Our Responsibility Towards Creation
The swissnex Salon, a two-month program of activities, opened on October 5 with a reinterpretation of “responsibility towards creation,” one of the first phrases in the Swiss Constitution, for today’s Silicon Valley. In his opening remarks, lightly edited here, swissnex San Francisco’s Deputy CEO Benjamin Bollmann explains the idea behind swissnex’s newest initiative.
Welcome to the swissnex Salon.
If you live in the Bay Area, every action has its consequences. This is the fertile ground on which Apple, Facebook, and Google have grown into some of the world’s most powerful and influential tech companies. Roughly eight million people are lucky enough to live in the place that is arguably for the digital revolution what Florence was for the Renaissance: a center of developments that will have, for better or worse, profound economic, cultural, and political implications on nearly all human societies in the centuries to come.
What we do today might influence, by the nature of cause and effect, the creation of a technology that someone on the other side of the planet might use to look for a job, communicate with friends and family, go from point A to point B, read the news, or find a partner. It’s easy to forget, but whatever our occupation, whatever our role in this ecosystem, we have great responsibility towards the world. We’re all on the same boat—the question is where we’re headed.
Today, our boat in Silicon Valley is mainly following a star called Growth. If you view growth as a religion, you quickly recognize its churches— our co-working spaces and tech campuses; its myths— the startup created in a garage; its rituals— pitch and demo events, TED talks; and its gods— Steve Jobs, Elon Musk. If you believe in growth, there is nothing surprising in a startup being acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars long before it has reached any real profit, generating enormous wealth for investors and early-stage employees. If you truly believe in growth, you believe that growth will make the world a better place.
It’s undeniable that liberalism has brought us unprecedented peace and prosperity. Yet, recent critical press reports, public hearings, and internal protests at tech companies have led us to question the sustainability of Silicon Valley-type growth. It has become clear that data is sometimes collected at the cost of privacy, that the human mind is easily hacked, and that tech’s wealth is unequally distributed. As a result, Silicon Valley confronts a new expectation of societal responsibility. But is there any way technology could scale under a new kind of growth, one that is not only financial but puts human values and rights front and center?
That’s precisely the question behind swissnex Salon. Our idea is to encourage an “ethical pause” to consider the implications of science and technology in the public sphere. We see the Salon as a platform for a conversation that includes multiple perspectives, provides a critical lens on possible emergent futures, and explores responsibility for the benefit of all. Our program takes inspiration from the preamble of the Swiss Constitution, a paragraph that lays out the core ideals of Switzerland. In the text, we selected five values that we believe are quite universal:
Solidarity and openness towards the world
Live together with mutual consideration and respect for their diversity
Responsibility towards future generations
Only those who use their freedom remain free
The strength of a people is measured by the well-being of its weakest members
The values are intended as a starting point for an open dialogue bridging Switzerland and Silicon Valley. While the Opening Night addresses them somewhat directly, they will play a more subtle role in the following activities of Salon, which will consist of various workshops, events, fellowships, and residencies. Though the values won’t be the main subject of discussion, they will frame each activity, and will serve both as inspiration and guiding principle to the program. swissnex will employ various strategies to do so, from displaying the value-based wordplay in our exhibition space, to repeating the values at the beginning of each event, documenting the conversations, and wrapping them up using the value framework.
Imagine, for example, a pitch event where the ideas presented aren’t judged only by their growth potential, as it is traditionally done in Silicon Valley, but also according to the value system of the Salon: Could this idea contribute to our solidarity and openness towards the world? How does it relate to the weakest members of society? What will its impact be on future generations?
In that way, the swissnex Salon is an experiment to shift beyond the dominant view of innovation as a means to create economic value and instead to become a source of societal value. It puts societal responsibility at the core of the innovation process, rather than as an afterthought. The question of how to use human values as a framework for emerging technology is a conversation that should happen at the global level. But I would like to invite us to have it here and now, in the Bay Area, where it’s more urgent than anywhere else. Once again, everyone of us here carries a special responsibility towards creation.
Benjamin Bollmann is the deputy CEO of swissnex San Francisco.