Hearts, cells and mud: how biology helps humans re-imagine our cities in vexed times
Biological metaphors for the city abound in daily use. You may live close to an “arterial” road or in the “heart” of a metropolis. You may work in one of the city’s “nerve centres” or exercise in a park described as the city’s “lungs”.
The ready use of such metaphors indicates an underlying naturalism in our thinking about the city. Naturalism is a belief that a single theory unites natural and social systems.
Historically, this way of thinking has helped us grapple with the complex urban predicaments. Today, as the world’s cities face new problems, fresh urban visions are needed again.
The effects of climate change, such as extreme heat, pose a direct challenge to cities. What’s more, climate change is prompting people to move to cities from rural areas, which puts pressure of urban infrastructure. So let’s look at how biological ideas are useful for building cities that can withstand these challenges.
The city as a body
During the 17th and 18th centuries, understanding of blood circulation and other bodily functions crystallised. This knowledge could be fed into an Enlightenment vision in which urban components mirrored the functions of different body parts.
Italian military engineer Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501) believed cities should be planned with the centre of government located at the “head” – the most noble part of the body. From an elevated position – metaphorically and sometimes physically – governments could both be protected, and surveil the rest of the city-body.
According to di Giorgio Martini’s thinking, a temple should be located at the city’s “heart” to guide its spirit. And piazza should be located at the “stomach”, guiding the city’s instinct and mixing the populace.
Countless medieval and renaissance cities include a citadel on a hill. But this type of city thinking culminated in the 20th century when the French-Swiss urban planner known as Le Corbusier conceived of a city with a decision-making “head”, separate from the residential and the industrial “bowels”.
This inspired new capitals such as Brasilia (Brazil), and Chandigarh (a state capital in northern India).
Historically, planners have also been inspired by understanding of a single organ. Architect Pierre Rousseau designed the French city of Nantes with a centre that functioned as a “heart” and pumped goods and individuals through it.
But such biological and scientific thinking could also reinforce social divides.
During the 17th-century plagues in Florence and Rome, for example, the poor were considered lowly organs that attracted and even bred disease. As a result, they were locked down in hospitals away from the city – a move medical experts at the time likened to surgical removal of a weak part of the body.
Cells of the city
The scientific discovery of the cell later produced a range of urban analogies in 20th century.
For Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen, healthy communities were analogous to healthy cells. But this thinking had a flip side.
Saarinen believed slum areas in cities could be treated similarly to cancers – effectively “excised” by moving them out of the city centre to “revitalise” the urban centre. The poor and racial minorities bore the brunt of this thinking.
New urban naturalism
In a 2017 book, influential physicist Geoffrey West proposes that hidden laws govern the life cycle of everything from plants and animals to our cities.
Such thinking shows how naturalism in city planning remains relevant in the 21st century.
For further examples, we need look only to the concept of the “smart city”, in which a city’s performance in areas such as public transport flows and energy use is carefully monitored. This data can be used to make the city more “intelligent” – improving government services and citizen welfare, and producing indices such as walkscores and liveability.
Contemporary Belgian architect Luc Schuiten takes the concept of a living city to its logical extreme in his design for a “vegetative city”.
According to Schuiten, cities should be built not of materials but of products of a viable local ecosystem. This might mean first growing a native tree then constructing a building around it.
Schuiten’s idea reflects ancient approaches in cities such the Yemen city of Sana'a, where high rise buildings are made from mud brick – a sustainable material suitable for the city’s hot climate. Schuiten takes this further, removing the agency of builders and giving it over to plants.
Naturalistic thinking provides us with a powerful set of visions for the good city of the future. But just as the naturalism of the 17th century was double-edged, so it is now.
For example, the rise of the smart city promises a great deal for citizens but delivers even more for big tech and corporations.
And as with any application of science, naturalistic thinking in contemporary cities must ensure marginalised and disadvantaged groups are protected and supported.
COVID-19 provides another reason to apply a more naturalistic approach to urban planning. Perhaps seeing the city as a living organism would have left authorities better placed to deal with the pandemic’s spread through urban centres.
And among the general population, a more naturalistic understanding of our urbanised selves may have meant decisions by governments and chief medical officers were easier to accept.
Marco Amati is the author of the recent book The City and Superorganism: a history of naturalism in urban planning
Building better cities for a smarter age
Although they’re located on opposite sides of Europe, the Swedish city of Veberöd and Alcázar de San Juan in Spain have more in common than you may think. Veberöd’s natural beauty is certainly reminiscent of the Spanish city’s major ancestral homes from the 17th-19th centuries – not to mention its famous windmills.
Located in the Castilla-La Mancha region, Alcázar de San Juan is often associated with Miguel de Cervantes’ famous character Don Quixote. The city contains a number of the typical mills that Don Quixote fought against in Chapter VIII of Cervantes’ book (spoiler alert!).
Whereas Veberöd and Alcázar de San Juan contain striking traditional landmarks, when it comes to sustainable urban development, both cities have an eye into the future. Driven by an urge for technology, agility and effectiveness within their public infrastructure, both cities have chosen FIWARE-based solutions to help them take the leap into using state-of-the-art open-source tech and open innovation.
Open source: the driving force of innovation
Over the past decade, FIWARE has been lending a helping hand to solution providers, public and private stakeholders, the academic field, not-for-profit organisations and those designing urban development solutions that consider citizens’ perspectives.
From a technical standpoint, FIWARE brings a curated framework of open-source software components – which can be assembled and combined with third-party components to build platforms – that facilitate the development of smart solutions and the integration of systems within smart organisations across multiple application domains, such as cities, manufacturing, utilities or agrifood.
Furthermore, together with its more than 500 members and partners, FIWARE Foundation has decisively contributed to the development of reference standards, following an implementation-driven open source approach: the ETSI NGSI-LD API standard.
The continued adoption of analytics in city governments is not slowing down and speaks volumes about the innovative tools and solutions available to cities. The two use cases below shed a light on how technologies such as machine learning, AI, digital twins and open innovation are effectively reshaping urban policy, and why open source development and open innovation must be on everybody’s mind.
Open source is innovation; innovation is open source
At Red Hat (a FIWARE Foundation Platinum member ), we know community engagement creates the best outcomes, so we’re excited to share the story of a physical community: Veberöd, a Swedish smart village. Its visionary leader, Jan Malmgren, epitomises the principles of open collaboration and mutually shared value.
Malmgren shares his vision for the smaller scale smart city, nurturing ongoing collaboration by constantly iterating on community feedback.
Veberöd has a fully featured digital twin. Powered by FIWARE, this enables smart services, such as smart trees, cattle watering, traffic monitoring, water quality, and cycle security. The city has also trialled virtual reality doctors’ visits, and medicines delivered by drones to housebound patients.
