But a critical piece of the puzzle is looking at the whole picture of responsibility, and to do that as early as possible in the product development process. This is why we created the central Responsible Innovation (RI) team several years ago, to help teams at Facebook proactively surface and address potential harms to society in all that we build. I help lead these efforts, which work in concert with many specialist teams across the company to provide both breadth and depth in Facebook’s approach to responsible innovation.
When I explain our overall process for assessing whether new products and technologies are safe for people, I often use an analogy from health care. The central RI team is like a general practitioner physician; we focus on early, preventive practices to help avoid as many downstream health issues as possible. We take a holistic approach, treating “the whole patient” and leveraging knowledge across a wide variety of specialists in critical topics. We can triage things for a team and refer them to the right specialist partners as needed, in the same way that a GP refers a patient to specialists in dermatology, orthopedics, etc.
In the product design context, this means thinking not just short- to mid-term, but investing time to forecast what longer term impacts might be. It means not just looking at the people who use the product as intended, but the people who may misuse it to hurt others. It means considering if and how some people or communities may inadvertently have a negative experience with the products that we build. These examples just scratch the surface of the things we must take into consideration when designing for such a massive and diverse global audience, but it shows the ways in which breadth and depth creates a more comprehensive approach to responsible innovation.
Evolving and expanding our responsibility processes
I was inspired to help found the central RI team several years ago as I saw the impact of our products and services growing in so many areas of society. A lot of this impact is the kind of positive value we all want to have, but we also saw at times that the value may not have been evenly experienced across all communities. And we also saw that at times our products resulted in negative experiences for people, which no one wants to see.
As a designer, I was trained to think about things at a systems level and to observe and understand how different parts of the system affect one another. Topics like privacy, safety, well-being, and other facets of responsibility are critical dimensions in their own right, but they are also often overlapping and in tension with each other. So I started this team to focus on a model for early, holistic engagement with teams across the company to help them think through the full picture of potential impact, and to create a safe and structured way for teams to help surface and explore mitigation strategies for potential harm.
How the central Responsible Innovation team works
The central RI team is made up of experts with diverse, multidisciplinary backgrounds, including anthropology, civil rights, ethics, and human rights, just to name a few. This diversity of backgrounds helps us explore complex problems in new and novel ways. We also regularly bring in external subject matter experts as well as a diverse set of perspectives. This means in a given RI round table or workshop, you might have a filmmaker, a philosopher, an artist, and an academic expert, alongside members of communities who could potentially be affected by what we are planning to build, all providing unique perspectives and wisdom to inform our approach.
We help product teams identify potential harms across a broad spectrum of societal issues and dilemmas. We create standards, tools, and guidance for responsible innovation practices across our apps and services. For example, early in the pandemic, we developed guidance on how to minimize potential harm when designing COVID-19-related products. We wanted teams to consider things like combating misinformation about the virus, whether a tool could be exploited by profiteers, or whether a feature could be unintentionally offensive or insensitive.
Underpinning this work is our Responsible Innovation Dimensions. These dimensions were inspired by studying various global resources such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These documents are some of the best ways to ground ourselves in the things that people, communities and society need to thrive, and also what we need to work hard to protect. We then did extensive consultation with external stakeholders, ethicists, civil rights, and human rights experts. The result is a framework that helps us define our responsibility through pro-human, pro-society ways.
This framework is evolving over time but currently includes 10 dimensions of autonomy, civic engagement, constructive discourse, economic security, environmental sustainability, fairness and inclusion, privacy and data protection, safety, voice, and well-being.