.

How can we combat these unwanted effects of innovation?

One way is by law. The emergence of cars in the 1900s led to many accidents, forcing regulations that improved safety for both drivers and fellow road users. And it’s probable that the negative side effects of the Airbnb’s of this word will lead to new regulations for that eco system.

But I believe that a much better and stronger way to fight unwanted effects of innovations is… by continuous innovation. The car industry understood this very well. They have listened to the market, identified the biggest concerns and innovated by creating cars that are much safer for passengers but also other road users. Where safety was a major concern in the infancy of this industry, now all companies compete on safety and try to set new standards without any law pushing them to do it. This is a win-win situation for consumers and companies.

The innovations of the internet age are still maturing, and here we’ve not reached a solid win-win situation. There are of course clear benefits in many areas for companies and consumers alike, but there’s also a considerable loss for consumers, especially when it comes to the advertising eco system; the loss of privacy. Like the car industry did with safety, the tech industry needs to step up and find new ways that protect our privacy.

So how exactly should we feel about all the innovation happening around us?

I know I am happy and we should all be! The current times give us great opportunities in many areas as technology grows in directions unimagined before. But if it grows out of hand, like with privacy, we should find new ways to protect what’s dear. And when we do that, I will be really happy!


Disclaimer: All opinions are those of the author and not those of AVG or Innovation Labs.

Photo by Woldi used under CC


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