The sensors and the FIWARE-based loT platform used by the city have been deployed by Sensative, a Swedish company supplying loT solutions for smart cities, buildings, and homes. Sensative is also a FIWARE Foundation Member. Veberöd also runs a Fab Lab where 3D-printed designs to improve citizen experience are released early and often.
By living the principles outlined above and insisting on an inclusive, iterative process, this open approach ensures good ideas can come from anywhere, and only those for the greater good are enacted for this region where the population is expected to double in the coming years.
Go here to learn more about open innovation at Red Hat.
Alcázar de San Juan: a textbook smart city for the 22nd century
Implemented as part of the EU’s urban policy in Spain (SUDS/EDUSI – Strategies of Sustainable Integrated Urban Development), Alcázar de San Juan’s smart city strategy is a tool to improve the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens, and a way to effectively and sustainably leap into the digital age.
Committed to innovation and the use of new technologies as key elements for sustainable development models that encourage job creation and boost economic activity and the smart management of the city, Alcázar de San Juan’s city council is on a mission to become smarter.
FIWOO, an open, scalable, robust, secure, interoperable and integrable platform – based on the open-source platform FIWARE and its main reference standards – has positively impacted the city’s recent digital transformation.
Developed by the Emergya Grupo and Secmotic - a FIWARE Foundation member, FIWOO has been instrumental in the implementation of a smart city platform that serves as a single system and connects all smart systems within it. It has also supplied and implemented a portal enabling the publication of open data to the public, and the expansion and improvement of the city’s ICT infrastructures.
The project has resulted in:
Want to know more about how FIWARE is driving open-source development and innovation? Check out our latest White Paper.
By Val De Oliveira, Media Relations & PR Manager (FIWARE Foundation); Jim Craig, Product Manager (Red Hat Global Public Sector); Leslie Hawthorn, Senior Manager (Red Hat Open Source Program Office); Jose Benitez, CEO and Carlos Corrales, COO (Secmotic) ; Luis Romero, Managing Partner (Emergya Grupo); Manuel Giménez, Product Manager (FIWOO)
INDUSTRY VIEW FROM FIWARE
Leading the print industry to a sustainable future
Growing up in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, I developed a deep appreciation for nature. My passion for the environment sprang from being outdoors, hiking, camping and fishing. Its roots go deep, feeding my desire to protect this planet and do what I can to influence others to do the same.
The experience of the past two years has reinforced our interconnectedness and the value of our planet. As CEO of Kodak, I work to instil the value of sustainability across the company, especially in our core commercial print business. As an industry pioneer with deep knowledge of material science and thousands of print-related patents, Kodak continues to innovate – creating high-performance products that reduce water and energy consumption, eliminating the need for potentially harmful chemicals and increasing overall resource efficiency.
Walking the talk
Kodak was the first to successfully commercialise a printing plate that requires no processing chemicals, while also saving water and energy compared to conventional processed plates. Our Kodak Sonora Process Free Plates are used by more than 5,000 printers worldwide. We estimate that by using cost-saving Kodak Sonora plates instead of processed plates, the print industry is also saving 3.3 million litres of plate developer, 24 million kWh of electricity and 507 million litres of water every year.
That also means no more spent chemistry, wastewater, chemical containers, disposal, shipping or storage costs. That’s a change for the better that would make Mother Nature smile.
What’s more, our customers are helping their bottom lines while reducing their environmental impact. Because the variability that comes with traditional chemical processing is eliminated, printers benefit from more consistent and stable plates and reduce time, waste and cost in the pressroom.
Kodak’s award-winning water-based inkjet printing inks are significantly more eco-friendly than conventional solvent-based inks. Our inks contain several naturally occurring substances and do not contain PVC or phthalates, making them safer for printers, consumers and the environment. In addition, because they are water-based, they don’t require harsh chemicals for clean-up. This keeps potentially harmful substances out of our waste stream and water supply.
Our print workflow software features ink optimisation capability, which reduces the consumption of inks while ensuring the widest possible colour gamut. In fact, in addition to delivering colours virtually indistinguishable from offset lithography in print quality and reproduction consistency, our inks are also safe for applications such as food packaging and personal care products.
Inks are just part of the sustainability story when it comes to digital print. The digital printing process itself is inherently efficient. Digital inkjet presses such as our industry-leading Kodak Prosper Presses produce less waste than traditional printing methods because they can print for an audience of one with less “make ready” waste and no need for overprints.
Listening to our customers
According to a 2019 report from the Environmental Defense Fund, 9 in 10 business leaders said customers would hold them accountable for the environmental impact they make through their business. The reality is that our customers care, so we must also care. At Kodak, sustainability is inherent in our culture and backed by board-level support. We’re listening.
When I became CEO of Kodak, I brought a vision for what this company could be, informed by experience and inspired by my personal values. We are all connected, regardless of belief or boundary. Kodak has long been a leader, embodying the spirit of innovation. With our sustainable innovations in commercial printing technology and processes, we’re showing the way again.
Executive Chairman and CEO
Eastman Kodak Company
INDUSTRY VIEW FROM KODAK
Building purpose into your business
Luke Fletcher, Partner, Bates Wells
In the video above, Bates Wells partner Luke Fletcher discusses how the Better Business Act is seeking to build purpose into every business across the UK.
There is a growing concern in the UK that capitalism in its current form isn’t working. Campaigns such as the Better Business Act, the British Academy’s Future of the Corporation summit and movements like B Corp are gaining traction, fast. Recent research shows that UK consumers, and particularly younger generations, are hitting companies that do harm where it hurts. And younger people in particular are not likely to have the wool pulled over their eyes by greenwashing.
What can you do to make sure your company isn’t left behind in this groundswell of change – and where should you start?
Think about your goals, values and aspirations
Before you get started, you should look at why you are looking to embed purpose, how far you are prepared to go and who is leading the charge. For this to be really successful, buy-in needs to come from across the organisation, but it needs to be led from the top. There is a range of models that you can adopt to embed purpose into your company’s governing articles, such as a social enterprise model, B Corp or traditional business that commits to doing less harm.
You might also look at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and think about how they align with your work. Another really handy tool is the B Impact Assessment, which anyone can use as a way to benchmark where they are now and help set aspirations. Once you have learnt more, talk internally at all levels about what your values and aspirations are and how you might best achieve them.
It can be daunting to start a journey to make your business more purposeful, but the good news is that purposeful businesses generally love to talk about what they are doing and to bring others on the journey with them. Reach out to the B Corp community in your sector or local area, follow key networks on LinkedIn, find a B Leader, go to talks and webinars and get yourself up to speed.
You should also look at your existing network, as you are likely to find that you already know some purposeful businesses. Chat to them and find out what they are up to. We are always happy to talk to people thinking about becoming more purposeful and to share our experiences: we have been a B Corp since 2015 and our lawyers were involved in setting the standards for the UK.
