2022. 04. 25.

Opening the RRI approach toward medium-sized companies - interview

One of the associated partners of the Co-Change Project is a Spanish company, QiArrow, which works closely with the Change Lab of Tecnalia, a Spanish applied research and development center. We ask Juan De Blas Pombo, chief executive officer of QiArrow, about the outcomes of their collaboration.

What does your company’s name, QiArrow, mean? I understand the word arrow, but what does the 'Qi' at the beginning stand for?

'Qi' is the Chinese ‘chi’ for vital energy, equilibrium. The idea behind the company name is that an arrow goes through equilibrium and finds its way by taking into consideration all people and nature in such a way that everything is in equilibrium. During the whole of the last century, companies simply thought to become richer – they made use of the environment to their interest. I believe that there are ways to operate in a different manner, and to try not to affect nature so detrimentally and take into consideration the opinions of all the people affected by one’s actions. The question is how to maintain nature in the same situation you find it in, or even in a better condition. If you look at nature, you don't see any destructive behavior. All living and non-living material is used by something else in nature in a cyclical way.

We, people, must act in the same way. We cannot extract so many materials from nature – we must recycle and reuse, and we must even consume less because the number of human beings in the world is increasing very fast, exponentially, whilst we have just one planet. So, if we want to survive, we should do things differently.

Therefore, we, as a consultancy firm, create business models for emerging technology companies. We help them to develop their companies to take care of everything around them through fair and transparent governance, considering all stakeholders, including nature.

This company model is related to ethics as well. If you manage a company, you have to say the truth and react in the same way. This is very difficult sometimes, because some people don’t like to hear the truth. Imagine that you have an economic problem at your company. Is it better to speak about the reality to employees or not? If you tell them the truth, you perhaps generate an atmosphere of fear, and some people will start complaining about the management board or directly leave the company.

But ethics for me means being transparent if possible, having clear rules, and always applying the same consequences to the action of individuals, regardless of who they are, and always working for the group, not for a single person – in the way nature does, nature always ‘thinks’ collectively.

For emerging technology firms, developing artificial-intelligence-related technologies is a routine task but this also involves many ethical dilemmas and questions. What kinds of ethical issues do you confront?

One example: using artificial intelligence can create unemployment. For instance, the least qualified staff working on repetitive activities can be easily substituted by machines. That means that you may have to fire some people at the company. If you do this, your company will be more efficient. But in the meantime, you are kicking people out of the company, so you are creating unemployment.

The question here is what is the right behavior – leaving your group inefficient, but risking the disappearance of the whole organization, or making it efficient and alive in the market but firing some of the structure? The answer is that you can’t sustain a company without introducing innovation. Without this, you will not survive because someone else, a competitor, will do it, cutting you out of the market. So, we will be forced to make hard decisions in favor of the group – regarding who is the one to ‘stay alive’.

Artificial intelligence, however, can be a very useful tool if you program it appropriately to react according to ethical principles in any company process. Of course, a machine cannot consider all the boundaries and conditioning of a situation (the human brain will be always superior to any computational brain), but if you make an exception, it must be tracked, registered, and justified accordingly. At least, in most cases, the processes will be accomplished according to the ethical principles provided by the system.

Your company has another service in addition to consultancy. What is this service?

We coordinate a platform that was launched last year. It is a collaborative ecosystem that introduces eco-digital transformation into medium-size industries. We have created this cooperative ecosystem with freelancers and engineering and consulting companies specialized in eco-transforming medium-sized industries because these types of enterprises are complex to transform. They represent a small percentage of companies (less than 1%), but in terms of the environmental impact they do have a significant footprint. If I’m right, around 17 % of environmental impact is created by these companies.

In their sustainability transformation, they must introduce social changes, environmental or energy-related changes, and many other adaptations, including digital, clean mobility, or new means of governance, among others. Such a change might include the modification of a production line involving introducing energy efficiency or reducing waste or pollution, or could be creating a more inclusive kind of organization or the modification of a supply chain come from a more sustainable or reliable organization or place. Electric mobility, supporting the local economy, and corporate social responsibility applied to most disadvantaged societies are other examples. We create feasible business models but also ones based on fair behavior and sustainability principles.

When we start to work with a company, first, we make a diagnosis of its situation. We must analyze the mentioned seven dimensions and at the end we also involve a media company in order to provide some help through internal and external awareness-raising campaigns that explain to the audience what you have done in your company related to social responsibility, sustainability issues, etc., and the roadmap or pathway to the future. We have an ‘eco-aid’ ally, which assists with applying for grants to help in the transition.

After the initial diagnosis, we prepare some activities according to a roadmap, and the client decides what to do and when. After the diagnosis, we then work with a circle of external people – senior experts mainly, with proven expertise in R&D or top-level engineering for industry (we call them eco-transformers) and with some other experts on the digitalization issues, in this case, younger ones. They attend a private marketplace at which some customers’ offerings are displayed, and prepare their responses based on reputation, quality, and price.

How has your joining the Co-Change community and working with Tecnalia inspired you?

I was working with Tecnalia on a project, and they invited me to join a Co-Change workshop. I was happy to participate because ethics are important to me. Tecnalia opened a new cell in my mind. Before, there was an unknown world outside filled with ethical questions and practices, and Tecnalia opened up the RRI approach for me.

The goal of our common work is to transpose the responsible research and innovation (RRI) concept to industry but in a different way. I learned a lot about what they have done for the sake of institutionalizing RRI within Tecnalia, and what they do for technical centers and universities. And I tried to identify what could be adapted to medium-sized enterprises from their RRI practice.

For example, I learned something really interesting in a Co-Change workshop that I have already introduced to our platform, too. It’s called the innovative narrative. Basically, it means preparing virtual reality videos. You watch a video with special virtual (or augmented) reality glasses and you can see the real environmental impacts, social impacts, etc. of your action or activities. You can compare the original situation and the future transformation with certain supporting KPIs. It's a very strong awareness-raising tool for changing the minds of people. In fact, you are doing storytelling with such virtual reality devices. These videos can explain the ‘before and after’ of a transformation process to represent what has really changed.

I'm now even more interested in the ethical governance of companies. We want to create an algorithm to automatically handle some company processes according to ethical principles (for instance, the performance of the marketplace to prevent the unfair distribution of work). We have created a reputation index for anybody who works with the platform so they can be evaluated by the customer at the end of the job.

As I understand it, ethics are both personally and professionally important to you.

I got this from my family, who taught us to be fair to other people around us and to respect compromises to the extent of our power and capability.

I had a really bad experience with a company I worked for in the 2000s. I suffered two years of bullying, which meant I was fighting all that time. Then I become very ill, I believe due to that struggle, and I felt that they had almost destroyed me during those terrible days.

So, I decided to create something totally different. In my own company I try to be honest and say the truth if possible, and I ask for the same. I try to treat people as professionals in the way I like to be treated. And, of course, I always look at the best opportunities for the group, not for a single person. If I must fire someone, I explain the reasons some time in advance, and try to facilitate a fair exit by looking for other opportunities for them outside the company and preventing radical or traumatic exits. Nowadays, it's quite difficult to survive with a small company because of the innovative environment. This means that you must react very quickly to changes and be very flexible while doing your best to protect the people who work with you.