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Global shocks reveal the objective reality of a complex and interconnected world, engendering integrated and innovative human responses. The Spanish flu of 1918 produced such changes, including the democratization of healthcare as an ethical public good commensurate with the negative impacts of an indiscriminate pandemic. The learning outcomes from Covid-19 should be further reaching, given the advancements of science and technological innovations at our disposal. The key future challenge will be how we balance our predilection for growth with a heightened risk environment.


A shift to integrative thinking and the ethical implications of innovation across human and natural systems are now critical capabilities. Ethical decision-making, an inherently integrative thinking undertaking, weighs the potential positive and negative impacts of innovations spanning biological, socioeconomic, environmental dimensions and across various stakeholder groups.

This ethical and integrative approach applies itself readily to innovation, the majority of which is derived from the convergence of previously incongruous concepts, technologies or processes. The ability to hold and then synthesise non-aligned or opposable ideas creates synergistic effects that produce innovation. Such thinking famously enabled Steve Jobs to conceive the convergence of mobile phone and entertainment (iPod) technologies, resulting in the iPhone.

Yet integrative thinking typically eludes larger corporations often wedded to traditional assumptions, more simplistic problem analysis, and short-termism. Even social media behemoths like Facebook and Twitter have fallen foul of what we might now consider fundamental design flaw, relating to issues privacy and misinformation impacts on US political processes.

Two recent developments promote integrative and ethical thinking for innovation and risk management, both equally important generators of value and sustainability.


The first is Integrative Reporting (IR), a discipline emerging from ESG (Environmental Social Governance), an investor-driven movement arising from the Global Financial Crisis. IR synthesizes key financial and sustainability reports in tracking the six capital sources (Financial, Manufactured, Intellectual, Human, Social and relationship, Natural), providing organisations a means to illustrate how these inputs are processed through their business model and measurement of their respective external impacts. Importantly, IR helps to break up internal organisational silos, reducing redundancy and engaging collective integrative thinking around value creation and its ethical implications. If further justification is needed, the investment of capital and financing is increasingly deployed according to how well companies manage the tensions between innovation, sustainable growth, and risk.


The second recent development is found within the growth of frameworks in ethical decision-making governing technology. A good example is UNESCO’s recent draft recommendation on Ethics of AI, which illustrates an integrated, ethical view on a nascent technology and contains principles with arguably wider application to other early-stage innovations.

The consultative nature of the draft’s development is indicative of integrative thinking as a design process involving diverse stakeholders, from a high-level expert panel that included innovative countries like China, USA, and South Korea, to low-income countries such as Rwanda. The extensive process involving workshops, virtual regional, sub-regional and public consultations was finalized in just three months – an urgent mandate and remote conferencing technology effectively streamlining engagement processes.

Taken as a model of good corporate practice, the benefits of front-loading ethics in the innovation process, through the inclusion of diverse perspectives, produces a more comprehensive design that identifies risk while mitigating bias throughout the process. This is especially relevant for technology like AI where the data it utilizes may contain bias, and where 70% of its economic benefit by 2030 is expected to be concentrated in China and North America. The implications of likely exacerbated impacts need to be understood and remedied through the formulation of design – in this case, an international agreement on ethical standards.

The complexity of ethical issues concerning technological innovation necessitates the input of multiple stakeholders, reflective of a shared interest in risk mitigation. An organization-wide ethical lens helps define corporate culture, optimises design and mitigates harm, ultimately producing long-term shareholder value.


The challenge of harnessing such organisation-wide thinking is significant, when the broader financial system and aligned business models promote transactional, short-term thinking and when our perception of the development process remains linear or based on unchallenged assumptions. Leadership now demands acuity that genuinely embraces complexity and one that democratizes ethical and integrative thinking as a central cultural norm of thinking and behaving.

The efficacy of such frameworks is hindered if they are perceived as compliance externalities, resulting in box-ticking exercises or, at worst, attempts to “greenwash” reports and communications. This can lead to a corporate culture reactive to compliance regimes, rather than one that is proactively innovative, as innovation rates grow exponentially and ahead of regulatory frameworks.


Thinking right and doing right in the first place has its rewards. According to modelling conducted by Deloitte, improvement in an enterprise’s ethical behaviour can produce up to a 7% increase in Return on Assets (ROA). This suggests that the practice of sound ethics creates economic value beyond its intrinsic moral worth.

A culture of sound ethical and integrative decision-making, in an age of innovation fraught with risk, is an effective agent of value creation. In terms of community-wide implications, the technical and scientific education pathways that will inform sustainable, innovative outputs of the future must be delivered with the study of ethics. While the broadening of technical curricula to include the arts (STEAM) promotes diversity in thinking, there is much to be achieved in sustainable innovation bred from curricula that integrate ethics across disciplines. We will all benefit from a community-wide curriculum that instils ESTEAM (Ethics Science Technology Engineering Arts Maths) in future generations.

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