What practical steps can you take now?
Embedding purpose isn’t about standing still; it’s about continuous improvement. Once you have done your research and thought about your operating model, you should set some aspirational goals and agree on how you will meet them. Make them timebound and let your commitments be known so that you can be held to account. Think about how you will measure and report on your progress and how you will resource this work. Some tangibles to consider:
Build resilience now
The past couple of years have shown us that we need to build resilience and flexibility into our businesses if we are to survive. A range of factors from the pandemic to the climate crisis to Brexit will increasingly have an impact on our day-to-day operations. Building resilience now just makes good business sense. Some things to consider:
The decision to become a more purposeful business is just the start of a long and exciting journey. Taking the first steps towards that now will put you in a position of leadership and help you to survive the legal and regulatory changes expected in the coming years to address the climate and social justice issues we face.
At Bates Wells, top-tier legal advice is coupled with a real desire to drive change. Visit bateswells.co.uk to learn more.
By Angela Monaghan, Purpose and Impact Lead, Bates Wells
INDUSTRY VIEW BY BATES WELLS
Weathering change: why governments must prioritise innovation
Innovation is a fuel that powers the most successful private-sector organisations. Their relentless pursuit of new products, processes and systems in a bid to compete has made private companies synonymous with agility, progression and proactivity. By injecting the same level of innovation into the public sector, governments can drive efficiency, reduce expenditure and navigate crises.
The pandemic has left some countries and governments at sea. It has exposed the need for more resilient government models that can act quickly and decisively. Technology such as big data analytics, drones and artificial intelligence can inform and support decision-making while also helping to implement policies and measure their success.
“Government innovation is the foundation of every development and an engine of creating the future,” says Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai. “I believe that the UAE has a lot of experience and expertise to share in this field.”
In January, the UAE was ranked first globally for its Covid-19 response and resilience by the Pandemic Resilience Index 2022, which is funded by US-based advocacy group Consumer Choice Centre. And as we emerge from the health crisis, our economy is also demonstrating a solid recovery.
One of the main reasons for our ability to manage crises is our efforts to innovate within the public sector. This commitment is channelled in the form of the UAE’s dedicated innovation arm, the Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation.
Placing creativity at the very heart of our policies and strategies, we have been able to develop the mechanisms, processes and systems that can enable quick, informed and proactive decision-making.
This culture of innovation is best demonstrated by UAE Innovates, a nationwide festival of innovation. Comprised of a series of events across the country, the annual initiative is in fact one of the largest of its kind in the world. It celebrates and recognises public sector innovations and the individuals and entities behind their implementation.
Some of these innovations represent the very first experience visitors have of the UAE when they arrive: for example, Your Face-Your Passport, which comprises eye-scanning technology to provide seamless travel through 122 smart gates across Dubai airports. Pre-registered travellers in the system can pass through via an eye scan without needing to present their travel documents, a process that takes just five seconds.
UAE Innovates supports the government’s ongoing efforts to cultivate a culture of public sector innovation and position the UAE as a global hub for creativity and a nurturing environment for developing and implementing projects to enhance the public sector. By galvanising the country’s efforts under one of the world’s largest innovation festivals, we have been able to motivate employees and stimulate healthy competition within public sector entities, both on a local and federal level.
Over the course of seven years, UAE Innovates has celebrated and spurred many novel ideas and some truly groundbreaking innovations.
Some of the simplest but most impactful were implemented during the health crisis over the past two years. During the pandemic, for example, the Department of Health Abu Dhabi, in co-operation with the UAE University, created a mathematical model of the dynamics of the spread of Covid-19, contributing to pre-emptive plans to address the pandemic. The Ministry of Interior also used police sniffer dogs to detect the virus. Using their sense of smell, dogs were trained to detect the sweat of the infected person. The examination takes less than three minutes and immediate results give 92 per cent accuracy.
One innovation that particularly touched people’s lives was Virtual Global Doctors. The Ministry of Health and Prevention created a remote medical consultation service with doctors outside the UAE to help patients and doctors to obtain a second consultation for critical cases.
These recent innovations, some of which are winners of the UAE Innovates Award, are an example of creatively paring human knowledge and experience with ingenuity and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to help the government capably execute two of its priorities – improving services and protecting citizens.
In this era of rapid climatic, social and economic change, the need for capable and robust governments has never been so great. Societies around the world can all benefit from simple concepts and grand innovations that leverage advanced technologies.
First, however, governments must ensure they have built a foundation upon which innovation can flourish. Initiatives such as UAE Innovates are more than a celebration of forward-thinking entities and talents. They are a fundamental part of a country’s innovation ecosystem and have the power to help inspire and drive a better future and improve lives. Ultimately, initiatives that support innovation help to produce the tools for governments – and societies – to not only weather challenges but thrive in the face of change.
In all today’s uncertainty, that makes them more valuable than ever.
INDUSTRY VIEW FROM UAE GOVERNMENT'S DEPUTY MINISTER OF CABINET AFFAIRS FOR STRATEGIC AFFAIRS
For a successful green transition, a data-driven culture is vital
Companies today are talking a great deal about decarbonisation and, for many, it has increasingly become a top priority. One recent study by NTT DATA and PAC found that 87 per cent of European business leaders expect to achieve zero emissions by 2030 at the latest, indicating that significant planning is being done and resources brought on board to ensure the goal is realised.
This is being driven by a range of regulatory frameworks, including the European Commission’s Green Taxonomy, which will regulate green finance evaluations. But beyond compliance obligations, companies know that sustainability is central to business success - indeed, some are calling a clear ESG strategy "the new baseline" for hiring talent. With increasing transparency and reliability of sustainability performance data, applicants, potential investors, and other stakeholders can more easily evaluate a business’s success or failure in meeting sustainability goals. Poor performance, therefore, has significant and wide-ranging implications for the viability of a business, while measurable progress will be rewarded by an ongoing license to operate.
Yet conversations around how exactly decarbonisation will be done tend to be around technologies being developed to help businesses transition to carbon-neutral operations. The NTT DATA and PAC study found that executives believe IT will play a vital role, so it follows that the bulk of investment will likely go on improving IT function.
But that won’t be the only ingredient for success. What happens if not everyone is on board with the work required to realise a successful transition or if a company’s messaging around decarbonisation isn’t properly delivered? Technology might provide a key mechanism for going green, but other aspects of a business also need to be in place.
"Culture" is an umbrella term that captures so many of the elements that are often left out of the tech-dominated conversation around decarbonisation. Culture is the unsung hero of any transformative change within a business. Tweaks can be made here and there, and new technologies may achieve short-term gains on their own. But if you want durable change, the whole foundation needs to shift. To ensure ESG objectives are met, business leaders must build a sustainability culture. They must find a way to ensure that everyone, from the boardroom to the shop floor, is invested in the idea of lasting transformation.
