Rebuild Ethical Innovation

Ensuring Inclusivity

To tru­ly unlock human poten­tial, every­one has to be includ­ed. The more soci­ety evolves to incor­po­rate val­ues of tol­er­ance, sol­i­dar­i­ty, and humil­i­ty, the more peo­ple will feel free to be who they are.

Inno­va­tion, as a term, has deep asso­ci­a­tions with entire­ly mar­ket-ori­ent­ed endeav­ors, par­tic­u­lar­ly those that are occur­ring on a large, high-growth scale. Inno­va­tion is often dis­cussed as being the domain of the tech-savvy, white-col­lar world or the wealthy, young entre­pre­neur. The way we use lan­guage shapes our per­cep­tion and, as a result, this class of per­son becomes seen as the pri­ma­ry dri­ver of “progress”. The lan­guage of inno­va­tion should be claimed by non-prof­it-seek­ing par­ties to bet­ter wrest our under­stand­ing of improve­ment away from pure­ly cap­i­tal­ist projects.

Izzy Wheels wheel­chair cover

The process­es of design and inno­va­tion must also hold the pur­suit of inclu­siv­i­ty as a pri­ma­ry objec­tive. Design has come a long way in devel­op­ing method­olo­gies that cre­ate sin­gle objects use­able by broad swaths of the pop­u­la­tion, but there will always be those who do not fit with­in this gen­er­al seg­ment of the con­sumer pop­u­la­tion. The con­cept of uni­ver­sal design emerged as a way to cre­ate more ele­gant and func­tion­al qual­i­ties of a final prod­uct. It was made dou­bly nec­es­sary as a prac­tice by the replace­ment of bespoke crafts­men with mass pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties. Uni­ver­sal design is an approach that seeks to make things use­able by all peo­ple, regard­less of abil­i­ty. Its sev­en prin­ci­ples were ini­tial­ly out­lined in 1997 by archi­tect Robert Mace and a com­mit­tee of 10 peo­ple at the Cen­tre for Uni­ver­sal Design. The prin­ci­ples are as follows:


Equi­table Use (Acces­si­ble to all regard­less of ability)


Flex­i­bil­i­ty in Use (Accom­mo­dates mul­ti­ple vari­ances of styles or meth­ods of use)


Sim­ple and Intu­itive Use
(Easy to use regard­less of pri­or expe­ri­ence or skill level)


Per­cep­ti­ble Information
(Required infor­ma­tion is pre­sent­ed clearly)


Tol­er­ance for Error
(Min­i­miza­tion of poten­tial for incor­rect input, and reduc­tion of harm­ful eventuality)


Low Phys­i­cal Effort (Min­i­mal exer­tion or move­ment required)


Size and Space for Approach and Use (All com­po­nents laid out to accom­mo­date vari­ance in reach)31

The inten­tions of uni­ver­sal design are noble, and have con­tributed to more wide­ly-use­able objects and acces­si­ble spaces. How­ev­er, writer Anna Leahy points out that uni­ver­sal design, as it was orig­i­nal­ly expressed, deals with issues of access by con­ceal­ing dis­abil­i­ty, rather than direct­ly address­ing it.32 The focus is placed on design­ing beau­ti­ful things that empha­size our same­ness. There is some­thing pleas­ing about high­light­ing our sim­i­lar­i­ties, but this entrench­es the assump­tion that vis­i­ble dif­fer­ences are inher­ent­ly unde­sir­able and some­thing to be elim­i­nat­ed. We need a dif­fer­ent process for design, one that ensures inclusivity.

In their book, The Sens­es: Design Beyond Vision, Andrea Lipps and Ellen Lup­ton seek to broad­en the spec­trum of con­sid­er­a­tions in the design process by explor­ing what they call “sen­so­ry design”. These authors argue in favor of account­ing for all five human sens­es, as they all serve as a gate­way for our expe­ri­ence of mate­ri­al­i­ty. They present a ver­sion of uni­ver­sal design that address­es the unique­ness of our sen­so­ry abil­i­ties and in which the fun­da­men­tal goal is to allow “access” to all people.

Access is the key word here. To the best of our abil­i­ties the world should be built in a way that invites and does not exclude. To open up the world to all is the main pre­rog­a­tive of inclu­sive design and this pol­i­cy forms a notable dif­fer­ence between it and uni­ver­sal design. Inclu­sive design is less con­cerned with being attrac­tive. As Leahy writes, “Access is cen­tral to inclu­sive design; aes­thet­ics and diversity—beauty and the ‘every­one’ —are not.” It is the prac­tice of medi­at­ing imbal­ances between indi­vid­u­als and the envi­ron­ment these indi­vid­u­als must navigate.

