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Ageing, standards and social responsibility

Posted in News

By Malcolm Fisk


Since the beginning, the PROGRESSIVE project has grappled with the issue of social responsibility. We, after all, operate in a world of standards that, in the main, support commercial activity. Companies endeavour to make a profit. Standards endeavour to create a more level playing field that fosters fairer competition.

There is, of course, nothing fundamentally wrong with either of these. Making a profit leads to sustainability. Fairer competition can help reduce prices. In their different ways, therefore, investors, employees and customers can benefit. But where things can go wrong is where, in the rush to make profits, some companies may overlook (whether intentionally or not is a matter for debate) some of the environmental and social concerns that are important to us. And with regard to these concerns, standards, as noted below, may be more helpful to the former than the latter. Both come within the sphere of ‘social responsibility’.

This is why, in exploring standards around ICT for ‘Active and Healthy Ageing’ (AHA), PROGRESSIVE has set out a number of ethical tenets. The project, in fact, also chose ‘responsibility’ as a reference point – linking with both ‘Responsible Research and Innovation, RRI’ (a European Commission initiative) and the broader notion of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility, CSR’ (defined by the European Commission as ‘the responsibility of enterprises for their impacts on society’).[1]

Now, as PROGRESSIVE moves towards its conclusion, we must ask whether standards around ICT for ‘Active and Healthy Ageing’ are able to live up to our expectations around social responsibility – in the way that they

  • give attention to issues such as the accessibility, interoperability and inclusiveness of ICT related products and services; and
  • address wider environmental and social concerns.

For the first of these we can offer a cautiously optimistic appraisal, at least with regard to accessibility – though this judgement draws on emergent European legislation rather than the specific world of standards. For interoperability and inclusiveness we can see these as ‘work in progress’. Looking more widely we can see standards impacting on the way that companies address their environmental obligations – but with social concerns less evident.

The problem is that standards tend to formalise existing ways of operating and seem to give less attention to changing the way that things are done – even though changes may be ethically justified. This appears to be the case around ICT for AHA where older people may be overlooked (despite representing 20% of the population) or viewed as ‘subject’ to decisions made by others about care and support. The position is not helped by the fact that older people’s voices can be either muted or not sought – with their involvement in the standardisation process being fraught with difficulty for them or, indeed, for civil society organisations that might represent their interests.[2]

We can take heart, however, from the emergence of some standards that reflect positive perspectives on older age – recognising the rights of older people as equal citizens whose voices must, like other stakeholders, be heard. Helping this is the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) guidance (ISO/26000:2010) on ‘Social Responsibility’. The ISO guidance is, however, not a standard. It cannot be referenced as ‘requirements’. This contrasts with ISO/14001 on ‘Environmental Management Systems’ where specific requirements can be used for assessment or certification. The question, therefore, arises as to whether social issues are seen, in the world of standards, as subordinate to environmental issues?

Whatever the answer to this question it is to be hoped that the PROGRESSIVE project will influence change. We certainly hope that older people’s voices will be heard for standards around ICT for ‘Active and Healthy Ageing’. But, more than this, we would expect (as part of moves towards standards that will, where necessary, change the way that things are done) that social and environmental concerns will be given equal attention.


[1] Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions (2011) ‘A Renewed EU Strategy 2011-14 for Corporate Social Responsibility’ COM(2011) 681 final.

[2] I give a nod here to the valiant endeavours of ANEC, the European Consumer Voice on Standardisation.

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