There are various ways to do this. Criteria for success can be set, and incentives such as executive bonuses can be offered to encourage employees to work hard towards their goals. Data can – and should – be leveraged to its full potential. Data is invaluable, as it serves as a lynchpin of any sustainability programme – with it, we can see in fine detail what progress a company is making towards meeting its goals.
To utilise this data properly, it’s crucial that it is investment-grade. That means it must demonstrate accuracy, timeliness, completeness, relevance and auditability. No longer can businesses boast of the mere existence of ESG data; they must be able to prove that it is trustworthy, and how they use that data must be made transparent.
Yet many have found that this is easier said than done. Inefficient and inconsistent data flows brought about by the continued use of manual reporting and analysis tools continue to impair the performance of businesses. This is something they must improve upon if they are to make realistic strides towards meeting ESG disclosure requirements.
If businesses can overcome this barrier, they’ll achieve far-reaching results. Investment-grade ESG data has benefits beyond just external communications; it feeds directly into the creation of a durable sustainability culture within a business. If data integrity is assured, the ESG-related performance of the company can be precisely measured – and so too can the performance of individual employees around key sustainability objectives. Business executives can develop incentive structures accordingly that align with the performance data being collected. As the old boardroom saying goes, "that which gets incentivised gets prioritised." By marrying strong data to a vision for company culture, the pace of individual and company-wide momentum around sustainability will quicken.
We may know how vital data is to the transformation of company culture and how important a shift in culture is to lasting change around sustainability. But how do we steer both elements in the right direction?
Unifying the enterprise through digital transformation is key to achieving both aims. Benchmark Digital Partners, a provider of cloud-based digital solutions for sustainability and ESG reporting, product stewardship programmes, and risk and compliance needs, helps companies around the world ensure data integrity and enhance the data collection and reporting processes. The Benchmark ESG platform enables businesses to not only verify the quality of their data but also to drive collaboration and engagement across functional teams to identify gaps and opportunities in real-time and sustain ESG performance improvements long term. These services are delivered through a range of customisable best-practice workflows that allow effective cross-functional collaboration and defined, predictable outcomes.
ESG disclosure demands on European companies are growing by the year, thanks to climate change, sustainability drivers and increasing regulatory pressure. Building a robust and lasting culture may take extra work and resources, but there are solutions, such as those offered by Benchmark, that ensure the process is streamlined and transparent and drives meaningful results. Such is the clamour for progressive change among businesses that the work required to cultivate a sustainability culture is fully worth it – in terms of adding value, managing risk and, ultimately, securing the future of any company.
Access Benchmark’s ESG Resource Library for emerging trends, expert takes, corporate case studies, and best practices for sustainability and ESG data management and reporting.
By Peter Walsh, Business Development Director, Europe, Benchmark ESG
INDUSTRY VIEW BY BENCHMARK ESG
Low-technology: why sustainability doesn’t have to depend on high-tech solutions
It’s a popular idea that the path to sustainability lies in high-tech solutions. By making everyday items like cars electric, and installing smart systems to monitor and reduce energy use, it seems we’ll still be able to enjoy the comforts to which we’ve become accustomed while doing our bit for the planet – a state known as “green growth”.
But the risks of this approach are becoming ever clearer. Many modern technologies use materials like copper, cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements. These metals are in devices like cell phones, televisions and motors. Not only is their supply finite, but large amounts of energy are required for their extraction and processing – producing significant emissions.
Plus, many of these devices are inherently difficult to recycle. This is because to make them, complex mixes of materials are created, often in very small quantities. It’s very expensive to collect and separate them for recycling.
Among others, these limitations have led some to question the high-tech direction our society is taking – and to develop a burgeoning interest in low-tech solutions. These solutions prioritise simplicity and durability, local manufacture, as well as traditional or ancient techniques.
What’s more, low-tech solutions often focus on conviviality. This involves encouraging social connections, for example through communal music or dance, rather than fostering the hyper-individualism encouraged by resource-hungry digital devices.
“Low-tech” does not mean a return to medieval ways of living. But it does demand more discernment in our choice of technologies – and consideration of their disadvantages.
Origins of low-tech
Critics have proclaimed the downsides of excessive technology for centuries, from 19th century Luddites to 20th century writers like Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford. But it was the western energy crisis in the 1970s that really popularised these ideas.
British economist E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book Small is Beautiful presented a powerful critique of modern technology and its depletion of resources like fossil fuels. Instead, Schumacher advocated for simplicity: locally affordable, efficient technologies (which he termed “intermediate” technologies), like small hydroelectricity devices used by rural communities.
Schumacher’s mantle has been taken up by a growing movement calling itself “low-tech”. Belgian writer Kris de Dekker’s online Low-Tech Magazine has been cataloguing low-tech solutions, such as windmills that use friction to heat buildings, since 2007. In particular, the magazine explores obsolete technologies that could still contribute to a sustainable society: like fruit walls used in the 1600s to create local, warm microclimates for growing Mediterranean fruits.
In the US, architect and academic Julia Watson’s book Lo-TEK (where TEK stands for Traditional Ecological Knowledge) explores traditional technologies from using reeds as building materials to creating wetlands for wastewater treatment.
And in France, engineer Philippe Bihouix’s realisation of technology’s drain on resources led to his prize-winning book The Age of Low Tech. First published in 2014, it describes what life in a low-tech world might be like, including radically cutting consumption.
Bihouix presents seven “commandments” of the low-tech movement. Among others, these cover the need to balance a technology’s performance with its environmental impact, being cautious of automation (especially where employment is replaced by increased energy use), and reducing our demands on nature.
But the first principle of low-tech is its emphasis on sobriety: avoiding excessive or frivolous consumption, and being satisfied by less beautiful models with lower performance. As Bihouix writes:
A reduction in consumption could make it quickly possible to rediscover the many simple, poetic, philosophical joys of a revitalised natural world … while the reduction in stress and working time would make it possible to develop many cultural or leisure activities such as shows, theatre, music, gardening or yoga.
Crucially, we can apply low-tech principles to our daily lives now. For example, we can easily reduce energy demand from heating by using warm clothes and blankets. Food, if it’s packaged at all, can be bought and stored in reusable, recyclable packaging like glass.
Architecture offers multiple opportunities for low-tech approaches, especially if we learn from history. Using ancient windcatcher towers designed to allow external cool air to flow through rooms lets buildings be cooled using much less energy than air conditioning. And storing heat in stones, used by the Romans for underfloor heating, is being considered today as a means of dealing with the intermittency of renewable energy.
