Oliver Bolton On Design Ethics and Effective Altruism


Oliver Bolton is a design ethicist and philosopher whose primary interests are in artificial intelligence, where he examines existential risk, axiology and semiotics. Starting out with a background in industrial design, Oliver completed his master’s degree in design studies at Parsons School of Design in New York.

Upon returning to Australia, he spent two years working for the PwC Chair in Digital Economy at QUT, and currently works as an innovation consultant for GLASS, a Brisbane based technology and advisory consultancy where he employees design strategy to assist companies and organisations with customer experience, automation and business model design. Oliver has worked for design firms and nonprofits in New York, and in Australia has consulted for various companies such as Suncorp, Brown-Forman, Minor DKL, and the Queensland Government.


Oliver shares insights into understanding values to inform decision making, coming up with ideas based on the right information and design strategy as a tool to innovate.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Thomas Long] - To start things off, could you please share a bit about your background in innovation consulting and what led to your studies in design ethics?

[Oliver Bolton] - I started out in industrial design focusing on audio technology. When I was doing my undergrad work I wanted to get into the music space, designing guitars and that sort of thing. That then led me into the audio realm - my undergraduate thesis looked at some of the inherent design flaws in recording studio technology, particularly relating to communication. And that inspired me to then spend some time working at a friend's recording studio in Brisbane, where I first became interested in social enterprise. It wasn't a non for profit exactly, but it was very dedicated to the underground music scene in Brisbane, so it had a community feel to it. 

The innovation and design ethics space, I got into that when I started my Master's degree in design studies at Parsons over in New York. My studies there involved a really deep exploration of critical theory and postmodern philosophy, and the program was about the application of those theories to the practice of designing, which was very unique. So during my time at Parson’s I got to study with Clive Dilnot who was my thesis supervisor, and his theories around the nature of artificiality have been very influential in my thinking. My graduate research explored the concept of existential risk within design, with a particular focus on unintended consequences, my hypothesis being that if you give designers enough time and enough resources, it is possible for them to map out all of the possible outcomes of any given solution. 

The case study that I used was in town planning and soundscapes. So basically I argued that if town planners had been given enough time to consider all the possible outcomes of their design, then the more modern practice of urban acoustics might've been picked up a bit earlier. More recently I've become involved in the field of machine ethics, which is the study of how to create machines embedded with ethical principles, which obviously correlates with artificial intelligence. I love AI as an area of ethical investigation - there's a quote I love from a philosopher, Dan Dennett, who said that ‘AI makes philosophy honest’. So having looked at a lot of postmodern philosophy, because there's a fair bit of it that can get off the rails and a lot of it that's very interesting, but when you're applying it, whether it's ethics or cognitive science, when you look at it through the AI Lens it really weeds out the nonsense from the things that make it very clear what intelligence is. Very recently I've become interested in the study of axiology, which is the study of how societies determine their values, which of course plays a big role in the development of ethical or friendly AI. 

Professionally I've been working for the past few years in the consultancy space within innovation and trying to bring a strategic and philosophical lens to design practice, which is an approach that's practically unheard of in Brisbane. But I've been lucky that there've been a few great places that are willing to take me on and experiment with it, first at the PwC Chair in Digital Economy at QUT and now here at GLASS. I really do believe that design strategy, which is that philosophical approach to design, is really superior to traditional design thinking. I think it brings a higher level of fidelity in outcomes then design thinking does. It basically takes a lot of things that you'll find in design thinking and it's one step further in its depth. Design thinking for the most part is basically a combination of heuristics - simple methodologies taken from various fields, like psychology, sociology and all that. What design strategy does, is it implements that extra level of depth in its approaches using those methodologies. 


It's such an interesting background and then going forward to design strategy and how it can advance innovation in such a way. Given your background in connecting design strategy and innovation to business, do you feel that design strategy and specifically in this case design ethics could have an important role within the social enterprise space? 

