The Theme of the Sixth World Congress of the International Society of Business, Economics, and Ethics in 2016 in Shanghai, China: “Ethics, Innovation, and Well-Being in Business and the Economy”

By July 22, 2014News, Updates

The Theme of the Sixth World Congress of the International Society of

Business, Economics, and Ethics in 2016 in Shanghai, China:

“Ethics, Innovation, and Well-Being in Business and the Economy”



Explorations by Georges Enderle

John T. Ryan Jr. Professor of International Business Ethics

Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA




Innovation has become a catchword to attract a great deal of attention in business and economic policy and far beyond. It is praised as a key driver of increasing productivity and thus economic growth. Companies and countries that are in the forefront of innovation are said to win the race for global advantage. Not surprisingly, competition between China and the United States seems to intensify considerably when it comes to innovation policy. However, this enthusiasm for innovation has also brought about far-reaching challenges and questions. Does innovation kill more jobs than it creates (perhaps in the wrong industry or wrong location)? Does it aggravate inequality of income and wealth? Do new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) exacerbate environmental degradation? What are the consequences of nanotechnology and genetic engineering?

Against these prospects, it is astonishing that the question of ethics is hardly posed or directly addressed. The overriding assumption is that innovation is all about merely making something new (in response to a demand), and that what is “new” is also de facto better. But what precisely does “better” mean? When speaking of innovation, it is important to qualify not only what we mean by making something “new” but also making something “better.” Equally important, the question: “better for what purpose?” must be discussed. The theme of the 2016 ISBEE Congress captures all three important concepts: “ethics, innovation, and well-being.”

Innovation is expected and demanded in many spheres of life: education and health care, science and technology, research and teaching, humanities and arts, politics and civil society. In the context of the 2016 ISBEE Congress and from the perspective of business and economic ethics, the focus of innovation is on business and the economy. Hence the full theme of the Congress states: “ethics, innovation, and well-being in business and the economy.”


Defining innovation

What do we mean by innovation? In their excellent book, Innovation. A Very Short Introduction, the authors Mark Dodgson and David Gann define innovation as “ideas, successfully applied” (2010, xi). This definition points to two components which characterize, in varying forms, many other definitions as well: it is the (novel) outcome of human intellect and the realization thereof in concrete matters. On the one hand, innovation originates from human thought and imagination, the search and finding of ideas; on the other hand, it is about making the ideas work and applying them successfully to the material world. Imagination is crucial, but only the first step. Successful application is the necessary second step. Therefore, innovation should not be equated with imagination and invention since the innovation includes both thinking and doing.

As for the term creativity, some authors like Jill Kickul and Thomas Lyons associate it with imagination and invention and sharply distinguish it from innovation (Kickul et al. 2012, 45). However, if creativity means – as commonly understood – the ability to make or bring into existence something new, it pertains also to innovation, at least in a general sense.

Innovation defined as the successful application of ideas or the accomplishment of a worthwhile objective (Dees et al. 2001, 162) implies an evaluation of what success or a worthwhile objective is. It involves certain norms and values, which might be ethical or unethical. In other words, such ethical implication is unavoidable; it is not only about “doing” but also about doing “the right thing.” Admittedly, Dodgson and Gann do not elaborate the ethical dimension in their “very short introduction” to innovation. But in the last chapter on building a smarter planet, they explicitly speak of greater ethical and responsible decision-making, sustainability, intuition and judgment, tolerance and responsibility, diversity of interests and cross-cultural sensitivities. It is no exaggeration to say that building a smarter planet implies building a more ethical one; or creating means making something not only new but also better.

Moreover, as Dodgson and Gann emphasize, innovation is risky in multiple respects and loaded with failure (chapter 3) and fear. Numerous applications of ideas do not succeed, and change just for the sake of change is not the way to go. Nonetheless, the attitudes of curiosity, risk-taking, and “the joy of finding” (see Landes 1999), supported by an environment that provides free space, are essential for innovation. It goes without saying that, along with risk and uncertainty, the ethical assessment and guidance of innovation becomes even more challenging.

After these general considerations, we now turn to the field of application that is of special interest here: business and the economy. In order to structure the field, we may use the now common conception of business ethics which distinguishes three levels of analysis comprehending the levels of persons, organizations, and systems or the so-called micro-, meso- and macro-levels (see Enderle 2003, 2014). Similarly, Dodgson and Gann (2010, 22 and 26) distinguish the level of individual innovators, entrepreneurs and managers (e.g., Thomas Edison); the level of business strategy for organizational innovation (e.g., IBM); and the level of economics for national innovation performance (which should be supplemented by global innovation systems; see Atkinson and Ezell 2010). It is noteworthy that each level has its particular challenges of complexity, predictability, and governance; and the more aggregate the level is, the more complex, the less predictable and the more difficult to govern the challenges become (see the Level I, II, and III Technology in Allenby and Sarewitz 2011).

