May 30, 2022

Imagineer a Different Future: Business Ethics in 2050

Dr. R. Edward Freeman of Darden University gives the keystone lecture in CCAL’s Ethical Leadership in Business Speaker Series
Imagineer a Different Future: Business Ethics in 2050

The Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business (CCAL) was extremely pleased to welcome back distinguished scholar, teacher, and ethicist Dr. Ed Freeman as the final Ethical Leadership in Business presenter for the 2021-22 academic year. Dr. Freeman is well known as a thought leader in the field of business ethics and executive leadership, as well as for his pioneering work in stakeholder theory. His presentation was a plan for the future, first painting an optimistic outlook for 2050 and then examining what we can do in the here and now to help create that ideal scenario.

Imagine a future with technological breakthroughs that provide clean, cheap energy, localized manufacturing, and a complete disruption of current methods of education. There will be development of new government models which focus on supporting local business and industry, and innovations in medical technology which will create humans integrated with nanotechnology. Dr. Freeman presented a positive vision of humans living longer lives on a greener earth, but some challenges will remain, the most notable being the twin challenges of inequality and social disruption.

To expand on negatives in this scenario, Freeman first referred to something he called “Gattaca issues” from the movie of the same name. Gene editing, rejuvenation, and artificial wombs may become commonplace, but access to this technology will not be universal. There will also be inevitable major industry disruptions: entirely new innovations will replace the old standards (such as clean energy instead of oil and gas), and artificially intelligent programs, robots and drones will replace humans in many employment fields. Society will be affected unequally: only part of the workforce will be displaced from their employment. Finally, Freeman pondered the potential negative impacts due to further shifts in societal norms: what happens to personal interactions and personal identity in a world mediated by screens?

These are two different consequences, one immediate and concrete, and the second more distant and more nuanced. The immediate effect of the restructuring caused by technological change will be loss of employment to new methods and new industries. The more distant effect will be the dissolution of current values and principles held by society: new norms will develop, and though not guaranteed, this too can result in violent displacement.

If we as a society wish to mitigate these negative outcomes it is imperative that we plan ahead. It should become the responsibility of business – a new story of business – that creates value for all stakeholders, creates different ways to think about ethics and business, and helps build democratic institutions in 2050.

Freeman extended this responsibility beyond businesses to include business schools. He challenged school administrations to design curricula that exercise creative imagination, encourage self expression and self-direction, to learn to agree and build on team momentum as in group improvisation, and most importantly to develop leadership. Business requires leadership, and such leadership can be taught to and be practiced by anyone.

Humans must prepare for the challenges ahead by developing a different conception of who we are. And, in a world of constraints caused by dwindling resources and environmental damage, we have one guaranteed rich asset: our combined creative power can unleash an abundance of possibility.

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