Disruption, the crisis of technology, and the board

Paul DeNicola Principal, Governance Insights Center, PwC US July 14, 2021

These days, every company is a technology company. Regardless of the products you make or services you provide, digital transformation has likely become a top priority. Opportunity abounds as old ways of doing business are disrupted. But disruption has another side as well. The energy that powers our technology still largely comes from climate-altering fossil fuels. And the efficiency gains that make emerging tech a profitable investment may come at a cost.

This conundrum epitomizes the “crisis of technology.” Like the crisis of prosperity, which we explored previously, it’s one of four looming challenges facing humanity that Blair Sheppard, PwC’s Global Strategy Leader, explores in his book Ten Years to Midnight. As part of our continuing examination of the big-picture trends impacting companies, we’ll dive deeper into the remaining crises in the coming weeks.

Despite their differences, these crises have something important in common. They’re each too big for a company to solve on its own. Navigating them will require companies to develop strategies that carefully balance opportunity and risk. Board input and oversight will be essential.

Emerging tech, emerging risks

Companies are taking advantage of cutting-edge technologies every day to improve efficiency and unlock new opportunities. Each of them holds significant promise—and the risk of unintended consequences.

Take artificial intelligence (AI), for example. AI has undeniable potential to not only improve people’s lives but make business processes more efficient. Yet untangling how AI makes decisions can be difficult, even for experts. There’s a risk that it will replicate the biases (unconscious or otherwise) of its programmers, masking them under a veneer of technological objectivity. And AI’s benefits to productivity may come at the expense of human jobs.

We’re only beginning to understand the risks related to emerging technologies. But the risks of more well-established technologies are clearer. It’s possible to count the jobs lost to industrial automation and the people whose privacy has been compromised by cybersecurity breaches. And there’s other risks as well, beyond these.

Every technology carries unique benefits and risks. In the bigger picture, though, our reliance on technology in every part of the global economy contributes significantly to the biggest risk facing humanity: climate change. No matter how smart, connected, or automated our devices and solutions are, the energy used for these devices still comes predominantly from fossil fuels. A better balance between technological advancement and sustainability must be found.

What boards can do

Directors have a key role to play in making sure that their companies think strategically about how emerging technologies can grow the business while minimizing the harmful societal side effects.

  • Lean into technology oversight. Be sure to read our recent guide for an in-depth look at how boards can provide effective oversight of digital transformation.
  • Consult with outside experts. It’s unlikely your board includes a director who’s fully versed in concepts like responsible AI. But if AI is a big part of your company’s strategy, being able to consult with someone who is can help you ask the right questions.
  • Consider the externalities. New technologies may deliver big gains for your business. But if they cause harm in your community or to your employees or customers, they can expose your company to reputational risks and activist stakeholders and affect your ability to hire and retain talent.