Digital innovation is generating multiple business opportunities. But how and what kind of values are created is determined by those involved. A lack of diverse perspectives and experiences can have a diverse impact on the type of digital innovation that gets explored. It can also impact the representativeness of the products and services created. Mistakes abound in digital innovation that could have been avoided with the inclusion of more diversity, with respect to gender, age, race, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and disability. Recent examples AI-enabled speech recognition that has difficulty identifying female voices, and facial recognition techniques that have difficulty with darker skin colors.
To prevent such mistakes in future digital innovations, a greater understanding of diversity as it relates to underrepresented and underserved groups in relation to the development, deployment, management, use, and impact of digital systems, technologies and products is needed. But this first requires a working awareness of diversity and inclusion as they relate to digital technologies.
In the field of information systems research, inclusion issues have focused on several topics. Gender issues focus on the barriers and biases affecting women in IT. Geographical issues focus on the impact of the Internet have and have-nots, commonly known as the “digital divide.” Cultural issues focus on how digital technologies enable societal participation, and there is growing awareness of developing accessible digital products that cater to diverse physical, sensory and cognitive abilities.
What kinds of inclusion issues may be linked to digitally-based products and services that we might not be aware of?
Ariella Lehrer, CEO of Legacy Games, a US-based gaming company, understands the issue of diversity and inclusion, especially within her industry. Her company focuses on a niche segment of gamers: women over 40 years who enjoy casual gaming. As the primary distributor of casual games to Walmart, Legacy Games continues to develop physical gaming products in the form of CD-ROMs.
“With the move to mobile and streaming, most people don’t realize that CD-ROM products are an ongoing business. Our customers still prefer playing puzzle games on PCs for a variety of reasons. Some still do not own a smartphone, and in many parts of the US, there continues to be a lack of good internet access. We focus on these customers who are left behind in this transition, although we are trying to bring these customers online “ explains Lehrer.
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Who else is being overlooked, and how they could be brought in to fully participate in digital innovation became a key point in research we conducted about online hackathons during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the COVID-19 lockdowns started happening in March/April of last year, a series of hackathons emerged around the world to develop ideas for COVID-19 solutions in healthcare, mobility, education and communication. Given the lockdown constraints, these hackathons were conducted virtually and required individuals, usually complete strangers, to log-on and organize themselves into 5-10 person teams with diverse knowledge and skillsets.
The great success of these online hackathons was the vast number of people who participated. Research has shown that the collective effort of large numbers of diverse individuals is considered better than a few experts. While participants in physical hackathons are limited due to location constraints, the COVID-19 online hackathons attracted thousands of participants from all walks of life: students, retirees, employees and parents, amongst others.
But people from all walks of life come with an equally diverse level of digital skills and knowledge. A lack of familiarity with certain online collaboration tools effectively marked a digital divide among individuals. And diverse backgrounds also brought diverse personal routines. For example, the virtual format allowed parents of young children greater access to participation since they wouldn’t be physically spending 48 hours in a gathering space such as a warehouse, where hackathons often take place. But parents have obligations: Some participants had to step away to care for kids and prepare family meals.
The COVID-19 hackathons are just one example of how innovative ideas are generated when diverse people can participate in the process. In this increasingly digital world, however, being mindful of ensuring access to participate, regardless of background and digital skills is important. Being purposeful about digital inclusion could help improve effort in future digital innovations.