Design and manufacture for sustainability emphasises reducing waste, often through avoiding mixing and contaminating materials. Simple materials like plain carbon steels, joined using removable fasteners, are easy to recycle and locally repair. Buses, trains and farm machinery using these steels, for example, can be much more readily refurbished or recycled than modern cars full of microelectronics and manufactured from sophisticated alloys.
In some places, the principles of low tech are already influencing urban design and industrial policy. Examples include “15-minute cities” where shops and other amenities are easily accessible to residents, using cargo bikes instead of cars or vans for deliveries, and encouraging repairable products through right-to-repair legislation in the EU and US.
Meanwhile, in Japan, there’s emerging interest in the reuse and recycling practices of the Edo period. From 1603 to 1867, the country was effectively closed to the outside world, with very limited access to raw materials. Therefore, extensive reuse and repair – even of things such as broken pottery or utensils with holes that we’d now regard as waste – became a way of life. Specialist repairers would mend or recycle everything from paper lanterns and books to shoes, pans, umbrellas and candles.
By following examples like these, we can make discerning technological choices a central part of our search for sustainable ways of living.
A smarter route to energy efficiency
Geopolitical conflicts and other unexpected events of global scale, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, tend to have a substantial effect on the supply and pricing of fossil fuels in general. Even before oil and gas prices started breaking records, the disruption of global supply chains caused by pandemic-induced lockdowns had already pushed their upward trend, significantly affecting the global economy.
As the need for energy continues to rise to support a growing technology-oriented global economy, countries, companies and individuals around the world strive for effective ways to enhance their resilience against risks impacting fossil fuel supplies and price volatility.
Delta Electronics, a Taipei-based technology heavyweight providing power and thermal management systems, automation solutions and electric vehicle (EV) technologies to most of the world’s leading information and communication technology (ICT) and automotive brands, has much experience of nurturing smart energy efficiency, and sees it as a highly effective solution to not only strengthen energy resilience, but also to substantially reduce mankind’s carbon footprint. Here, Jesse Chou, Delta’s chief sustainability officer, and Dalip Sharma, GM and president of the company’s EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) region, elaborate further:
Delta is a major technology supplier to world-class brands in the global ICT and automotive industry. What core competence has allowed you to reach such a privileged position?
Dalip Sharma: Delta’s core competence lies in our unparalleled expertise in high-efficiency power electronics and system integration. Every year, we invest more than 8 per cent of our annual revenues in R&D to enhance the energy conversion efficiency of our products. That’s how today we enable vast energy savings for our global customers in the ICT industry by providing server power supplies, many of them certified as 80 Plus TITANIUM with efficiency over 96 per cent, as well as telecom power rectifiers with industry-leading efficiency up to 98 per cent.
Also, through our strong innovation capabilities, which include over 9,000 engineers currently employed in our 74 R&D centres worldwide, we are increasingly developing solutions that leverage IoT and other next-generation technologies to further the energy-saving capabilities of our portfolio.
Last but not least, Delta’s vision regarding sustainable development has been nurtured for most of our 50-year corporate history, which means that key megatrends, such as electric vehicles (EV), were part of our strategic focus much earlier than they were for our peers. In fact, we started co-operating on joint R&D efforts with leading automakers for EV-related solutions more than 10 years ago, and today we bear the fruits of that collaboration by providing essential traction and power systems as well as automotive fans. Moreover, Delta has also shipped more than one million EV chargers to its worldwide customers in joint efforts to build the essential infrastructure for e-mobility to thrive. We are also offering customers our energy storage solutions with bi-directional power-conditioning capabilities, which can enable smart energy management in their EV charging sites and provide support to local electricity grids.
What’s your ultimate goal as a company?
Jesse Chou: Delta’s corporate mission is “To provide innovative, clean and energy-efficient solutions for a better tomorrow,” which entails the development of next-generation solutions that help mankind enable the pillars of smart green cities, such as e-mobility, smart factories and buildings, energy-efficient ICT infrastructure as well as green energy infrastructure.
To achieve that goal, Delta is also focused on becoming a world-class corporate citizen that “walks the walk” by implementing environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) best practices in its own operations. Last year, we joined the global RE100 initiative with a commitment to operate with 100 per cent renewable electricity and to become carbon-neutral by 2030. We implemented Science Based Targets (SBTs) in 2017, and in 2021 Delta achieved its original goal of a 56.6 per cent reduction in carbon intensity, four years ahead of schedule. Between 2011 and 2020, we implemented 2,270 energy conservation projects in our factories to ultimately save almost 280 million kWh of electricity – with, for example, energy recovery in burn-in processes, smart automation of HVAC systems and lighting, as well as energy-efficient LED lighting systems – all possible with Delta’s own product and solution portfolio. Thus, our unique and proven expertise in energy conservation in our own factories and office buildings gave us the confidence to commit to 2030, way ahead of the 2050 deadline most technology firms are targeting.
The global economy, and Europe in particular, will likely bear a major impact from current fossil fuel supply uncertainties and sky-high prices. What do you believe are the most valid ways for countries, corporations and even individuals to ease the impact of such negative conditions?
Dalip Sharma: Enhancing energy conservation by using energy-efficient products and solutions is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to strengthen our resilience against the inherent risks, as well as financial and environmental costs, of fossil fuels. Just to give you an example, the energy savings achieved for our customers between 2010 and 2020 by Delta’s high-efficiency products and solutions are estimated at 33.5 billion kWh of electricity, which is more than half the electricity consumed by the entire German economy in a whole month.
Making decisive commitments to the use of renewable energy is another option. In line with the RE100 initiative, we have stepped up our efforts to achieve that historic milestone. In 2018, Delta only had close to 109 million kWh of green electricity in its entire global operations energy mix. By 2020 we had already increased it threefold to over 310 million kWh, almost halfway to our 2030 objective. Installing solar PV systems in our factories’ rooftops, signing power purchase agreements (PPA) and procuring renewable energy certificates (REC) are some of the key initiatives we are leveraging to achieve this environmental goal.
Jesse Chou: Buildings consume close to half the world’s electricity, so reducing their consumption through enhanced energy efficiency is also a major contributor to energy resilience in Europe and beyond. Thus, since 2006, we have been promoting the benefits of green buildings in regards to energy conservation by creating 29 of them around the world as of today.
By leveraging Delta’s smart building automation for HVAC, LED lighting, solar PV systems, energy storage, high-efficiency uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and even electricity regeneration for elevators, these green buildings deliver considerable energy and OPEX savings. For example, Delta’s LEED Platinum-certified HQ for the Americas region, located at the heart of Silicon Valley in California, saves up to 94 per cent of the electricity used by a traditional office building in the area. We’re also enhancing the facility’s on-site solar energy generation systems with the aim of eventually making it a net-zero energy building, meaning it can satisfy its own electricity needs throughout the year. Also, our LEED Platinum-certified global HQ in Taipei, built in 1999, was retrofitted with the same Delta energy-saving solutions, reducing its energy needs by more than 50 per cent for the past five years.
