Research and innovation for a sustainable and equitable world

In last month’s issue of Wired Magazine, President Obama urged artificial intelligence (AI) researchers to embrace moral responsibilities and explore issues such as diversity, job loss, wealth gaps, and generally keeping this powerful innovation in the hands of “good.” In the same article, Joi Ito of MIT expressed his concern that AI has been primarily driven by a “predominantly male gang of kids, mostly white… who are more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings [and prefer not] to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society.”

From the television show Silicon Valley

In one of several Star Trek references made throughout the interview, Ito points out that the Star Trek Federation actually had a diverse crew and the “bad guys” were not actually evil, but instead misguided. This analogy captures some important equity challenges within our current innovation and research communities. Although Ito’s points are not new, they often get glossed over and are not fully addressed by innovation and equity leaders.

In all, the article effectively tees up the problematic lack of equity and diversity in the innovation sector, but misses the mark on how to move beyond fluffy rhetoric and actually address the problem. Obama recommends that government offer a “relatively light touch” in the earlier stages of technology development and then later increase involvement when innovations are more mature.

Although well-intentioned as a way to prevent bureaucracy from interfering with the creative and brilliant minds engineering our future, this reactive approach leaves us operating in an innovation deficit for social and environmental issues. It leaves “future us” relying on the innovations of a mostly white, male cohort of innovators to address the needs and interests of diverse communities. As a result, we spend limited resources trying to fit millions of round pegs into thousands of square holes.

Trying to solve carbon emissions with vehicle automation or drastically reduce energy use with Nest thermostats will only get us part of the way there, because solutions aimed at affluent communities will leave out a large part of humanity. Until we normalize equity and justice priorities early, we will continue to see technologies that do not fit the moral fabric that we want for our world. And to put it bluntly, we do not have the time nor the resources to continue in this way.

What would a successful partnership between innovation and equity look like?

Ideally, innovation and research happens for the very purpose of eliminating inequalities and injustices and creating the foundation for a more just, sustainable world. We can achieve this by investing in equitable solutions that don’t burden the environment and already marginalized communities, and by focusing more on the sustainability Holy Grail of innovating for better, not more. And if the moral argument does not appeal to you, look at the business case for sustainable investments.

Companies can do this effectively by building in and normalizing equity priorities and diversity early in the innovation process. The idea is not to interfere with the creative process, but to prioritize the well-being of our most marginalized communities (current and future) and our Mother Earth. As an advocate, I see this as a huge blind spot for environmental and social justice movements. We need the influence of government and other more socially and environmentally conscious minds such as nonprofits, foundations, and consumers (basically everybody) to step up and think creatively about how to partner with the research and innovation community. We do not have to limit ourselves to the bureaucracy-versus-private sector rhetoric; other mission-driven groups can bring a more diverse perspective without inhibiting progress with government inefficiencies.

What does clean energy and sustainability equity in innovation mean?

As our nation continues its transition to a clean energy economy, it is critical to put equity at the forefront of clean energy innovation and opportunities, particularly for those communities on the frontlines of pollution and climate change impacts.

Environmental equity specifically requires innovations that create a world where all communities have the same access to the health and economic benefits of a sustainable, clean energy economy. For our most polluted communities, this requires doing more than what is required in wealthier communities. Solutions that promote equality will not effectively reach underserved communities and will leave California with the same environmental inequalities and injustices. Our most disadvantaged communities need additional resources and targeted innovations to achieve real equality.

The CalSEED Initiative is a successful example of clean energy innovation leading with equity. CalSEED funds energy entrepreneurs and research teams to develop disruptive, breakthrough electric system solutions. CalCEF administers the program in partnership with several organizations, including the Greenlining Institute, which will help set and monitor progress toward meeting equity priorities throughout the project.

How do we awaken the equitable innovator?

The road ahead for innovation is exciting and promising. It is also moving extremely quickly. This presents both a challenge and opportunity for us to scrap business as usual and use the power of diversity and equity to research and innovate now for a more equitable future.

Institutionalizing environmental justice and equity priorities in private sector research and innovation requires an open mind, open dialogue, relationship building, and dedicated resources. Tune in for a follow-up blog next month outlining the steps to building an equitable research and innovation sector.