Innovation often proceeds with a typical user in mind. But this can exclude—or even endanger—others.
We’ve written before about the Concorde problem. Investment in innovation tends to focus first on developing solutions for the rich, but it’s usually assumed that benefits will eventually ‘trickle down’ to all as innovations get cheaper over time. However, it’s increasingly clear this isn’t always the case. Concorde is a good example - a prestige project that only served a small group of high-income people. And on a more mundane level, recent research using US data has shown how there is more innovation in retail product categories for higher-income customers - lowering prices for them, while raising the relative cost of products for poorer people.
Market dynamics help drive these patterns. But a closer look suggests it’s not just abstract economic forces, but human-level considerations - assumptions, experiences, and blind spots - that lead to ‘exclusive innovations’. Here are a few ways that innovators sometimes get it wrong.
Overlooking whole groups of consumers
Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line of makeup made Time’s 2017 list of the year’s best inventions. Its breakthrough? A range of 40 shades covering a more representative spectrum of the world’s faces. People of colour report years of being “chemists in their own homes”, mixing together multiple shades to find the one that matches their skin. Now, Fenty is one of a number of brands that have widened their offer to include darker skin tones.
But while makeup is catching up on colour, it still lags behind in other respects: as makeup brands develop more organic options for conscientious consumers, people of colour are again being excluded from this development. This example shows how profit-seeking industries such as cosmetics can overlook or disregard certain groups as economic actors - and therefore as beneficiaries of innovation.
Designing for just one type of person
When seat belts were introduced to cars in the 1950s, they were tested on crash dummies modelled on a man of average height and weight. Despite pressure from regulators to test on a wider range of sizes, car manufacturers pushed back in favour of a simpler testing process. This situation persisted for almost 50 years. Regulations in the US and Europe only started to change in the late 1990s, after research showed that women were 1.5 times as likely as men to sustain injuries when exposed to moderate and serious crashes.
Carmakers now test with dummies of a wider range of sizes, but still don’t take into account that female bodies are not simply smaller versions of male ones: they also have less muscle tissue around the neck and torso, which puts them at greater risk of whiplash. Pregnancy also places different demands on seat belts, and whilst pregnant dummies have been patented, their use is yet to be mandated.
Assuming that if you’re not interested in a product, no-one else will be
Decades of evidence show that a male pill is something that those on “both sides” of the equation would welcome, but decision-makers have failed to follow this innovation path in earnest. Pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to invest - in general, contraception is an undesirable market for drug developers due to low profits. But in the case of the male pill, assumptions about user demand also get in the way. For example, the (mostly white, male and middle-class) board of the large Dutch pharmaceutical company Organon agreed in the early 2000s that it was not “male behaviour” to take responsibility for contraception - stopping the company’s promising development projects in their tracks.
Recent investments have been made outside the private sector: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are funding male pill research at Dundee University, while the US National Institute of Child Health sponsors the LA Biomedical Research Institute to trial a contraceptive gel for men. There are hopes that these new projects will renew focus on male contraception, and raise provision to a par with the female. As it stands, remarked one Dundee professor, “the research that has been done on male contraception you could write on a postage stamp”.
Failing to challenge assumptions
In fact, in medical research, conditions are often gendered by those who work on them, affecting the way that treatments are developed and implemented. For example, osteoporosis has been viewed as a women’s condition, leading to disparities in the development and effectiveness of screening technologies that result in the undertreatment of men. The opposite is true of heart disease, a leading cause of death amongst women in the US and Europe, but researched and treated as a man’s condition.
Some assumptions persist for a long time. We learned in January that official advice stating that those taking the combined contraceptive pill should take a seven-day break in between each 21-pill pack was written without a scrap of evidence that this improved the pill’s effectiveness, or brought any benefit at all. Whether you believe that the seven-day break was a measure introduced to appease the Catholic Church, or that it was a relic of the pill’s research and development process that simply went unquestioned for six decades, what’s clear is that there was little consideration of what this would mean for people in practice. What it often means is headaches, mood swings, the inconvenience of a withdrawal bleed, and, in some cases, increased risk of ovulation and unwanted pregnancy.
What to do about it
We can start by encouraging innovators to take on broader perspectives. A burgeoning community of researchers at Stanford University interested in “gendered innovations” advise researchers, engineers and designers to ask themselves at each stage of the innovation process what implications sex and gender might have on the objectives and methodology of their work. In a similar vein, Swedish innovation agency Vinnova has launched a funding programme for businesses that develop ‘norm-critical’ innovations - looking at how they can produce or adapt solutions to meet the needs of more people, and open up new markets.
We also need a much more diverse group of people involved in innovation. This needs to happen throughout the system: we need wider public engagement in innovation decision-making, as well as action to tackle the enormous disparities between groups in likelihood to become an innovator, such as investment in evidence-based schemes to give more young people ‘exposure’ to innovation. And at a system level, we need to rethink priorities - asking who’s served by innovation, and challenging policymakers’ preferences for prestige projects. Excluding people from innovation isn’t just unfair, it’s a lost opportunity. And surely, one we can’t afford to miss.