Delta's Chief Sustainability officer
GM and President of the company’s EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) Region
INDUSTRY VIEW FROM DELTA ELECTRONICS
Corporate purpose: moving from noble intentions to achieving real impact
Philippa Cornish, Head of Corporate Clients, Charities Aid Foundation
Sustainability and social issues have rarely had so much global attention – thanks largely to Covid-19 and the climate crisis. The pandemic has increased focus on the extent of wealth inequality, in the UK and abroad, while headlines and conversations engendered by COP26 continue to highlight the desperate environmental situation.
But, according to research by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), many companies could act more on their social responsibilities. Based on a survey of corporate-responsibility practitioners at firms across a wide range of industries, it reveals that even where there is a noble corporate purpose, all too often there is a failure to translate it into practice.
It’s clear that company leaders must commit themselves and their companies to corporate responsibility to a much greater degree if they are to play their part in society overcoming the challenges of Covid-19, the climate and beyond. They also need to ensure their firms can meet growing public demand for greater corporate involvement in community work and other sustainability projects, and prepare themselves for future legislative, environmental and economic hurdles. The report provides a rare insight into current UK CR activities, with straightforward recommendations on how things can be improved.
Clearer corporate responsibility thinking required
A major problem highlighted by the research is that a lot of company leaders don’t appreciate the real value of corporate responsibility. Though most realise that it has a positive environment and social impact, only 16 per cent of practitioners say their firm sees improving economic performance as a key driver for this activity. Acting more sustainably can boost PR and sales and increasing diversity can create younger, more talented teams. Better environmental practices may help firms avoid new taxes or higher production costs, as well as play their part in maintaining the global resources on which they rely. But too many leaders are failing to recognise these long-term commercial benefits.
Another challenge is to focus on the specific impact organisations want to achieve, and how it aligns with their overall purpose. This will help to avoid the perception that their activity is not thought through or that it’s only a PR exercise – or so-called greenwashing. Focusing on impact also helps avoid fragmentation. In the case of charitable giving, large companies often have lots of siloed charitable activity and many of them don’t bring this together under one strategy.
Executives have to create a company culture where robust sustainability criteria are considered throughout the life cycle of all products and services. Fewer than half of the CR practitioners in the poll say this happens at their organisation. Leaders should do everything they can to ensure that other parts of their supply chain act ethically and sustainably, too.
Perhaps the most important thing leaders can do to make CR more central to their own thinking and that of their employees is to link it to performance reviews and renumeration. A tiny 9 per cent of CR practitioners say that the pay or bonuses of executives are linked to CR objectives. Without such direct accountability, numerous C-suites are unlikely to ever consider CR a priority.
Better measurement and more investment
Leaders need to significantly improve the assessment and tracking of their company’s CR activities. At present, there’s a lot of reliance on qualitative feedback, with just 14 per cent of CR practitioners saying that their organisation does a full impact valuation across business activities. More use must be made of the ever-increasing array of new digital tools, such as those provided by Maanch, which can monitor progress towards sustainability goals.
There is a desperate requirement for C-suites to give CR practitioners more resources, too. Some 57 per cent of survey respondents say they don’t have big enough budgets – and the economic pressure from Covid-19 is likely to make things worse. Practitioners often don’t have enough time to do their job properly, either, perhaps because they have to combine it with roles in other departments, such as marketing.
If anything, firms should invest more in CR following Covid-19, to help society through the crisis. Indeed, many companies recognise this, such as HSBC last year pledging $25 million to help the medical response and provide food to vulnerable communities.
Greater staff involvement
Most practitioners report that their firm involves staff in CR activities. Payroll giving, some other forms of fundraising and online volunteering seem to have increased during the pandemic. Schroders’ global workforce raised £3.8 million to help people in need as a result of the crisis, for instance.
C-suites need to consult staff on CR strategy more, particularly as many now feel isolated and out of the company loop at home. And they must ramp up corporate donations and payroll giving to help charities make up the financial shortfall Covid-19 has created.
Many leaders will have taken their eyes off the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals while trying to cope with the pandemic. But the deadline for achieving them is just nine years away. What’s more, the Covid-19 crises will have made several of them, such as ending extreme poverty, considerably harder. Two thirds of practitioners report that their firm has taken at least one action towards meeting the goals. But all firms must now concentrate considerable energy and resources on them if they are to act responsibly for the good of the planet and remain competitive with other more proactive organisations.
Defining and meeting ambitious sustainability goals, such as carbon neutrality, can no longer be seen as things that would just be nice to do; an optional extra on top of making a profit. They are crucial considerations that must pervade all organisational strategy. If companies don’t adopt this way of working immediately, they will soon be falling short of what legislators, investors and consumers expect of them, with far-reaching consequences for their future as well as that of the planet.
Charities Aid Foundation partners with corporate donors to realise greater impact through their giving. For more information, click here.
INDUSTRY VIEW FROM CHARITIES AID FOUNDATION
Moving towards a sustainable future
Lauren Smart, Chief Commercial Officer, S&P Global Sustainable1
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues have been gaining a high level of attention as it has become clear that these factors can affect a business’s financial viability. Corporate profitability may be impacted by fires, floods and other physical risks; by increasing carbon pricing policy, unacceptable labour and human rights practices; and by conflicts of interest or scandals resulting from poor business management. The rising prominence of ESG issues and the increasing market demand for greater insight are reshaping requirements for disclosure and analytics. Customers, investors and other stakeholders are demanding to know more about a company’s ESG track record, while companies are looking to dig deeper into their strengths and weaknesses to take meaningful action.
Increasing regulations help move the dial
In recent years, the financial sector has seen a large number of regulatory developments around sustainable finance, encouraging banks, insurers and others to be more proactive and transparent in their efforts to support the transition to sustainable business models. The EU Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR), for example, is imposing more stringent requirements on disclosures made by financial services institutions with regard to sustainability risks. At the same time, SFDR is trying to help companies better understand the type of information that should be collected and reported to create more consistent and comparable measures for the most important ESG elements.
Additional insight into ESG factors will help support portfolio optimisation and capital allocation towards companies with superior ESG performance. Companies with poor performance, or little information available about their ESG stance, will be at a disadvantage. This is especially the case with investor interest in ESG surging, fuelled in part by strong performance signals from some of the biggest funds set up with ESG criteria. In addition, the size of the overall ESG debt market nearly doubled to $608.8 billion in 2020, while sustainability bonds, a hybrid of green and social debt, tripled.
