The Practitioner: The Datashare Expetience

engaged with its stakeholders, but would also introduce a participatory approach to technology development (Noorman et al. 2018). We intended to organize a series of workshops to open Datashare’s innovation processes to a wide variety of stakeholders. These workshops would help to articulate the implicit values, biases, and interests of Datashare’s proposed technical design and to explicate the interests, values, norms, and viewpoints of the platform’s stakeholders, including users, developers, and third-party business partners. As field philosophers, we thus envisioned a role as mediators between Datashare and its stakeholders, where we would identify and translate the values of the parties involved.

It soon became clear that there were serious mismatches between our participatory ideals and the ways Datashare chose to deal with its stakeholders. We discuss two clusters of problems, resulting from, respectively, the fact that Datashare was a lean start-up and that it was a commercial enterprise that was dependent on attracting clients and users.

Lean, Moving Target

The tensions and difficulties that we experienced were partly due to the lean start-up approach the company had adopted (Ries 2011). Datashare did not start from a clearly developed problem definition or envisioned solution but chose to keep both fluid. Rather than thinking through and planning everything first, and then subsequently executing the planned design, their intended strategy was to develop both the business concept and technical solutions along the way, in continuous interaction with varying stakeholders. They planned to use an iterative process, in which ideas and prototypes were repeatedly tested on potential users to see which ones ‘got traction’ and which ones failed to raise interest. Not ‘Think before you leap,’ but ‘Think while you leap.’

This ‘lean’ approach confronted us, as philosophers, with unexpected problems. Basically, it made us aware how non-lean the DNA of philosophy is. Our collaborators often thought we were slow, and annoyingly so. The lean start-up method is based on an implicit metaphysics of speed, change, and dynamics, and comes with a matching set of virtues. In this sense, it is defined by its own implicit ethics. By contrast, philosophy is typically about pausing and creating time and space for slow reflection and deliberation. It proved to be very' hard to break with the millennia-old habit of having theory—in the form of questioning, reflection, deliberation, consensus—precede practice. In Datashare’s dynamic environment our ambition to develop a comprehensive ethical framework for stakeholder involvement seemed weirdly out of place, as did our default mode of the questioning and critical philosopher, which sat uneasily with the forward-looking enthusiasm typical of engineers and entrepreneurs.

We sought to act as mediators between innovators and (especially, the powerless) stakeholders, but Datashare’s lean approach confronted us, as field philosophers, with two problems. First, we found ourselves trying to hit a moving target. When neither problem nor solution are fixed, it is fundamentally unclear what the technology actually will be and will do. It is equally unclear who its users—and, more broadly, its stakeholders—are going to be. As a consequence, it was difficult to approach these individuals to explore and support their values, interests, and perspectives. Second, even if that had been possible, it was unclear whether their values could result in guidelines for the developers of the technology. After all, in a lean way of working, yesterday’s decisions are very much yesterday’s news and carry little weight for the new options that materialized today. One does not want to be bound by previous promises and commitments. The same held for our offer to develop anticipatory knowledge regarding the way the platform might eventually function, including its unintended side effects. There was little interest in, or even patience with, our attempts to create a long-term, bigger picture.

Stakeholder Inclusion: Handing Over the Reins, or Ethical Marketing Research?

A second cluster of problems resulted from the precarious position that Datashare was in. A participatory approach to technology development tacitly assumes that stakeholders ardently desire to be included. In reality, this proved to be far from the case. In fact, the main problem for Datashare was how to lure in potential clients and users. Its management spent a lot of time and energy trying to forge links between the interests of targeted stakeholders, on the one hand, and the Datashare platform, on the other. An additional problem was that the interests of these potential stakeholders often conflicted. Direct and open deliberation between stakeholders—the normative core of our approach to designing a ‘trusted environment’—was therefore considered to be out of the question, as it could introduce unmanageable conflict that could undermine the whole project.

Careful brokering and negotiating were constantly necessary. As a result, instead of us mediating between Datashare and its marginal stakeholders, Datashare’s management team carefully guarded its role as mediator. Instead of developing a business concept that could appeal to all the different stakeholders because it was based on a shared understanding of that concept, Datashare strategically separated the different stakeholder groups and the different stories about what the platform would offer and allow. We were particularly struck by how the team members used ethical concepts, such as autonomy, privacy, and trust. At first, they would emphasize privacy, later they would shift the focus to trust, and then to control and personal autonomy, only to finally re-emphasize privacy again. These terms were used strategically, and mattered only with regard to how different stakeholders perceived the product. We found that this is a quite common strategy in innovation. As Barta and Neff (2016, p. 520) put it: “when multiple values are in play simultaneously [...] then the work of innovators is to recognize how to keep these multiple values ambiguous in order to appeal to different kinds of people.” Rather than constructing one unifying story applicable to all settings, team leaders instead allowed for ambiguity and carefully managed the information flows that went back and forth between the different groups.

The fragility of Datashare’s stakeholder relationships also made shared decision-making problematic. Datashare was not only hesitant to organize a deliberative forum for its stakeholders because it feared conflicts among them; it was also unwilling to delegate decision-making powers to its stakeholders— including us. It is too much to ask of entrepreneurs to hand over the reins. Thus, there was no space for a shared and symmetric deliberative process where all stakeholders could feel bound by collectively taken decisions. Datashare’s managers approached stakeholders as sources of information instead of as partners, and they were careful to avoid entering into any relation that could imply mutual obligation. Stakeholder meetings could therefore never amount to more than a kind of focus group in some form of ethical marketing research. Anything like stakeholder participation and collective decision-making was out of the question.

 
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