Corporate Responsibiltiy

Futures Rambling # 105

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Most people don’t know who Sisto Malaspina is and they draw a similar blank when they hear the name Michael Rogers, but when prompted with the words shopping trolley and Pellegrini’s those in Australia will recognise Malaspina as the cafe owner killed by an armed terrorist in Melbourne last November and Michael Rogers as the homeless man who attempted to stop the attack by ramming Rogers with his shopping trolley of worldly possessions.

A gutsy move and a great example of individuals making a difference, in some instances doing the jobs of others such as: law enforcement, authorities, elected government officials and business leaders. Becoming a vigilante or shouting one’s dissatisfaction with the state of the world is by no means a new phenomenon, but the shouts are getting louder. In fact, today PR firms like Weber Shandwick’s have built entire practices advising corporate leaders on how they should talk about divisive issues like: guns, race, sexual orientation, gender, immigration and the environment.

In the big tech mega centres and bastions of globalization, technology and market liberalization: San Francisco, Seattle and the nooks and crannies of the Silicon Valley; people are screaming their heads off. Perhaps because this is there where the contrasts between the haves and have nots is gut wrenchingly profound. Everyday in those cities people commute to work past people sleeping in the streets in cardboard boxes or tent encampments. Not all, but some of those people displaced by their very success.

Walking that gauntlet as I did exiting the Bainbridge Island ferry in Seattle, or now riding my bike up Kent Street in Sydney, causes one to pause and question what responsibility we have to those negatively impacted by our success? Do the companies we work for have any accountability? Is it reasonable to expect business leaders to protect us from disruptive changes in our industries?

These questions are rife in the tech sector, the industry is in a collective crisis over this predicament and perhaps they should be, they have plenty to answer for. Of the 143 tech billionaires in the world, half live in the Silicon Valley. The rest of the schmos who drank the tech Kool-Aid never got what was promised, had their data compromised and if unlucky enough to live anywhere near them, got priced out of the housing market by those that made it big in tech.

The worry is not confined to the domain of tech. We thought a lot about the impact of disruptive technology in the design of our studio. The physical manifestation of our pondering is a large experimental zone that cuts through the workplace dedicated to robotics, VR, 3D printing and anything else that tickles our fancy. It’s perhaps a token measure, but one we hope will broaden our perspective of what architects and designers do. Truth be told, we’re kind of scared of the day when computers are smarter, less snarky and more accurate than we are.

It’s a challenge for those who dabble in academia too. Students aren’t told they’re learning skills that might be radically different, or obsolete, by the time they graduate. Nor does anyone let on that employers select candidates based on adaptability, cultural fit and personal curiosity. Who tells the kids that the impact of AI and other disruptive technology will mean knowing soft skills that machines can’t perform will be their true worth.

Corporations have long played a role in social issues and the political process that surround them. Today this has been exacerbated to the extent that this has been coined the era of the ‘activist CEO’. Business leaders (in particular the billionaires) assume the role of stewards of company’s values; accountable parties who stand up for employees, customers, partners and communities. They do this, because the public demands it and have told them they must serve a higher purpose beyond maximizing shareholder values.

Some listen. Marc Benioff the CEO of Salesforce contributed $7 million to a Proposition C, which is San Francisco’s ‘homelessness tax’, and he challenged his contemporaries to do the same suggesting it was a moral responsibility of tech companies who have received tax breaks to give back. And in May Seattle’s City Council voted unanimously to pass a similar payroll tax to support the homeless in that city.

That didn’t go so well. Amazon threw a dummy spit and threatening to stop construction of their new office building in Seattle; understandable, Jeff Bezos’ needs to finance a divorce and even Donald Trump, who knows plenty about divorces and pay outs, says that divorce is going to be ‘huge’. In San Francisco Apple and Lift opposed the measure as did Twitter a company who benefits from a massive tax break just to operate there.

Benioff may have been swayed by employees shouting outside his San Francisco headquarters “Caging children is a crime. Salesforce, fuck your bottom line”. That of course had nothing to do with Prop C but was a response to a contract they signed to provide human resources services to US Customs and Border Protection. The point is, employees aren’t quiet anymore; 20,000 Google employees who staged a walkout to protest the company’s payouts to executives accused of sexual harassment certainly aren’t keeping their mouths shut.

It’s a tough predicament the world is in. One that will require a handful of courageous companies to change the rules, otherwise no one wins. Star Trek fans will recognize a Kobayashi Maru situation.

For my part I’ll continue challenging corporates who claim they’re socially responsible with suggestions they let the homeless sleep in their empty offices. Maybe someone, someday will say yes and not look at me like I have three heads. Who knows, it may be the start of new breed of social workplace. As for the university kids, maybe they should skip Revit training and go to the pub to work on their people skills.

 

 

Sources:

Captain, Sean; “Meet the Silicon Valley Socialist Who are Pushing a Tech Worker Uprising”; https://www.fastcompany.com; July 17, 2018

Chamorro-Premuzic Thomas and Frankiewicz Becky; “Does Higher Education Still Prepare People for Jobs?”; Harvard Business Review; January 14, 2019

Chatterji, Aaron and Toffel Michael; “The New CEO Activists”; The Harvard Business Review; January – February 2018

Molloy, Shannon; “Victoria Police Hunting for Bourke St Hero dubbed ‘Tolley Man’ Over Alleged Burglaries”; Newscorpaustralia.com; November 16, 2018

Rogers, Adam and Tiku, Nitasha; “San Francisco Billionaires Go To War Over Homelessness”; Wired; October 29, 2018