Agile ethics pioneer Alix Dunn on why ‘moving fast and breaking things’ must not extend to ethics

Fri Oct 5, 2018

Ahead of the ODI Summit, Co-founder of the Engine Room and consultant Alix Dunn talks with Anna Scott about ‘agile ethics’, how innovative organisations can adopt them and why diversity is so important to ethics

You can hear Alix speak on ‘Operationalising ethics in innovative organisations’ at the ODI Summit. Book your place here

Hi Alix. How are you doing?

I’m doing great! I’ve just left the Engine Room, an organisation I co-founded and ran for eight years. I’m now in this sort of Cambrian explosion of projects and concepts and ideas, exploring all kinds of new opportunities.

You’ve worked quite extensively on data ethics before. When did you start feeling passionate about it?

From the outset, working with civil society organisations to adopt technology in their work, it was clear that technology presented significant opportunities for social impact. But it was also evident that it could harm vulnerable people already likely victimised in some structural way.

I was concerned with the hype-driven uptake of some new technologies, and how deaf the conversations in that space were to risk. Most conversations around proper use of technology within social movements operated at quite a low bar – as long as you weren’t flagrantly violating the law, or getting ‘hacked’, everything was fine.

So, about five years ago we, at the Engine Room, set up the Responsible Data Forum. The goal was to elevate that conversation, where it wasn’t just about digital security or compliance officers approving your organisation’s actions. Instead, it was about ensuring your use of technology reinforced your social mission rather than undermined it. We developed a diverse, multi-disciplinary, peer-to-peer network where practitioners – often working on development and humanitarian issues – could discuss problems and best-practice.

How would you define agile ethics?

OK, so tech is made within a management structure where we encourage technology developers to experiment, move fast and break things. This management style and practice is responsible for a lot of the poorly considered constructions that ultimately cause harm. If something goes wrong, technology developers apologise, but go back to the same management style of moving fast and breaking things.

‘Agile ethics’ is a practice within agile development, and aims to incorporate the tools and processes to consider ethical dimensions of what teams are building. If implemented, it increases the chances that what is being built won’t cause harm. It’s also an attempt to use business processes – and clear management and organisational structures – to increase the time a tech team spends considering things outside of their lived experience. This means identifying ways to increase diversity of people involved in the design process and to incorporate diverse perspectives into the decision-making process.

This hopefully helps make blind-spots more visible, so you won’t build things quickly that could hurt people. It is not a replacement for good regulations and enforcement of laws.

Can organisations that don’t work in an agile way still adopt agile, ethical processes?

Yes. There are certain aspects of agile development that are really useful whether you’re a tech shop or not. I think the same is true for agile ethics. Developing clear touchpoints for discussion of ethical dimensions or projects, working as a team to develop a shared understanding of how your team or organisation defines and defends its principles, and building in space for reflection on failures are just a few ways that agile ethics can be applied – even if your team isn’t building tech.

Do you worry some people might interpret it as a kind of ‘light ethics’?

Looking at ethics as a management practice implies that it’s not a regulatory one. It’s one very small part of a much larger puzzle of ‘doing the right thing’. It’s no replacement for enforced and developed regulatory regimes – agile ethics is for organisations wanting to improve practice, not for organisations looking for the rules.

… or an easy way to tick some boxes

Yes, you could say the same thing about responsible data – that it can become a box-ticking exercise if intent isn’t aligned. For well-intentioned organisations looking to operationalise and keep ahead of the game, these types of practices can be very useful.

I think the level of authenticity at implementation directly affects whether agile ethics – or even open data initiatives – are successful. There’s an increasing expectation for companies not just to show that they’re going through the motions for these kinds of things but that they are actually changing how – and what – they build, based on meaningful consideration of things that they may not have addressed before.

Is there anything else you’d say on why diversity is important to ethics?

I often hear diversity described as somehow oppositional to competency. As in, you can hire for diversity or competency. That couldn’t be more wrong. Working to build diverse teams and communities is not just the right thing to do, it also increases the competency and capabilities of a group. How can a team understand the diverse needs of their constituents, ‘users’, members, or customers, if they are not diverse themselves?

Once we realise that diversity is a competency, we realise that by managing non-diverse teams, that businesses miss market opportunities, civil society makes bad decisions that harm people, and governments don’t serve their populations and they get voted out of office – hopefully.

Some people can’t quite grasp the value that diversity brings to business outcomes, development or innovation. What would you say to somebody who feels that way?

I’ve had those conversations. I think part of the reason for a backlash or resistance to diversity efforts is because white men don’t want to be told they don’t have value, and I think that that’s to a certain extent fair. Measuring diversity by counting up simplistic demographic data isn’t where the value of diversity lies. Diversity is something we should always be working to increase and understand within teams. And it’s not just for hiring committees. Management teams should be capable of evaluating for, and selecting for, different types of diversity – socioeconomic, age, experience, political perspective, nationalities, sexualities, work styles, communication styles – all of it.

What are you looking forward to about the ODI Summit?

I’m really drawn to multi-disciplinary spaces right now. There are a lot of civil society spaces that don’t effectively incorporate or include groups with a tremendous amount of power, and I feel like the ODI Summit has the potential to do that. I find it exciting that different types of groups with different incentives and worldviews are coming together to have shared conversations about things that are both urgent and important.

Alix will be speaking on ‘Operationalising ethics in innovative organisations’ at the ODI Summit. Follow @alixtrot on Twitter