In practical terms, one can distinguish seven forms of innovation situated mainly at the micro- and meso-level (see Kickul et al. 2012, 45-46):

1)      Creating new products, services, programs or projects.

2)      Producing a new process or delivering an existing product, service, program or project (e.g., Habitat for Humanity).

3)      Delivering an existing product, service, program or project to a new or previously underserved market (e.g., Grameen Bank).

4)      Utilizing a new source of labor or other production input (e.g., Greystone Bakery of Yonkers).

5)      Implementing a new organizational or industrial structure (e.g., Community development banks).

6)      Implementing new ways of engaging “customers” or target beneficiaries.

7)      Utilizing new funding models.

To sum up, innovation consists of the following features: It means the successful application of ideas. It is about making something new, which has ethical implications. It is risky and requires curiosity and a risk-taking attitude. It can occur at the individual, organizational, and/or systemic level and take multiple forms of products, services, programs, projects, etc. It differs from imagination and invention and is more specific than creativity.

Based on this understanding of innovation, we explore in the following its importance and challenges from the economic and the ethical perspectives and relate them to well-being.


Importance and challenges of innovation from the economic perspective

With innovation understood as the successful application of ideas, it obviously matters how the field of application, here of business and the economy, is conceived. It makes a difference whether knowledge and technology are external factors to the working of the economy (as it is the case in Robert Solow’s famous growth model) or whether they are internal factors. In his groundbreaking book The Growth Spiral Hans-Christoph Binswanger advocates the second approach by defining imagination as an intellectual resource: “The human intellect or imagination is to the economy what sunlight is to the ecological cycle as a constantly self-regenerating driving force.” (Binswanger 2013, 87) How this driving force has unfolded in the history of economic discovery is narrated by David Warsh in his fascinating book Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations (2007).

Still, the sunlight needs receivers that are able to transform it into energy or to make the application successful. To this point David Landes makes the crucial observation that the market and free enterprise made inventions feasible in economic and financial terms, which launched the Industrial Revolution in Europe:

Enterprise was free in Europe. Innovation worked and paid, and rulers and vested interests were limited in their ability to prevent or discourage innovation. Success bred imitation and emulation; also a sense of power that would in the long run raise men almost to the level of gods. (Landes 1999, 59)

In the economic literature on capitalism, the question of wealth creation is often associated with the role of the “entrepreneur” and “entrepreneurship.” According to Joseph Schumpeter (1934), the entrepreneur is the prime mover in economic development, and his function is to innovate, or “carry out new combinations” in terms of new goods, new methods of production, new markets, new sources of supply, and new industrial organizations (these are five of the seven forms of innovation mentioned above; see Casson 1987). The entrepreneur has a managerial or decision-making role and entrepreneurship can occur not only at the micro- but also at the meso- and macro-level (for the latter, see Mariana Mazzucato’s book The Entrepreneurial State (2013).

It goes without saying that not just any economic theory can deal with entrepreneurship and innovation in an adequate fashion. For example, in Mark Casson’s view, the neoclassical school of economics has trivialized the role of the entrepreneur by assuming perfect information and perfect markets. But with a more realistic understanding of the economy’s structural complexity and evolutionary nature, “the study of the entrepreneur leads to a vision of economics much wider than that of a subject which parsimoniously derives a consistent set of price and quantity equations. Aspects of human personality … acquire a crucial role and so too does the malleability of the personality under the influence of cultural attitude” (Casson 1987, 153).

As Atkinson and Ezell argue against conventional economists, the free market acting alone fails innovation. Due to multiple market failures, it is not able to create complex national innovation systems, which is a prerequisite to facing global competition successfully (Atkinson et al. 2012, 142-159).

Innovation assumes an even greater significance because the purpose of business and the economy is not merely to generate economic growth, but to create wealth in a comprehensive sense (see Enderle 2009). Innovation shapes the contents of wealth: financial capital as well as physical, human, and social capital. It affects both private and public wealth. While innovation contributes to growth by increasing productivity and enhancing competitiveness, it also matters for inclusive growth and development by bridging productivity gaps as well as benefiting and activating low- and middle-income groups (OECD 2012 and 2013). Innovation proves its success in a long-term horizon that is sustainable and measurable in terms of human capabilities. It involves not only material and technological but also spiritual and human aspects (see Allenby et al. 2011). Innovating is truly making something new and better, driven by motivations that are other-regarding as well as self-regarding.