Access to extensive data is essential
Companies can demonstrate their dedication to the highest standards of ESG insight and action planning by directly reporting key sustainability metrics and benchmarking their relative performance on a wide range of industry-specific issues. Disclosure can be challenging, however, especially as more and more data is being requested as ESG continues to evolve as a field of interest.
S&P Global Sustainable1 is committed to enhancing ESG intelligence for the global marketplace and, over the years, has collected, validated and standardised an enormous amount of data relating to climate change, natural resource constraints and broader ESG factors. This includes the S&P Global Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA), an annual survey-based evaluation of companies’ sustainability practices first established in 1999, which generates company-level ESG scores. This provides detailed ESG benchmarking insights for participants to better integrate sustainability and business strategy. The S&P Global Sustainable1 offering also includes extensive environmental data for more than 15,000 companies, representing 98 per cent of global market capitalisation, which can be used to assess environmental costs, identify and manage environmental risk and conduct peer and portfolio analysis from an environmental perspective. Importantly, S&P Global Sustainable1 also has a well-tested approach in place to fill gaps when information is not disclosed and fix any errors that may occur to help complete the picture across financial portfolios and corporate supply chains.
Progress is being made
Fortunately, there are strong signs that more companies are assessing their current ESG position and developing strategies for improvement. Net zero and carbon neutral commitments have been on the rise in 2021, as companies, financial institutions and countries assert their alignment to global climate goals. In addition, the S&P Global CSA saw the strongest level of corporate participation in 2020 − up 19 per cent from 2019, with an additional 238 companies participating for the first time and generating ESG scores. It seems that disclosure is no longer simply a ‘nice to have’ but, rather, a necessity for companies to inform strategic innovation and attract important investment dollars.
As reporting continues to evolve and become more standardised across companies and countries, it is expected that ESG practices will become a natural part of ongoing assessments of business performance, as traditional financial analysis is today.
For more information on S&P Global Sustainable1, visit spglobal.com/sustainable1
INDUSTRY VIEW FROM S&P GLOBAL
Conscious consumerism may help save the planet
Karli Hiscock, Partner, Bates Wells
In the above video, Bates Wells partner Karli Hiscock explains the role the B Corp movement could play in the future of responsible business; what being a B Corp means to Bates Wells; and how Karli helps businesses to operate more sustainably through her role as a real-estate lawyer.
Today’s consumers are shifting their buying habits. A new wave of ‘conscious consumerism’ has seen an upward trend in buying decisions informed by whether a brand has a positive social and environmental impact. Whether it’s a person buying for themselves or a business procuring goods or services, it will be those purposeful brands that can demonstrate a genuinely positive impact that will benefit from this shift in buying behaviour. Businesses that carry on ‘business as usual’ will increasingly find their goods and services are more likely to be left on the shelves.
Let’s start by busting some misunderstandings about purpose and impact.
‘You can only pursue purpose and impact at the expense of profit.’
Nonsense. Profit is good. And profit is essential for all businesses. If an impact-driven business was not able to turn a profit or, indeed, not trying to turn a profit, how would it be able to invest in all the things that create that positive impact (the right people, a sustainable supply chain, reduction in carbon emissions and positive actions to support the environment, work to support diversity and equality, and developing outstanding products and services for their customers)?
‘Corporate purpose is a fad.’
Please. Fads are dictated by the times we live in.
When Milton Friedman proclaimed his theory of shareholder primacy 50 years ago, the UK was a very different place – and an awful place by today’s standards. Homosexuality was illegal. There were no laws against race or sex discrimination. We had no minimum wage.
The world has moved on from businesses existing just for shareholders.
How will we solve society’s problems if businesses don’t play their part? If the public sector doesn’t address the critical problems we face socially and environmentally, is it all on the shoulders of the third sector? Charities do an amazing job, but they are underfunded and can’t do it on their own. It’s time for corporates to step up.
‘The current system works.’
Inequality is widening; we have a climate emergency and biodiversity crisis; and we have 750 companies backing the Better Business Act, all saying that the current system is broken and that we need to transform the way we do business.
What are the benefits of pursuing purpose and impact?
The supply chain: For a business thinking about its impact, a good place for it to start is its supply chain.
By buying from a purpose-driven business, you create a positive impact by virtue of that business creating a positive impact. And if your business is purpose-driven, other businesses will buy from you to enhance their own positive impact.
At Bates Wells, many of our clients are purpose-driven organisations who want reassurance that advisers in their supply chain are maintaining the same environmental standards and share the same values they do. It is this virtuous cycle that will create exponential positive impact and increase sales at the same time.
Brand development: Doing things like treating staff fairly, reducing your carbon footprint and giving a percentage of profits to charity are all part of brand development that strengthens a company’s reputation and increases client loyalty, creating more value for a business. We’re working with more and more commercial organisations in the purpose-driven space, and our commitment to these things has meant we can differentiate from other law firms trying to get a share of this expanding market.
Recruitment: In many industries, it’s a tight race for the best talent. For us, focusing on purpose and impact allows us to attract talent that might otherwise be drawn to larger firms. The generations coming through now are driven by values and will investigate yours before deciding whether to join your team. We consistently punch above our weight and retain great people because they want to work somewhere that shares their values and makes a difference.
We have seen first-hand how working with purpose to generate positive impacts can really help our business grow and mature. While for us this is a choice, it is increasingly likely that a lot of what we already do will become a requirement if the UK is to keep up with other markets and address the challenges around climate change and social inequality before it gets too late. Isn’t it better to do this now, while you have space and time to do it your own way? Purpose is good for business and good for the planet… what could possibly be the argument against it?
At Bates Wells, top-tier legal advice is coupled with a real desire to drive change. Visit bateswells.co.uk to learn more.
By Martin Bunch, Managing Partner, Bates Wells
INDUSTRY VIEW FROM BATES WELLS
Keeping smart cities secure
The Internet of Things (IoT) is the fundamental tool that enables smart cities to function the way they do today. The sophisticated technology is used in practically all public service scenarios, addressing challenges with water, air pollution, traffic and landfill waste. As well as the practical benefits, sensor-enabled devices can monitor the environmental impact of cities by collecting information about air quality, sewer systems and rubbish.
Due to the efficiency and sustainable benefits of smart cities, they will likely grow in popularity in the coming years. However, as always, introducing new advanced technology such as IoT into cities comes with a number of security risks. Relying on a central technological hub to control core infrastructure can allow hackers to attack a city more easily than ever before. It is essential that this is recognised from the onset, so risks are prevented before they cause detrimental harm.
Best practices for staying secure
Undoubtedly, keeping IoT devices secure is a challenge, but there are some processes that can be implemented to reduce the risk of attacks. For example, connected devices can be deployed with sufficient security policies, such as firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems. Additionally, all devices should have strong passwords with certificate-based authentication that identifies communicating individuals and authorised devices. Device management agents can also highlight failed access attempts and attempted denial-of-service attacks.
