The Future Vs. Regulation

If we assume that Moore’s law, the exponential increase of technological advancements, is correct then regulatory bodies who control what is available to consumers across all sectors have very little chance of keeping up. 

Signs that they are falling behind are already popping up throughout the media making this an ideal time to reflect on some of these events. Are changes necessary if regulation is to have any place in the future we are creating?

On a Monday afternoon on the 19th of December 2016, a prototype autonomous car commissioned by Uber ignored a red light in downtown San Francisco (The Verge, 2017). The company had released the cars onto the road only one-week prior to this incident. They had failed to fill out the forms required to test these cars with local authorities. However, it wasn’t until after the mistake had already been made that the company was asked to remove all their prototype cars from the road. It appears nothing had been learnt from an accident six months earlier. On the 7th of May 2016, a man sadly passed away whilst using the autopilot feature in a Tesla when the car failed to detect a white lorry blocking the road (The Guardian, 2016). Tesla has since retracted its cars’ autopilot capabilities as it undergoes further development.

This kind of regulatory inaction is mirrored through other sectors that are difficult for regulatory bodies to understand.

Juxtaposed to this inaction is the over-regulation of the types of systems that are simple for regulators to understand. It is easy for regulatory bodies to bury their heads in the sand and focus on simple issues, the regulation of which only having a minor impact. A good example of this is the over the persecution of big Tobacco companies through packaging regulation. The use of warning labels and graphic imagery was an effective method of warning and reminding users of the dangers of smoking to personal health. However, in May 2017 Tobacco companies were no longer allowed so much as a font to differentiate themselves from the competition (NACS, 2015). Imagine if this approach was taken with all damaging substances we consume. We might find ourselves drinking a beer from a generic bottle displaying an image of a decaying liver. This level of nanny state intervention seems to be a waste of resources that could be put to better use. Developing regulation for complex, fast approaching innovations in digital health, self-driving vehicles, consumer data protection and Artificial Intelligence.

To be fair we must consider the balance of this argument. The cost of bringing a low-risk medical device to market is around 30 million pounds with 25 million of that being spent on gaining regulatory approval, that’s around 84% of the cost for a low-risk product to enter the market (Nature Medicine, 2015). The medical device development regulatory body, the FDA, employs thousands of people and supports entire industries. If you were to relax the regulation to reduce the cost of these low-risk products it would have a negative impact on the tens of thousands of employees that the FDA supports.

So, what is a designer to do? Should companies be left to continue the march of progression and treat regulation as an unfortunate side effect of innovation?
As designers, we are taught to see the bigger picture. Regulation, at its core, is a system design problem. Therefore, surely designers need to be the ones acknowledge the problem and design a solution to replace this archaic system. To find a place for regulation in the 21st-century design process. This solution must tackle the key issues discussed: inaction or subsequent action, hyperfocus and producing its own economic benefits without adding extortionate costs to product development.
When searching for solutions it is helpful to consider where effective and future-facing regulation has been successfully implemented. A great example is found in the scientific community. In February of 1975, the Asilomar Conference began in a beachside city just south of San Francisco. It was one of the most important meetings in modern biology between biologists, doctors and lawyers. In this meeting, the legal limits of scientific research into genetic engineering were defined. This meeting happened 28 years before the full human genome was sequenced for the first time in 2003 (Wikipedia, 2017). Professionals in the field predicted the future ethical implications of genetic engineering to prevent possible exploitation or misuse.

This kind of pre-planning and self-regulation, to define both minimum and maximum limitations could be part of the solution. The harsh reality is these regulations should have already been defined before companies are even permitted to develop consumer products based on novel technologies and the failings of this to happen so far have already been a direct cause of death. If we were to implement this pre-planning attitude and governments began to move resources into understanding far-reaching problems and developing laws and etiquette for wrongful applications or use without adequate testing then having a more egalitarian society may be possible. Furthermore, if entire industries could agree on which charging port to use on an electric car then how might that affect how we can think about designing fuelling stations of the future? How quickly might we make progress? Some might say this approach stands in the way of capitalism, business competition and the free market. I would say, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. The free market isn’t that free when you need to trade 80% of your idea for the funds to get it started.

So perhaps regulation could be used to speed up new product development by encouraging co-operative design practices to the benefit of the user and maybe this could even make an easier platform for new players to enter the NDP design market. Unfortunately, as with many socio-political design problems, we can contemplate an appropriate solution but systems resist change. So, we watch as no progress is made. The regulation system is, after all, an endangered species, both clumsy, archaic and not fit for purpose. We will either find a way to influence and save it or let it disappear and risk one innovation-led disaster after another.


Article by Sam Gutheridge

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