Innovation Meets Diversity

Innovation Meets Inclusion Photo

The world isn’t homogenous—and products shouldn’t be either. Embedding inclusion of culture, race, experience, sexual orientation, thought, nationality, generation or gender into the DNA of new product development isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do—it pulls in often-neglected customers. Tapping into empathy and user-focused feedback, teams can tap into new perspectives and deliver innovative products that speak directly to their target audiences. 

Here are four recent examples of diversity and inclusion in action. 

Access Granted

The demand for accessibility is growing: By 2050, 15 percent of the 6.25 billion people living in urban areas, or 940 million people, will have a disability, according to the United Nations. Recognizing that need, the Public Works Bureau of Shenzhen Municipality launched a project to build a rehabilitation center, scheduled for completion in 2023. The facility will provide services for people with disabilities aged 16 to 60, including rehabilitation, training, recreation, education and art events. There’s even an on-site museum. At 130,000 square meters (1.4 million square feet), it will be the largest such rehabilitation center in China. 

For Italian architecture firm Stefano Boeri Architetti, the goal is to eradicate barriers and build a better understanding of disability. “Our project opens up a new perspective on the architecture of large rehabilitation centers,” founding partner Stefano Boeri said. 

The US$153.5 million complex will be opened up toward the city and arranged around a large open courtyard and will be directly connected to Shenzhen’s light mobility system. Therapeutic green spaces will be integrated into each level of the structure, including the rooftop. 

The design “perceives the concept of motor and/or cognitive disability not as an example of fragility suffered by a minority of people but as a condition that is common to us all, even if only during one phase of our life,” Boeri said. 

Toys Will Be Toys

Since the 1940s, the toy market has typically stuck to traditional gender norms: trucks for boys and dolls for girls. And most of those dolls had blond hair and blue eyes and wore a whole lot of pink. The company behind one of the most famous lines—the hugely popular Barbie dolls—added diversity elements to the franchise decades ago. But it recently developed an even more inclusive option: the world’s first gender-inclusive doll kits.

Available in a variety of skin tones, along with wide-ranging wardrobe and wig options, Mattel’s Creatable World lets kids customize dolls in any way they choose.

“Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels,” said Kim Culmone, senior vice president, Mattel fashion doll design. 

To ensure the doll kits were authentic, the team first consulted physicians and experts in gender identity. Those conversations confirmed research showing “kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms,” Culmone said. The team also tested the dolls with 250 families, including 15 children who identify as transgender, gender nonbinary or gender-fluid. 

Four months after the initial launch, Mattel took its inclusivity push one step further in January, expanding the line to include dolls without hair, with the skin condition vitiligo and with prosthetic limbs.

Making a Match in Mental Health

 A therapist who truly understands—and empathizes with—someone’s specific struggles can provide life-changing support. And yet many people of color find it difficult to find that therapist. In the U.S. alone, just one in three Black adults who need mental health care currently receive it. Part of the problem comes down to supply and demand: In 2015, only 4 percent of psychologists were Black, while just 5 percent were Asian and 5 percent were Hispanic. 

Ayana, a new app set to launch soon, aims to help people of color and other marginalized communities access mental health services that truly meet their needs. CEO and founder Eric Coly says he was inspired to build the app after hearing about a friend’s struggles finding a therapist with whom she felt comfortable.  “I have suffered from very severe and debilitating issues of depression,” said Coly, a native of Senegal and former investment banker in Los Angeles, California, USA. “Finding a counselor one feels comfortable opening up to while of color, queer or an intersection of both, is very difficult—and considerably more challenging for double or triple minorities.” 

Coly spent one year building Ayana, which means “mirror” in Bengali and reflects Coly’s aim to connect people with therapists of similar backgrounds and values. The app allows users to fill out a questionnaire aimed at gauging cultural factors and then employs a unique algorithm to match users to a licensed therapist based on preferences around gender, orientation, ethnicity, culture, class, language and values. 

Once they’re matched, members use the app to book and receive therapy sessions via video, phone calls or text messages. To ensure patients feel safe in their discussions, the team built in end-to-end encryption protocols to protect user privacy. Increasing accessibility is also a priority to the project team: While the service currently costs US$140 to US$180 a month, the Ayana team is forming partnerships with nonprofits to eventually offer the app for free to those who can’t afford it.

Fashion Reset

The fashion industry is built on trends. But instead of glomming onto a hot new color or fabric, some designers are out to make a social impact by creating adaptive clothing, apparel designed for people living with disabilities. One prime example: U.K. designer Monika Dugar, who unveiled her Reset line in January aims to boost mobility in people with Parkinson’s disease.

Inspired by her father’s diagnosis with the progressive nervous system disorder, Dugar incorporated graphic design elements based on research that suggests a link between gait disorders and visual perception. The optical illusions in the clothing patterns are meant to actively “reset” the brain. Other adaptive features include magnetic closures, angled pockets and Velcro fastenings, all of which reduce friction and allow people to be dressed by a caretaker or to dress themselves more easily.

Dugar came up with the line as part of a project for her final year at design school, and she’s already planning to solicit feedback for future iterations. “My plan is to send my clothing samples to people across healthcare to really see what the faults are in my collection, so that we can change and customize it accordingly,” Dugar told Parkinson’s Life magazine.