Thus, if the purpose of business and the economy is conceived as wealth creation, innovation gains a central role in this field of application, and it becomes even more important when it is placed in front of three major challenges of globalization, sustainability, and financialization.

From this brief outline of innovation in business and the economy, numerous questions arise for exploration:

Multiple forms of innovation:

  • What are specific examples and general patterns of the seven forms of innovation mentioned above?
  • What are the drivers and the barriers of those innovations?
  • What kinds of risk are perceived or ignored before, during, and after the process of innovation?
  • How can we distinguish important from less important innovations?
  • What are suitable metrics for innovation?
  • How should national accounting systems be redesigned?

Subjects of innovation:

  • What personal and business qualities do (successful) innovators or entrepreneurs exhibit? What worthwhile objectives do they pursue? What does leadership for innovation mean?
  • What business strategies are smart and effective for organizational innovation? How can small and medium-sized enterprises become innovative? What is the role of multinational corporations in driving innovation globally?
  • What kinds of innovation policy do countries have in place and plan for the future? What international standards do exist and what standards are required for a global innovation system? What standards for the transfer of technology? What standards for the protection of intellectual property (patents, copyrights, trademarks)?

Theories of innovation:

  • How can economic theory (regarding assumptions, objectives, and consequences) contribute to understanding, promoting, hindering, or preventing innovation?
  • How can management theory (regarding assumptions, objectives, and consequences) contribute to understanding, promoting, hindering, or preventing innovation?
  • What is “creative accounting”? What is “creative finance”?
  • How can innovative business be taught?

It is not difficult to understand that many of these questions involve an ethical dimension, when, for example, speaking of “important” innovations, “successful” innovators, “worthwhile” objectives, and “required” standards. In order to make this dimension more explicit by asking what is “good” and what “should” be, we outline the importance and challenges of innovation from the ethical perspective.


Importance and challenges of innovation from the ethical perspective

For many people in business, engineering, science, and other areas, innovation has a strongly positive meaning. They point to examples such as steam engines, railways, electricity, aviation, and the internet. On the flip side, there are highly questionable, if not morally bad innovations like the atomic bomb and chemical and biological weapons, human cloning and other forms of genetic engineering (see Mehlman 2012). Economic globalization can have devastating impacts on certain regions and countries. Mere economic growth may vastly degenerate the natural environment. Automation in production processes can kill thousands of jobs. Innovative products in the financial services sector may lead to enormous waste of financial resources, if not undermine the stability of the financial system.

Given the immense ambiguities of innovations – in themselves and in their consequences, the ethical scrutiny of innovations is a dictate of reason that should not be ignored any longer. Its urgency is all the more pressing because of the immense challenges the planet earth and the people in each country face today and in future generations. The challenges for which good and important innovations are needed range from climate change and other environmental problems (such as accessible clean water and air) to renewable energy sources, inequality of income and wealth, poverty, the creation of jobs, basic health care and education for all, urbanization and transportation, etc.

Ethical evaluation and guidance need ethical standards, which contain more substance than the intuitive feeling to know and to do “the right thing.” They also need ethical reasoning and ethical judgment, which have to be learned and exercised in practice. In situations of high complexity and little predictability (at the macro-level with level III technology), ethical evaluation and guidance are particularly difficult. They, therefore, should involve the voices of multiple constituencies and attempt to minimize the long-term consequences (Allenby et al. 2011, chapter 8). As it would be naïve to believe that innovation is always better, it would be equally wrong to stick uncritically to the status-quo.

If we define the purpose of business and the economy as the creation of wealth in a comprehensive sense, ethical innovation is relevant in all seven features. It pertains to the formation of physical (natural and produced), human (health and education), social (trust relations) and financial capital. It matters not only for generating private wealth, but even more for creating often underestimated public wealth (such as a non-disruptive climate, stability of the financial system, and the rule of law). Ethical innovation in production plays by the rules of fair competition; at the same time, it strives for fair distribution for all with a special focus on low- and middle-income groups. Sustainability as defined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 1 and measured in terms of human capabilities provides long-term guidance. Ethical innovation considers both material and spiritual aspects and is motivated not only by self-interest but also by sympathy for and solidarity with others.

Obviously, the attempts of substantiating ethical values and norms in a pluralistic and global society come with many difficulties. By the same token, some basic ethical norms are necessary for living together in a sustainable way on the planet Earth. Therefore, it is proposed to substantiate those norms with human rights based on human dignity. They have been recognized worldwide as universally, although not undisputedly, valid ethical norms, and no other potential norms can rival them in the international arena. Today, this guidance is available for business with the “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” promulgated by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 (see Ruggie 2013).

