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Simon Carter: Overcoming the dangers of digital optimism

Simon Carter, Morphosis
Simon Carter, Morphosis

Even in 2018, polar extremes still tend to dominate the discussion on digital transformation.

Morphosis director Simon Carter is on a mission to change this for the built environment. He hopes to bring the Luddites and technophiles together by highlighting the tangible risks and opportunities that digital transformation presents for real estate and cities.

On Thursday morning, The Fifth Estate attended the RICS’s (Royal Australian Institution of Chartered Surveyors) and Morphosis launch of Mr Carter’s Crossing the Threshold research on “sustainable digitisation”. According to Mr Carter, sustainable digitisation involves looking at technological innovation though an environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) lens.

Digitisation is a double-edged sword, he says, and unfortunately, people tend to focus on the positive “edge”. This includes commonly-cited benefits of such as increased mobility, productivity and convenience.

But digitalisation can also have negative consequences, Mr Carter explained, and these impacts are often overlooked and underestimated. This includes the potential job losses to automation, privacy infringements, mental health issues, technology addictions and the ever-growing piles of e-waste ending up in landfill.

He said this optimistic skew is a result of denial, naivety, and vested interests.

Fast-printed bricks is an example. These systems are now able to print 1000 bricks an hour, which compares to a “typical bricky” who can lay around 300 to 400 per day. Although the efficiency and productivity benefits are attractive, technologies like this have the potential to put human jobs at risk.

This is where Mr Carter’s new sustainable digitisation guidelines can help. The research is designed to help businesses navigate the muddy ethical waters of digital transformation process by identifying the real-life ESG issues that companies currently face, such as job losses to automation and the sustainability of building materials.

“This is not a checklist, we don’t want people to go through and see that they are doing something under each heading,” he said.

“This is a starting point for a strategic exploration to understand how they will be consequential materially to your organisations and your stakeholders, both directly and indirectly now and into the future.

“Part of our species is a love to innovate. It is not a question of digitalising or not, it’s a matter of how.”

The tool has been endorsed by the Property Council, Green Building Council Australia, and Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia.

Embedding ethics into business as usual

It’s easy to talk about embedding codes of ethics into corporate activities. Putting this into practice is more difficult.

Panellists at the RICS and Morphosis launch provided their thoughts on this issue.

Mr Carter said the key is slowing down and “detaching from digitisation” because “philosophy comes from mindfulness”. He believes we are already seeing the emergence of ethical frameworks, but corporates need to give ethical ideas time to develop and avoid overlaying principles on top of traditional business activities.

Ethics is not that complicated

Andrew Harris, director of Engineering Excellence Group at Laing O’Rourke and University of Sydney professor doesn’t believes ethics is all that complicated – it’s about “what’s right and what’s not right”.

Professor Harris highlighted the importance of diversity, such as gender and racial diversity, in the creation of well-rounded corporate ethics.

Catherine Caruana-McManus, director of Meshed IoT, reiterated this point and suggested that lack of diversity in Australian boardrooms and leadership positions posed a problem for corporate responsibility.

Kate Deacon, City of Sydney executive manager strategy and urban analytics, spoke to the “elephant in the room” in the corporate responsibility discussion – inequality.

“One way to solve inequality is to get rid of diversity. But is that better? No.

“So need to focus on the extremes, the highly advantaged and the super disadvantaged. There will always be a degree of natural inequality. [City of Sydney] are looking at a number of things, such as improving healthcare.

“We want to maintain diversity but ensure people are well looked after.”

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