In practice: PwC’s new programme to drive responsible technology

With technological advances having an unprecedented impact on business operations, accountancy firm PwC has published a new responsible technology policy, setting out commitments and actions to ensure society can reap the benefits of the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'.

The challenge

As alluded to by PwC in a recent thought-leadership article for edie on the global impact of megatrends, we are witnessing an era of unprecedented technological change, with the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ now underway. This is underpinned by rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and the internet of things (IoT) to name a few.

And while digital innovations have the potential to grow business and solve some of the world’s greatest challenges, PwC highlights that these ever-evolving technologies could have unintended consequences. Data breaches, high energy usage and the potential for automation to displace existing job functions are just some of the societal risks associated with technology adoption.

A recent PwC survey of more than 5,000 people in 22 countries found that 79% believe technology will cause job losses over the next five years. If not managed or used correctly, technology can also have a negative impact on health and wellbeing, through physical injury or poor physical and mental health from excessive or improper use of technology.

The solution

With input from both the technology and investment and corporate sustainability teams, PwC has established a series of commitments and actions that will help showcase the positive role of technology, as well as mitigate potentially adverse social, ethical and environmental concerns across its whole value chain, including its suppliers, operations, internal workforce and client work.

PwC aims to deliver internal assistance to its own workforce, as well as external advisory support to clients, governments and industry peers to ensure the benefits of technology can be experienced across business and society. Within its own operations, the London-headquartered firm plans to support its staff in developing the skills they need to adapt to new technology and the future of work. Moreover, ‘digital diet’ training will be provided to help protect employee health and wellbeing as they use technology.

How the responsible technology policy works

PwC’s technology and investment leadership team is largely responsible for the rollout of the programme, receiving input from a variety of internal departments such as health and wellbeing, learning and development, facilities management, and risk and quality.

The responsible technology policy is aligned under four themes: jobs and skills, health and wellbeing, privacy, security and integrity and environment.

In the area of jobs and skills, PwC will deliver digital training sessions to help the workforce develop digital and technology-related skills, in addition to a new resourcing system that will enable employees to build experience in new fields of expertise if their jobs are affected by automation in the future. PwC is also developing digital apprenticeships with three universities to improve digital capabilities.

The promotion of ‘digital dieting’ is central to the health and wellbeing pillar, with training and information offered to encourage people to spend time away from connected electronic devices. PwC put forward a list of recommendations, advising employees to; control the amount of time spent on a smartphone, enable ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode when busy; turn the phone onto ‘Airplane Mode’ at night; and go ‘off the grid’ during time away from work.

PwC staff can undergo a workplace health assessment to evaluate technology use from a health risk perspective, while the company will adopt new technologies to support people’s mental and physical health and those with disabilities.

To promote privacy, security and integrity, PwC provides annual privacy and data security training to all employees. The business has committed to invest in best-in-class standards, infrastructure and technology to uphold information security and protect the business from cyber attacks.

As part of reducing energy usage at PwC buildings, the firm is harnessing new technologies, such as a sophisticated building management system (BMS), to minimise the environmental impacts of its operations and achieve net-zero emissions. PwC is also reducing levels of electronic waste by sending all of its end-of-life IT to a specialist company for reuse or recycling.

The responsible technology policy is being implemented across the value chain, and PwC is working with clients to showcase the societal benefits of technology through a variety of formats such as educational podcasts, hackathons and disruption workshops. PwC’s efforts extend to the supply chain, engaging with data centre providers to facilitate circular models, and taking steps to check that technology suppliers adhere to the company’s Human Rights policy.

PwC is informing policy makers in the UK on the impact of AI in terms of economic growth, jobs and ethics. It’s also supporting the World Economic Forum and the United Nations in global programmes looking at the use of technology to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, including human rights, and to ensure the Fourth Industrial Revolution is an environmentally sustainable one.

Future plans

While the responsible technology policy has been developed by PwC UK, there is strong interest from other territories in the company’s network to follow suit. The programme has been discussed by PwC’s global corporate responsibility board and is on the agenda for its EMEA annual gathering later in June, so it is likely that the policy will be extended and adapted to a broader geographic footprint.

Looking ahead, PwC hopes to collaborate with other players in the sector. Other firms in the professional services sector or companies in banking are likely to have a similar footprint, making the principles in PwC’s responsible technology approach applicable to them, if not all sectors. PwC is keen to debate the topics surrounding responsible technology and get to a point where a ‘business charter’ in this area can work for all businesses.

The corporate sustainability team will review the responsible technology policy annually to ensure complete relevance and effectiveness and to make any necessary improvements.

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