Beyond human rights, other ethical norms and values are of great importance, not only in general, but also more specifically with regard to wealth creation and innovation. They vary immensely over countries and cultures, within countries themselves and over time. Such diversities should not be dismissed in advance as proof of ethical relativism. Rather, seen in an open and critical spirit, they are rich sources of creativity and innovation.

However, these diversities also present many tough ethical dilemmas, nationally and internationally, to corporate managers and the companies they run. Even with a decorum of moral sensitivity and good intentions, managers not infrequently make decisions with harmful consequences that may go beyond violations of human rights. Therefore, as suggested by Patricia Werhane, moral imagination is demanded, which is a creative process of transforming one’s mind-set to address and solve seemingly insoluble ethical dilemmas in business (Werhane 1999).

Before substantiating further ethical norms and values under the broad concept of well-being in the following section, we may pose a number of questions:

Negative and questionable experiences:

  • How should companies deal with competitors that steal their intellectual property in countries with weak law enforcement?
  • Are “creative” accounting and finance ethically acceptable?
  • What are clearly unethical practices of companies that try to become innovative? How can they be stopped and prevented from such practices?
  • What are clearly unethical innovation policies that countries pursue in the face of global competition?
  • Are there intrinsically unethical (or evil) innovations in business and the economy? If so, what are these innovations?
  • Or are innovations just ethically neutral (or amoral) so that only their use is subject to ethical scrutiny?
  • Under what conditions is the destruction of jobs through innovation unethical?
  • Under what conditions is environmental degradation through innovation unethical?
  • Under what conditions is automation ethically justifiable?

Ethical responsibilities at different levels:

  • What are managerial responsibilities in evaluating product and process innovations?
  • What qualities are required for leaders in ethical innovation?
  • How can moral imagination shape global management decision making?
  • Who are ethical entrepreneurs in the global economy?
  • What ethical responsibilities do multinational corporations have in driving innovation globally?
  • How should small and medium-sized enterprises fulfill their responsibilities for ethical innovations?
  • What ethical companies excel in innovation domestically and internationally?
  • What ethical innovations are recommendable in the financial services industry?
  • How can governments promote ethical innovation for public goods?
  • What makes a national innovation policy inclusive?
  • What ethical issues for companies and countries arise in technology transfer to developing countries and how should they be addressed?
  • What ethical standards are essential for a global innovation system?
  • What are key criteria for ethical innovation in business and the economy? How should they shape economic systems?

Guidance toward sustainability and human rights:

  • What makes an innovation sustainable?
  • What are ways and means to direct innovation toward sustainability?
  • How can global R&D networks be promoted in the pursuit of sustainability?
  • How can the respect for human rights inspire organizational innovation?
  • How can the focus on human rights generate new forms of stakeholder dialogue?

Teaching and training:

  • How can ethics be taught in innovative ways?
  • How can moral imagination be instilled in business leaders and students?
  • How can one learn to deal ethically with ambiguous problems of high complexity and little predictability?
  • What new ethical norms and values should be conceived and taught?

With this detailed list of questions, we have tried to delineate, to some extent, the scope of the ethical relevance of innovation in business and the economy. In the following section, we place it in the broader context of well-being.


The purpose of well-being

Having explored innovation from the economic and the ethical perspectives, we now ask for its broader purpose beyond business and the economy. Our short answer is well-being. This does not mean that the economic dimension of innovation becomes less important. On the contrary, because of this broader purpose, it needs a more realistic understanding of what economic performance is (that is, beyond conventional economics that heavily emphasizes concepts like GDP or gross domestic product). Moreover, the ethical dimension gains even more breadth and depth. As Joseph DesJardins suggests, “ethical” values are those beliefs and principles which “seek to promote human well-being in an impartial way” (DesJardins 2011, 7).

Well-being can relate to individual persons, groups, organizations, countries, and other collective entities. It can include not only human but also animal well-being. It translates into different languages with varying meanings and nuances. Among the many concepts of well-being, two are of particular interest because of their thorough elaboration and widespread influence: the conceptual framework of the Report by the Commission on Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi (2009), and the OECD publication How Is Life? 2013 Measuring Well-Being (2013a).

The Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Report discusses “classical GDP issues,” the conceptualization and measurement of “quality of life”, and “sustainable development and environment.” The capability approach by Sen and Martha Nussbaum prominently figures as one of the approaches to capture quality of life, besides the approaches based on the notions of subjective well-being and fair allocations.

