Margot Cooijmans, Philips Foundation's director, spoke last November at the World Ethical Electronics Forum (WEEF 2021) about companies, their social foundations, and their roles in society at large. Here she reflects on current ethical electronics-related questions and more.

Priscilla Haring-Kuipers: What did you think about the first World Ethical Electronics Forum?

Margot Cooijmans:
 Societal relevance is very important to the Philips Foundation and to me personally. At this first WEEF, I experienced that many people in this field support this initiative. The genuine quest for ethics in technology was clear throughout the conference. I believe that, in the future, only companies with societal relevance can keep their license to operate.

Priscilla Haring-Kuipers: What Ethics in Electronics are you are working on? 

Margot Cooijmans: The targets of Philips include a zero-carbon footprint, a circular materials flow and to constantly positively impact the lives of people, especially by providing quality healthcare for disadvantaged communities (Sustainable Development Goal 3 Good Health & Well-being for all). Philips wants to make healthcare a service that will include the maintenance and refurbishing of machines in under-serviced areas. Digital healthcare can make services more accessible and affordable, as well as reducing the costs of healthcare with early detection and timely treatment.

The Philips Foundation seeks to have an impact through investing in local health technologies that we can help scale. We invest in small companies that understand local ecosystem, and we co-create the best fitting solutions. Sometimes with societal organisations and more and more with local start-ups, we serve local communities. Understanding what is missing on the ground, why and where the healthcare system is broken or failing. Sometimes it is a lack of medically trained staff, in other cases there is little awareness about the correlation between lifestyle and cardiovascular diseases. So, there is more to it than just starting with a technical innovation. It starts with understanding the actual need. Telehealth, doctors at distance or mobile ultrasound may be part of the solution.

Priscilla Haring-Kuipers: What is the most important ethical question in your field? 

Margot Cooijmans: Can healthcare provision become financially self-sustainable and be accessible and affordable for the underserved? The Philips Foundation does not want to donate or invest to see a program end when the money runs out. We want to invest in lasting healthcare access for disadvantaged communities, impact with the intent to change systems. It is important to create an ecosystem that can become independent, with an income and/or improved situation for the local people involved.

Priscilla Haring-Kuipers: What would you like to include in an Electronics Code of Ethics? 

Margot Cooijmans: To start with the need. Don’t design something because you can, but ask yourself if there is a societal need for the product. Considering the state of earth, it becomes irresponsible to push products/solutions into the market that do not bring any societal and environmental improvement. It is time to balance out financial considerations with (negative) considerations around the effects on people and the planet. Think inclusively, and realize that impoverishing environmental effects impact us all.  

Priscilla Haring-Kuipers: Impossible choice: When you want to change a society, you need to change A) the money B) the mothers C) the law.

Margot Cooijmans: A. Our financial system of short-term gains is out of date and damaging. The gap between rich and poor is growing and the system exhausts flora and fauna, with its focus on making more money out of money. Meanwhile we are creating debts on countries that can never repay it. Laws and regulations do not change society, reality changes laws and regulations and they follow reality. They lag behind technological innovation and often stand in the way of system change. We should do what is right and the legal framework will follow. Innovation comes from the people.
Priscilla Haring-Kuipers writes about technology from a social science perspective. She is especially interested in technology supporting the good in humanity and a firm believer in effect research. She has an MSc in Media Psychology and makes This Is Not Rocket Science happen. 
Ethics in Electronics - WEEF 2021

More on WEEF 2022 and Ethics

The 2022 World Ethical Electronics Forum (WEEF 2022), which is slated for November, will build on the momentum from last year's event, where both Priscilla Haring-Kuipers and Margot Cooijmans spoke. Over the next few months, Elektor will be publishing thought-provoking ethics-related articles, polls, and interviews, and polls. Visit the WEEF 2022 website for additional details.