Safer by Design

An abstract from Safe-by-Design: from Safety to Responsibility
by Ibo van de Poel & Zoë Robaey  22/8/2017

Safe-by-design (SbD) aims at addressing safety issues already during the R&D and design phases
of new technologies. SbD has increasingly become popular in the last few years for addressing the risks of
emerging technologies like nanotechnology and synthetic biology.

Designing for safety has a long tradition in several engineering disciplines. It has even resulted in new
sub-disciplines such as safety science and safety engineering. These have proposed various methods to assess risks and to reduce or minimize them through design.
Some of these approaches are also directly applicable to emerging technologies but others are not or at least not directly applicable.

SbD approaches aim at addressing risks of new technologies like nanotechnology and synthetic biology already in the design phase to eliminate or at least reduce these risks. Doing so requires anticipating the risks of such technologies. However, anticipating risks is not easy given the uncertainty during the design phase.

New applications of nanotechnology and synthetic biology are likely to bring new hazards. Proactively addressing such hazards already during the R&D or design phase as is done in SbD is desirable. SbD is thus useful as a safety design strategy but it should not be understood as an outcome, i.e., it should not be confused with absolute safety, which is unattainable. Also, the association of SbD with inherent safety is somewhat confusing.

In synthetic biology, inherent safety has come to refer to built-in safety, which is never completely fail-safe, while originally in safety engineering it referred to the elimination of certain inherent hazards.

Moreover, if SbD focuses too much on known risk and expected scenarios, and attempts to achieve safety by designing out the user, it is in danger of missing opportunities to make technological applications safer.

Designing out indeterminacy decreases, rather than increases, the ability to deal with unexpected or unknown risks; it neglects the skills and capacities of users to help achieve safe use of products; and it is undemocratic.

The solution is not to be sought in transferring all responsibility to the users of a technology (or to other stakeholders) but rather in a model of shared responsibility. This requires deliberation about how responsibility for safety is best shared among the various actors involved, considering the completeness, fairness and effectiveness of a responsibility distribution in attaining safety.

How this balance is best struck is probably different from product to product and may also depend on the cultural context. We have proposed some requirements and heuristics for designing for the responsibility for safety. It must be admitted that these are still very general and they will need further specification for specific products or classes of products to become effective.

Our point is, however, more general: it is better to design for the responsibility for safety than to try to make products safe-by-design by designing out all human indeterminacy thus barring options for creatively and adaptively attaining safety in real-world situations.

The result of our discussion is not just that we should replace safety by responsibility for safety but also that we should be aware that in the design of any technology a range of values is at stake, values that on occasion may be in conflict. We should therefore be aware that the attainment of one value may come at the cost of others.

There might not be an optimal solution, but we believe that an awareness of both the multiplicity of values and the fundamental uncertainty—which comes in different guises—in design is critical to the design of products that are safe and serve better a wide range of human values.

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