Well-being (understood as human well-being) has multiple dimensions and should be assessed both as current well-being and, in the context of sustainability, whether this can last over time; in other words, flows (over a certain period of time) and stocks (at certain points in time) are relevant. The Report proposes to shift the emphasis from measuring production to measuring people’s well-being.

Material well-being includes income and consumption rather than production. The household perspective is emphasized to account for payments between sectors, such as taxes going to government, social benefits coming from government, and interest payments on household loans going to financial corporations. Household income and consumption should also reflect in-kind services provided by government, such as subsidized health care and educational services. Income should measure non-market activities as well. Income and consumption (i.e., flows) are to be considered jointly with wealth (i.e., stocks). And more prominence should be given to the distribution of income, consumption, and wealth.

In addition to the material living standards of income, consumption, and wealth, the Report emphasizes a number of other non-material dimensions: The quality of life depends on people’s health and education, their everyday activities (which include the right to a decent job and housing), their participation in the political process, the social and natural environment in which they live, and the factors shaping their personal and economic security. Measuring all these features requires both objective and subjective data. It is important to assess inequality in all quality-of-life dimensions.

The OECD well-being conceptual framework (2013a) takes up numerous elements of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Report and is applied to measure the impact of the global financial crisis on people’s well-being in different countries. It focuses on individual well-being (population averages and differences across groups) in the current situation (i.e., in flows) and on the sustainability of well-being over time (i.e., in stocks).

Well-being is defined by three material conditions and eight aspects of quality of life. The material conditions are: Income and wealth, jobs and earnings, and housing. Quality of life includes: Health status, work-life balance, education and skills, social connections, civic engagement and governance, environmental quality, personal security, and subjective well-being.

Sustainability of well-being over time requires the preservation of different types of capital, namely natural capital, economic capital, human capital, and social capital. Interestingly, this requirement comes close to the concept of wealth creation in a comprehensive sense as explained above.

Well-being should not be limited to humans; rather, it should also include animal well-being. Human civilization exerts an enormous impact on the animal world and thereby generates serious ethical issues of how animals should be treated (see Regan 2001). In various industries animals are being killed and mistreated in vast amounts. But criticism by civil society organizations, though increasing, does not seem to have a lasting effect (see, for example, the Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing:

Having outlined some important conceptual aspects of well-being, we may relate them now to ethical innovation in business and the economy and explore the connections with the following questions:

Quality of life:

  • What kinds of innovation are essential to improve the quality of life in terms of:

Health, education and skills, social connections, civic engagement and governance, environmental quality, personal security, and subjective well-being?

  • How important are these innovations in themselves? How much can they contribute to the increase of economic productivity?

Material conditions:

  • Given the shift of emphasis from production to income, consumption, and wealth, what kinds of innovation are particularly suitable to improve these material conditions?
  • What innovations in the labor market are recommendable to secure sufficient and well-paid jobs?
  • What innovations in the housing market are advisable to ensure affordable homes and overcome homelessness?

Attention to issues of inequality:

  • What kinds of innovation does social justice require to address extreme inequalities in the mentioned quality-of-life dimensions?
  • How can the reduction of those inequalities contribute to increase productivity in the economy?

Sustainability of well-being over time:

  • What institutional innovations are required to secure the sustainability of well-being over time?
  • What kinds of public goods should they provide? What private goods should be left to market institutions?

Responsibilities of actors:

  • How can and should entrepreneurs improve the quality of life of their employees and customers?
  • What does corporate responsibility entail to advance the well-being of the company’s stakeholders?
  • What responsibilities do governments have to support the subjective well-being of their citizens?
  • What are successful forms of collaboration between business, government, and civil society organizations to improve the well-being of marginalized groups at home and abroad?
  • What responsibilities do international organizations have to promote well-being worldwide in a fair fashion?

Implications for teaching and research:

  • How can the notion of well-being be taken seriously and integrated in business education?
  • How can research in business and economics develop innovative approaches to improve the quality of life at the local, national, regional, and global level?
  • What are appropriate methods to teach how to live innovative lives that strengthen the well-being of people?

Regarding animal well-being:

  • What duties do we humans have to treat animals “humanely”?
  • How can innovation make factory farming ethically acceptable?
  • In what innovative ways can pharmaceutical companies alleviate and terminate animal experimentation?

This short list of questions may suffice to open wide horizons for exciting explorations of “ethics, innovation, and well-being in business and the economy.”




1. The Brundtland Commission defines sustainable development as “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, p. 8).




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