There is, of course, no rea­son why inclu­sive design can­not also be beau­ti­ful. Indeed, break­ing free from con­cep­tions of stan­dard­ized aes­thet­ics, and a dom­i­nant con­cept of what con­sti­tutes “beau­ty”, is also con­ducive to inclusivity.

Rebuild Ethical Innovation

Preparing for Friction

The pur­suit of the ful­ly seam­less expe­ri­ence makes it hard­er to engage thought­ful­ly with our sur­round­ing environment.

Inno­va­tion has been pros­e­cut­ing a war on fric­tion. By fric­tion, we mean any amount of sur­plus effort need­ed to accom­plish a giv­en task. To under­stand the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of this, we can look to a depic­tion of a world of zero fric­tion, as seen in the 2008 film WALL‑E. After aban­don­ing Earth fol­low­ing an envi­ron­men­tal col­lapse, human civ­i­liza­tion goes on to inhab­it gigan­tic, ful­ly-auto­mat­ed space­ships. We quick­ly see that inac­tiv­i­ty has made every­body mor­bid­ly obese. The sur­viv­ing humans spend their days being whisked from place to place on hov­er­ing chairs, being attend­ed to by machines, while a per­son­al pro­jec­tion screen per­pet­u­al­ly absorbs their atten­tion. Although these inhab­i­tants are pre­sent­ed as being in good spir­its, in real­i­ty, a lack of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty is well known to be dam­ag­ing to both phys­i­cal and men­tal well­be­ing. There is an issue at the heart of the war on fric­tion, revealed by the real­i­ties of the idea tak­en to its extreme. Some­times we need friction.

David von Diemar, 2018

The impor­tance of fric­tion can be eas­i­ly seen in dig­i­tal ser­vices and mar­ket­places. The few­er inputs required of a user to per­form a cer­tain task, the more like­ly they are to per­form that task. In the con­text of online shop­ping, some­thing like “one click order­ing” speeds them on their way to mak­ing a pur­chase with­out an addi­tion­al moment for con­sid­er­a­tion. On social media, design fea­tures like infi­nite scrolling and auto­play­ing videos, ensure a steady stream of con­tent to main­tain user engage­ment. In these exam­ples, the lack of fric­tion is good for the pro­duc­er, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly in the best inter­ests of the consumer.

There are oth­er aspects of life in which the total absence of fric­tion may not be appro­pri­ate. Take the act of cook­ing. Busy lifestyles have led to the cre­ation of many labor and time-sav­ing gad­gets. On a pure­ly mech­a­nis­tic lev­el, the act of con­sum­ing nutri­ents can be accom­plished with prac­ti­cal­ly no effort at all. One sim­ply needs to ingest one of the many mar­ket­ed pre-pack­aged meal solu­tions. But, despite the ease of such a prod­uct, peo­ple still choose to com­mit their time and atten­tion to prepar­ing labor-inten­sive meals. There is a sat­is­fac­tion derived from the act, and the val­ue of the meal itself becomes greater as a result of the work that went into it. The meal may even be made col­lec­tive­ly, and it is cer­tain­ly bet­ter enjoyed togeth­er. This pri­mal rit­u­al of com­mu­nal prepa­ra­tion and eat­ing strength­ens social bonds and relationships.

Inno­va­tion must make sure to pre­serve the right amount of fric­tion for the right rea­sons. In fields like health­care or the automotive/mobility sec­tor, fric­tion must be elim­i­nat­ed as much as pos­si­ble. In places where fric­tion belongs for the pur­pose of rig­or, a bal­ance must be struck between exces­sive dif­fi­cul­ty, and so much ease as to ren­der an action entire­ly thought­less. Fric­tion must be rein­stalled where it has been pushed out by sleek tech­nol­o­gy. It should act as a nec­es­sary buffer on social media, in online shop­ping, and con­sump­tion in gen­er­al, to help us avoid slid­ing into a hyp­not­ic state of auto­mat­ed behav­ior. Respect must be giv­en to the need for self-direct­ed activ­i­ty and exploration.

Rebuild Ethical Innovation

Upholding the Common Good

The past few years have pro­vid­ed painful evi­dence that faster or new­er is not always bet­ter. Inno­va­tion, for its own sake, can eas­i­ly run afoul. Inno­v­a­tive weapons or sur­veil­lance sys­tems do not improve the world. How­ev­er, inno­v­a­tive means for lever­ag­ing pow­er­ful forces like love will cre­ate the next set of break­throughs for humanity.

Inno­va­tion will always require cal­cu­la­tion of risks. The sim­ple tenet in the med­ical com­mu­ni­ty of “do no harm” is the eas­i­est to apply to inno­va­tion. In the ear­ly days of Google, they adopt­ed the cor­po­rate mot­to “don’t be evil”. We leave it up to the read­er to decide how well that com­pa­ny has adhered to this guide­line. But if this notion can become more than a catchy slo­gan, and evolve to become a foun­da­tion­al mind­set adopt­ed by all, we believe cor­po­rate cul­tures will begin to dra­mat­i­cal­ly change.

