For developers, it's important to consider social power imbalances when innovating

Vanessa Mason, director of the Institute for the Future, discussed areas of opportunity for health technology and the pitfalls of bias when innovating.
By Laura Lovett
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Photo credit: Mad*Pow

Power dynamics are present in nearly every facet of life — including health innovation. These inequities of power can determine who developers innovate for, and the way in which developers go about creating tools for certain groups, Vanessa Mason, director of the Institute for the Future, said at Mad*Pow's HXD 2019 conference in Boston yesterday.

“In talking about power, all of us bring biases and misconceptions to the work that we do now,” she said during a keynote presentation. “The present is how we think about the future, and it really influences who has power and what we think they can do with it and what they can actually do with it.”

In the future, Mason said she sees opportunities for developers to create tools for populations often overlooked, including women, young adults and people living with mental illness. 

Femtech, or health technology specifically geared towards a female audience, has come on the digital scene with force in recent years. However, Mason points out that the focus of that technology is traditionally quite narrow. 

“About 60 percent of femtech startups are focused on fertility, nursing and pregnancy. Collectively these startups have raised over a billion dollars on investments,” Mason said. “ I am obviously someone really heartened by this news. We are finally, in the digital health industry and by extension medicine, really taking seriously the needs of [women], and really working to serve women’s health. That is incredibly positive news. They are going to have more knowledge and access and understanding of their fertility than they ever have before. We now are starting to see a shift of fertility on the margins now moving just as part of the normal application of being an informed health consumer.”

There are pros and cons to this type of technology. Some potential pitfalls of present day femtech, she said, include privacy issues and questions around health anxiety. 

“We’ve done this at a cost. We’ve basically expanded surveillance of women. We have introduced new privacy questions as they have tracked their periods, and as we introduce new fertility questions earlier,” she said. “In a certain sense we are profiting off a lot of anxiety and fear around trying to get pregnant or trying not to get pregnant.”

Another concern around this type of technology is inclusivity. Mason said that many of the products coming onto the market leave out a large portion of women. 

“We have this very defined paradigm of pregnancy in this country that doesn’t really include populations like lesbians and trans women,” Mason said. “So the question I want to leave you with is, what does designing for wellbeing and health look like for women, all women; specifically what does that wellbeing look like when it doesn’t include pregnancy?”

Next, Mason said health innovators needs to start looking at creating tools for younger populations. In particular, she discussed health issues facing millennials, which often get written off because of the false belief that the youth are healthy. 

"Millennials are the largest generation after baby boomers so if they are already facing issues now  in their 30s, what is it going to be like 20 years from now,” she said. “What are we prepared for and what are we not prepared for in terms of how they can engage and what they care about? …What would AARP for millennials look like? Who would join? Why would they join? What would it mean for the health of their kids? What would it mean for the health of their parents? What would it mean for how we look at age and health, both now and in the future?”

Lastly, she encouraged designers to start innovating for mental health — which she said is often invisible to the rest of the world. In particular she discussed gaming addiction, which last summer was acknowledged by the World Health Organization. Like many areas of health, it is key to listen to the end user about their needs. 

“How can we use the spaces we already have with social networks, and with virtual spaces and virtual reality to really have spaces to reaffirm dignity, reaffirm including people in ways they can feel healthy and seen?”

While more and more technologies become available to developers, at the end fo the day she urged innovators to employ empathy above all. 

“Amid all the technology, innovation and design, it is really easy to get caught up and flooded in algorithms and say, ‘we are just going to automate so many things’,” she said. “And they are kind of missing the human, empathetic connection; the belonging, identity aspect of what does it mean to be human.

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