City officials need to know which privacy issues can arise due to their IoT data collection mechanisms, as well as which can lead to user profiling and identification of individuals in unforeseen use-case scenarios. When deploying a data collection device with regards to its life cycle, collection mechanisms and overall security protocols, the greatest care needs to be taken. It is essential that security, privacy and data protection is addressed comprehensively at the design phase.
Additionally, officials should pay more attention to the secure storage of data collected from field sensors, as legal repercussions creep in and increase the risk of data being collected. This kind of data is often stored in the cloud, so all of the recommended practices applicable to this apply here. Essentially, cities with connected infrastructure devices should implement a layered security strategy that addresses cloud services, as data is more exposed.
Another aspect to consider is whether the individuals who install IoT devices are adequately trained in cybersecurity and can make informed security decisions. These individuals should have the required IoT training in line with the UK Government, preventing smart devices from being exploited by criminals or state-sponsored attackers. This can be achieved by having security professionals work more closely with engineers to embed IoT training as standard. Going forward, engineers will need to have a reasonable understanding of the inherent risks of IoT devices.
The importance of ethical design
Within the current technological world, ethical design is fast becoming more important than ever before. Although these intelligent technical systems are created to reduce the need for everyday human intervention, automated systems such as these can have consequences. For example, there are some concerns around critical infrastructure security, discrimination, loss of skills and economic impact, and the need to adopt ethical codes of practice essential for safeguarding the future.
Despite the risks, smart cities present an array of opportunities and innovation on a global scale. With the correct security measures in place, it is likely that smart cities will become commonplace and further refined to enhance sustainability and efficiency in the coming years.
IEEE Senior Member, Professor of Cyber Security, Executive Co-Director of the Legal Innovation Centre and Group Leader for the Cyber Security and Web Technologies Research Group at Ulster University
Building machines that work for everyone – how diversity of test subjects is a technology blind spot, and what to do about it
People interact with machines in countless ways every day. In some cases, they actively control a device, like driving a car or using an app on a smartphone. Sometimes people passively interact with a device, like being imaged by an MRI machine. And sometimes they interact with machines without consent or even knowing about the interaction, like being scanned by a law enforcement facial recognition system.
Human-Machine Interaction (HMI) is an umbrella term that describes the ways people interact with machines. HMI is a key aspect of researching, designing and building new technologies, and also studying how people use and are affected by technologies.
Researchers, especially those traditionally trained in engineering, are increasingly taking a human-centered approach when developing systems and devices. This means striving to make technology that works as expected for the people who will use it by taking into account what’s known about the people and by testing the technology with them. But even as engineering researchers increasingly prioritize these considerations, some in the field have a blind spot: diversity.
As an interdisciplinary researcher who thinks holistically about engineering and design and an expert in dynamics and smart materials with interests in policy, we have examined the lack of inclusion in technology design, the negative consequences and possible solutions.
People at hand
Researchers and developers typically follow a design process that involves testing key functions and features before releasing products to the public. Done properly, these tests can be a key component of compassionate design. The tests can include interviews and experiments with groups of people who stand in for the public.
In academic settings, for example, the majority of study participants are students. Some researchers attempt to recruit off-campus participants, but these communities are often similar to the university population. Coffee shops and other locally owned businesses, for example, may allow flyers to be posted in their establishments. However, the clientele of these establishments is often students, faculty and academic staff.
In many industries, co-workers serve as test participants for early-stage work because it is convenient to recruit from within a company. It takes effort to bring in outside participants, and when they are used, they often reflect the majority population. Therefore, many of the people who participate in these studies have similar demographic characteristics.
It is possible to use a homogenous sample of people in publishing a research paper that adds to a field’s body of knowledge. And some researchers who conduct studies this way acknowledge the limitations of homogenous study populations. However, when it comes to developing systems that rely on algorithms, such oversights can cause real-world problems. Algorithms are as only as good as the data that is used to build them.
Algorithms are often based on mathematical models that capture patterns and then inform a computer about those patterns to perform a given task. Imagine an algorithm designed to detect when colors appear on a clear surface. If the set of images used to train that algorithm consists of mostly shades of red, the algorithm might not detect when a shade of blue or yellow is present.
In practice, algorithms have failed to detect darker skin tones for Google’s skincare program and in automatic soap dispensers; accurately identify a suspect, which led to the wrongful arrest of an innocent man in Detroit; and reliably identify women of color. MIT artificial intelligence researcher Joy Buolamwini describes this as algorithmic bias and has extensively discussed and published work on these issues.
Even as the U.S. fights Covid-19, the lack of diverse training data has become evident in medical devices. Pulse oximeters, which are essential for keeping track of your health at home and to indicate when you might need hospitalization, may be less accurate for people with melanated skin. These design flaws, like those in algorithms, are not inherent to the device but can be traced back to the technology being designed and tested using populations that were not diverse enough to represent all potential users.
Researchers in academia are often under pressure to publish research findings as quickly as possible. Therefore, reliance on convenience samples – that is, people who are easy to reach and get data from – is very common.
Though institutional review boards exist to ensure that study participants’ rights are protected and that researchers follow proper ethics in their work, they don’t have the responsibility to dictate to researchers who they should recruit. When researchers are pressed for time, considering different populations for study subjects can mean additional delay. Finally, some researchers may simply be unaware of how to adequately diversify their study’s subjects.
There are several ways researchers in academia and industry can increase the diversity of their study participant pools.
One is to make time to do the inconvenient and sometimes hard work of developing inclusive recruitment strategies. This can require creative thinking. One such method is to recruit diverse students who can serve as ambassadors to diverse communities. The students can gain research experience while also serving as a bridge between their communities and researchers.
Another is to allow members of the community to participate in the research and provide consent for new and unfamiliar technologies whenever possible. For example, research teams can form an advisory board composed of members from various communities. Some fields frequently include an advisory board as part of their government-funded research plans.
Another approach is to include people who know how to think through cultural implications of technologies as members of the research team. For instance, the New York City Police Department’s use of a robotic dog in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx sparked outrage among residents. This might have been avoided if they had engaged with experts in the social sciences or science and technology studies, or simply consulted with community leaders.
Lastly, diversity is not just about race but also age, gender identity, cultural backgrounds, educational levels, disability, English proficiency and even socioeconomic levels. Lyft is on a mission to deploy robotaxis next year, and experts are excited about the prospects of using robotaxis to transport the elderly and disabled. It is not clear whether these aspirations include those who live in less-affluent or low-income communities, or lack the family support that could help prepare people to use the service. Before dispatching a robotaxi to transport grandmothers, it’s important to take into account how a diverse range of people will experience the technology.