Auro­ra bore­alis below the ISS, NASA, 2015

One of the main eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions from the point of view of tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ment, is how to cre­ate safe­guards for the tech­nolo­gies of tomor­row. As AI and Extend­ed Intel­li­gence evolve and inte­grate with more aspects of our dai­ly lives, the most impor­tant mea­sures we can take will be to ensure eth­i­cal val­ues are embed­ded into these sys­tems’ very rea­son for being.

“High­ly autonomous AI sys­tems should be designed so that their goals and behav­iors can be assured to align with human val­ues through­out their oper­a­tion… Val­ue align­ment is a big one. Robots aren’t going to try to revolt against human­i­ty, but they’ll just try to opti­mize what­ev­er we tell them to do. So we need to make sure to tell them to opti­mize for the world we actu­al­ly want.” — Anca Dra­gan, co-PI for the Cen­ter for Human Com­pat­i­ble AI

The val­ues that under­pin tech­no­log­i­cal progress can ben­e­fit immense­ly from fol­low­ing the bio­log­i­cal prin­ci­ple of mutu­al­ism. This form of sym­bio­sis, in which two or more dif­fer­ent organ­isms live or work togeth­er to mutu­al ben­e­fit, pro­vides a foun­da­tion for pos­i­tive inter­ac­tions. By look­ing at tech­nol­o­gy, like AI, holis­ti­cal­ly, we begin to see how humans and machines can work togeth­er to cre­ate pos­i­tive impacts for eco­log­i­cal and soci­etal ecosys­tems. To this end, a com­pre­hen­sive set of AI prin­ci­ples was devel­oped by The Future of Life Insti­tute (FLI) in con­junc­tion with the 2017 Asi­mo­lar Con­fer­ence on Ben­e­fi­cial AI. These prin­ci­ples were based around the respon­si­bil­i­ty for super­in­tel­li­gence to ben­e­fit not only just indi­vid­ual inter­ests, but to also work for the com­mon good.33 FLI oper­ates as a char­i­ty and out­reach orga­ni­za­tion. The aim of FLI’s work is to make sure that the most pow­er­ful tech­nolo­gies devel­oped by, and avail­able to, human­i­ty are employed to the advan­tage of human­i­ty as a whole.

“With less pow­er­ful tech­nolo­gies such as fire, we learned to min­i­mize risks large­ly by learn­ing from mis­takes. With more pow­er­ful tech­nolo­gies like arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, plan­ning ahead is a bet­ter strat­e­gy than learn­ing from mistakes.”
— Future of Life Insti­tute34

Col­lec­tives like FLI are essen­tial for call­ing atten­tion to the pow­ers and poten­tial pit­falls of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies. These groups of thinkers help us to cre­ate safe and pos­i­tive sce­nar­ios of how to inte­grate new tech­nolo­gies. We must choose not to pur­sue activ­i­ties like build­ing autonomous weapons that would tear human­i­ty down. Instead, we should choose to use the extend­ed intel­li­gence of our tech­nolo­gies to help human­i­ty flourish.

Mars 3D-Print­ed Habi­tat Chal­lenge, SEArch+/Apis Cor, 2019

In the face of glob­al­ly foun­da­tion­al changes, we feel it’s more than like­ly that cor­po­rate lead­ers will shift the pri­or­i­ties of their com­pa­nies such that they con­tribute to the com­mon good. In this way, the cor­po­rate world will become more close­ly aligned with the grass­roots move­ments that have been con­tin­u­al­ly call­ing for new stan­dards of suc­cess. Rather than GDP defin­ing the val­ue of peo­ple (in a nation or city) through the goods and ser­vices pro­duced over a spe­cif­ic peri­od of time, the rel­e­vance of any group’s col­lec­tive effort can be bet­ter reflect­ed by the qual­i­ty of life enjoyed. A mean­ing­ful life does not require the cre­ation of mate­r­i­al wealth. Mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ences arise more often from shar­ing qual­i­ty time with friends and fam­i­ly than from man­u­fac­tur­ing and buy­ing prod­ucts. To this effect, the future suc­cess of a com­pa­ny will cor­re­late with that company’s abil­i­ty to con­tribute to the health of its cor­re­spond­ing com­mu­ni­ty and envi­ron­ment. Endur­ing desires to improve qual­i­ty of life and expand path­ways to well­be­ing, we believe will be the pri­ma­ry dri­vers for inno­va­tion. The bold, dar­ing, and imag­i­na­tive out­comes of this approach will guide human­i­ty into incred­i­ble, unknown dimensions.