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The Importance of Responsible Tech Innovation

Round Editorial

Should this exist, not can this exist? Caterina Fake, Co-Founder of Flickr & Hunch, encourages technologists to take more responsibility for the businesses, products, and features they create.

Caterina Fake is an expert at building online communities and designing products for people. As the Co-Founder and self-taught designer behind Flickr, the popular photo sharing app and original online community, Fake created one of the earliest online communities. She also created many of the product features we see in popular social media platforms today, from the activity feed to followers to hashtags. In her latest endeavor, she’s become an expert at provoking the tech community to think about the long-term impact of innovation. In her popular podcast, “Should This Exist?” Fake explores both the potential upside and downside of new features, products, and businesses.

Fake spoke with Round Co-Founder and CEO, Ryan Fuller, about how to build technology and drive innovation, responsibly. Here are a three key takeaways:

1. Have a vision and create a charter

The best time to make decisions about ethical issues is before they come up. Walking back a product or feature after you have millions of users is much harder than when it’s still ramping up and taking off.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity at the beginning of a company [or product] to just put certain guardrails in place to keep everyone safe,” said Fake. “What’s harder is to course correct when you’re way down the road.”

Taking the time to really think about the impact of your product or feature, reduces the risk you’ll be facing negative unintended consequences down the road. Fake recommends that leaders and teams go as far as to document and circulate the intention through a charter. By working together to outline the intention, teams and individuals will have a guide for how to make decisions that align with the vision when conflicts may arise.

2. Regularly revisit and evaluate the impact of a particular technology

The pace and innovation in technology can make it hard to keep up with how a product or service may be used after launch. Companies that have adverse consequences and unexpected applications, may not even realize it. Fake recently hosted Chris Anderson who is the creator of DIY Drones, an open-source community that helps users build their own flying machines. Anderson who shared his drone software with a community of drone enthusiasts, later learned that the software was being used by a terrorist organization through a headline in the New York Times. This example is just one illustration of how negative, unintended consequences can arise from well-meaning products and communities.

Tech leaders should continue to monitor and measure both the positive and negative impacts of their decisions to drive responsible innovation. Updating the roadmap or vision based on new findings is a critical part of product management. Fake recommends bringing users into the process earlier to better understand the potential impact that decisions of tech leaders may have. “The end users, the customers, the people affected by the software, are often not brought into the process,” said Fake. “It’s really important to hear those voices and really understand what those needs are… and get them involved in the building process.”

3. Creators should continue to hold themselves accountable

Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, wrote in 1968, “we are as gods and might as well get good at it”. The tech industry repeatedly has proven that it can build the impossible from editing human genes to building space rockets. Fake takes the position that Founders and technologists need to take responsibility for the outcomes of their powerful products and currently that not enough are. Fake is constantly encouraging people to ask themselves, “should this exist”, not “can this exist”. While she admits that in some circles this is a contrarian view, it’s also an important one, given tech’s potential impact.

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