Euronews debate | Profit vs Public Good: How can innovation benefit everyone?

The tech sector has faced increased scrutiny after a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower accused the company of deliberately choosing profit over public safety, providing thousands of internal documents to back up the claims.

As calls for increased regulation intensify, citizens, policy makers and innovators are asking: How can we ensure that technology serves the public good without stifling innovation? Can innovation be both profitable and consider the public good?

Euronews has brought together a panel of experts to answer these questions during a live debate and offer their views on how innovation can benefit everyone.

You can watch the highlights of the debate in the video player at the top of this article.

Innovation fuels today’s global economy. The deployment and use of technology is seen as key to increasing productivity and growth while reducing the impact on the planet’s precious and scarce resources. Along with this should come wealth, improved living standards, and a positive impact on society. This is theory. But since most innovation is done by the private sector, who really wins?

Pre-pandemic research found that “the digital economy is worth $11.5 trillion (€10) globally, equivalent to 15.5% of global GDP, and has grown two and a half times faster than global GDP over the past 15 years.”

COVID-19 and the new digital habits it has spurred have further bolstered the profits and power of the tech giants, with the top five companies (Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook) reporting combined revenues of more than €1.04 trillion in April.

With so much power in the hands of private firms, how do they fit in with the mood of today’s society as a whole? For those who increasingly want to know that new technologies are safe, good for the environment and do not violate their privacy and human rights. And all this in a world of disinformation and a fall in trust.

Watch the full livestream of the debate here:

Trust issue

According to Andrew Smith, Professor of Consumer Behavior and Director of N/LAB at the University of Nottingham Business School, consumers don’t want to be overwhelmed with information.

“Very often we assume that consumers have all the information they need to make rational choices. In fact, they don’t always have this information and it’s a problem for companies that want to innovate,” said Tommaso Di Giovanni, Vice President. President of International Communications at Philip Morris International.

“In general, we are illiterate,” says Elena Bow, director of innovation at EIT InnoEnergy. “We need more communication and pedagogy, as well as a lot of education, to have enough information to make a decision.”

Ecosystem Need

The future of technology and innovation seems to depend on collaboration between the private and public sectors. Since startups are closest to this ideal, it is still necessary that they work together.

Annalize Eggiman, CEO of Innosuisse, said her organization’s mission “is to bring the science sector and the private sector together,” which isn’t always easy, especially because of how “intimidating” science can be. But in the end, such cooperation can be very beneficial for both parties.

“Success requires building an ecosystem, not just one company,” agreed Di Giovanni. “There’s product development and then science comes in to test it.”

Is more regulation needed or just proper regulation?

Euronews conducted a reader poll ahead of the debate, and 83% of those polled said they thought more regulation was needed to ensure technology served the public good.

Smith confirmed this result in relation to the digital space: “Sometimes we cannot control our behavior, we need regulation to help us prevent our own behavior from becoming harmful to ourselves and others.”

However, according to Di Giovanni, too many rules can sometimes be a hindrance for companies.

“Regulations should create incentives for companies seeking the public good,” Di Giovanni said. “The more you create a way to combine profit and public good, the more innovation we will see. It’s more a question of the quality of the rules.”

“It depends on what kind of legislation should promote the creation of a market environment for innovation,” added Elena Bow.

“Companies involved in innovation should receive some kind of privilege for innovation, including depending on the product they put on the market,” Annalize Aggiman said, answering a question about taxes related to innovation.

“But as far as the innovation process is concerned, it is important that the public sector provides some sort of incentive.”

Get to know our panel

Annalize Eggimann, CEO, Innosuisse – The Executive Director of the Swiss Innovation Agency supports Swiss start-ups by promoting science-based innovation for the benefit of the economy and society in Switzerland.

Tommaso Di Giovannii**, Vice President, International Communications, Philip Morris International** – The Corporate Communications Specialist’s work is dedicated to raising worldwide awareness of the opportunities provided by innovation, science and technology to create a smoke-free world.

Andrew Smith, Professor of Consumer Behavior and N/LAB directorUniversity of Nottingham School of Business – The scientist specializes in consumer behavior and psychology, with a particular focus on ethical decision making.

Elena Bow, Innovation Director, VIT Innoenergy – Researcher, practitioner and professor of innovation founded the European incubator EIT InnoEnergy in 2010. Since then, the company has supported nearly 500 sustainable energy startups, including two unicorns.

Damon Embling,euronews moderator – Damon is an experienced broadcast journalist with over 20 years of professional experience in the UK, Europe and worldwide. At Euronews, he regularly produces and presents programs on business, travel and tourism, and technology.