Government should play a role in ensuring that technology is safe to use, most would agree. But enacting principles of safety is hard to do when technology is tested only for narrow impacts. For example, a technology that is safe to use for its intended purpose may be unsafe when introduced back into the environment via landfill, potentially impacting drinking water or marine habitat. “Forever Chemicals,” recently in the news, are a great example of products with long-term, accumulating harms.
Marie-Louise Bilgin has a background in biotechnology, international law, and medicine. She now works with the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, which is centred in The Hague, the third-largest city in the Netherlands and internationally famous for housing the International Court of Justice of the United Nations. We spoke over Zoom about Safe-by-Design, a concept for addressing safety issues early on in any emerging technology project that might impact people, animals or the environment.
“Safe-by-Design has been around for a while, and in the Netherlands, there has been an active government program on nanotechnology for over 10 years, and on other new and advanced technologies from 2016,” Marie-Louise notes. “I’m the co-project leader, and my specialities are in biotech and nanotech. I’ve been working on creating an international safe-by-design network of policymakers. We have members across Europe, and we hope to expand across the world in a later stage.”
Safe-by-Design and the Circular Economy
Safe-by-Design is hard to define because it means something different for different fields: biotechnology, nanotechnology, chemistry, are all trying to integrate this concept. “Safe-by-Design means inherent safety, the inclusion of safety thinking from the very beginning of a project as soon as you start on R&D,” Marie-Louise explains. “Our mission is to have negligibly small risks to humans and the environment: so identify the substances, materials, processes, and risks associated at the beginning and make sure they are risks are minimized and that the resulting product is preferably inherently safe.” When I asked Marie-Louise to comment further on safe for whom, she clarified, “safe for humans and the environment during the product’s life cycle based on its intended applications.”
Ensuring that all substances and processes are inherently safe in all environments may seem like a tall order, and it is. For example, biotechnology researchers from the Dutch Wageningen University have tried to apply Safe-by-Design by altering synthetic bacteria to only survive under controlled conditions. Imagine thinking ahead to consider the entire lifespan of a product and its impact after its intended and original use. While this may seem like a bottomless task, many contend that it is essential to the goal of a circular economy, as safe recycling requires safe materials.
At the moment, the Netherlands does not believe that it will be easy to enforce Safe-by-Design, but this may be possible and necessary at some point. Rather than mandating Safe-by-Design, Marie-Louise’s organization works along four different tracks: education, research, industry, and agenda setting, which includes international networking: “We’re also working with the OECD, we try to promote the idea of Safe-by-Design and try to get insight in how it works in practice. Many countries think it is very appealing, and we’re now working on developing best practices at an international level.”
Education is a huge part of this initiative. “We think that students are the best target group because students are still learning. The student of today is the company employee of tomorrow, so we hope to give them this understanding of safety knowledge in the context of innovation, but also of their responsibility as engineers, developers, and designers,” Marie-Louise says. “Collaboration with companies is a bit hard because they do not know what is in it for them. We don’t enforce Safe-by-Design on companies, and we don’t give them anything in return. Companies asked for something like a Safe-by-Design certification, and we’ve looked into that, but we have to be careful because the risk that we take by declaring a product ‘Safe-by-Design’ goes many ways.”
Certification is also made difficult by how hard it is to define Safe-by-Design. “Some of the professors we speak to say it’s almost as if you’re entering a beauty contest — the criteria are not clearly defined, but we can say “this is pretty, this is also pretty, this is not,” or “this is more safe, this is less safe.” The ministry is looking for frontrunners to help develop and define Safe-by-Design. But companies know that engaging with a lengthy evaluation process will cost them time, or money, or efficiency, which can make it challenging for public Safe-by-Design teams (e.g., working for the government) to work directly with the private sector.
“This is why we focus on universities and technical universities. We have many strong technical universities here, many award-winning tech programs. As background, in the Netherlands, universities are allowed to make their own curriculum. What they teach and how they teach is entirely up to them, which is not the same in France for example. So we contact the universities, appeal to them that this is important. But we have to compete with other parties arguing that their subject should be part of the educational materials, so we have to make a hard case for it. Getting something into the curriculum is very hard, so you can start just by getting something outside of the curriculum — summer and winter schools, which gives you modules, teaching materials, and student evaluations.”
The Philosophy of Safe-by-Design: User Agency vs. User Safety
I asked Marie-Louise if she worked mostly with students in the sciences, and she noted that Safe-by-Design programming was interdisciplinary. She works to integrate Safe-by-Design into science programs as well as in philosophy of science: “There we’re trying to catch the big thinkers who will go into NGOs and that kind of thing. There are two sides of Safe-by-Design. It’s “how do I do it?” and that’s for engineers and bio students. Then when you come to the science philosophers, it’s “why should you make things safe-by-design if the user is not allowed to tinker with the product?” Making something foolproof takes “something of the liberty of the users away,” Marie-Louise says. Ethics have been critical of the development of Responsible Research and Innovation, about who is responsible and how far developers should go.
As an example, she mentioned a study where people were interacting with machines: “There was an experiment where they gave people a coffee machine and said, ‘Fix it.’ They wanted to see what everyday people would do. The machines appeared to still be connected to the electricity because they were still plugged in, but the electricity wasn’t connected. Most of the people would open up the coffee machine without unplugging it, and if the electricity had been connected, they could have been electroshocked.”
Movements like the right to repair advocate for consumers to be able to fix their own products. In some ways, designing for safety might purposefully try to make user tinkering impossible, however, the right to repair movement overall is more critical of “black box” solutions that make a product purposefully complex or incompatible with common tools (we’ve all had the problem where we can’t replace our phone charger because the plug style changes too often). In many circumstances, companies can design for user safety without introducing locked or black box solutions that users may not have the skills or expertise to engage with.
International Uptake of Safe-by-Design
I had never heard of Safe-by-Design here in Canada and asked Marie-Louise about its international popularity. She noted that other countries were working on it but primarily in Europe: “The other countries in SPINE are very interested in the project. Spain is integrating Safe-by-Design very well in education. Interestingly, Austria has a lot of companies interested, they don’t seem to have the same trouble engaging the private sector at all. Other countries like Estonia are only starting with safe-by-design, and Denmark and Sweden are looking into the principle as well. Also, Switzerland has developed a tool for small and medium enterprises: the Precautionary matrix for nanomaterials [Precautionary matrix for synthetic nanomaterials — Download Version (admin.ch)]. We have some interest also from assessors: sometimes they’re an NGO, sometimes they’re ministry agencies that need to do risk assessments of biotech and nanotech.”
In addition, the European Commission published a chemicals strategy for sustainability on 14 October 2020. It is part of the EU’s zero pollution ambition, which is a key commitment of the European Green Deal. Safe-by-Design is an important part of the strategy.
In conclusion, Marie-Louise gave a final piece of advice for any implementation of Safe-by-Design or other ethical technology frameworks: “The thing that does work is to engage as many stakeholders as possible and then really listen to what they have to say as early as possible in the process. I think that if you just explain to people the policy, the decision, and why they’re working toward it, and give people time to come to the same conclusion, that’s a very good way to ensure the policy really works. Early engagement, transparency, communication. What doesn’t work is just telling people what to do without explaining it.”
For readers interested in learning more, the Dutch Safe-by-Design website contains a form for parties who would like to get in touch with the project team. Visit it at: https://www.safe-by-design-nl.nl/home+english/default.aspx.
This article was adapted from a research interview conducted for the ICTC report Responsible Innovation in Canada and Beyond, with kind contributions from the Safe-by-Design Team.