Yeah, absolutely. Design ethics are applicable to all forms of enterprise and not necessarily just a social enterprise, but there are particular concerns that arise within the social enterprise space that are quite interesting. Some of the questions that I've become interested in involve a utilitarian perspective on doing good that can sometimes devolve into a form of virtue ethics - a sort of God complex which can get a bit worrying, which I guess is to say that sometimes people involved with running organisations or enterprises that are dedicated to doing good, can sometimes justify unethical activity that benefits the organisation. Somewhat analogous I suppose to a corrupt cop who becomes so convinced that what they're doing is right, that the person they’re after has done the crime, that they will plant some evidence in order to obtain a conviction. It takes a certain amount of self assuredness in the quality of one's character to commit an ethical breach like that, and social entrepreneurs face similar traps, similar areas where they need to be careful - they've got to keep their eye on the ball in terms of not just being output focused, but also being ethical in their methodologies as well.

Can you elaborate on the topic of design ethics involved with the utilitarian perspective on capitalist production?

Well first I'd probably say that you want to be careful with language like utilitarian capitalism, because most companies contribute net benefits to society in one form or another. So a term like social enterprise is probably a little more accurate when it comes to the sort of businesses we're talking about. 

And there are some elements of social enterprise that as a mode of production are very interesting when it comes to design ethics, and I particularly like the way that it takes on provocation as a tool. Social enterprises through their nature tend to be unambiguous - they have a position on an issue and they say “Here's how we see a problem, and this is the way we think is the best way to solve this issue”, and by simply taking a position an issue that instigates discussion and discussion goes to a dialectic where new ideas emerge and can be developed that can contribute to better ethical practice.

What ethical considerations can social initiatives apply when they are looking to release products into the market? 

I get asked this sort of question a lot obviously being a design ethicist, not only by social entrepreneurs, but also by designers who just want to create more ethical outputs. I might have to disappoint you however in that I don't necessarily believe that it's the role of the ethicist to elucidate whether or not specific ethical concerns should be considered by particular organisations, enterprises and so on. And the reason for that is because I think that most people think that the ethicist role is simply to be a goody two shoes, to be the person on the corner of the street saying ‘Don't litter! Recycle!’. People who are ethically engaged will listen to that normative advice, but many then get into questions of “Now that I’m looking for ethical advice, who should I listen to?”, because there are a lot of amateur ethicists out there who think that their role is to virtue signal, which is basically taking the prevailing ethical trends of the time, which is another way of saying ‘fashionable ethics’, and apply that to practice, and that will be as good for as long as those ethics are fashionable.

One of the main reasons why businesses and organisations want to understand ethics more is to mitigate the risk of long term poor decision making. If you're a company and you want to say ‘look, we've got this new service, we've got this new product and we want to implement ethics around how we deliver this to our customers’, you don't want to be ethically insured just for the foreseeable six months or a year, and you don't want to end up on a John Oliver skewer ten years down the track - you want to have a good understanding that the way you're implementing this is consistent, logically consistent with the way that your larger practice operates. And so that's basically what I often say not only to friends and colleagues, but also to clients.

A lot of good ethical advice can be normative - most good ethical advice is normative. However I like to say that…

the best tool you can give someone is an understanding of their own values, which is their own axiology.

It's sort of like that old adage ‘If you give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day - if you teach a man to fish he'll never go hungry’. To that extent I suppose the best counsel I can offer is that whether you're doing social enterprise or not, you should always strive to be logically consistent in ethical decision making. And that's not to say necessarily that you should employ a deontological approach to ethics - not everything is black and white. I happen to personally be a utilitarian, but for example if you are a utilitarian, then being logically consistent would involve ignoring those gut reactions, working to make sure you're not implementing some sort of moral absolutism, that you're always taking the time to consider what is the best possible course of action. 


That's a very interesting answer that can definitely be extrapolated on. The next topic explores whether the social enterprise fits the mold of effective altruism. Before we discuss that further, would you mind explaining the basis of effective altruism?

Yeah sure, I'll probably start by hedging my definition because I'm not necessarily a proponent of effective altruism. I'm a proponent of a formative effective altruism, but I'll say that my definition may or may not live up to the standards of someone who is more of an effective altruist than I am. But nonetheless, as far as I understand, effective altruism is ethical philosophy, in which individuals or groups seek to have the greatest impact that they can with the resources that they have, which I suppose on the surface sounds pretty good. It's a sort of reverse engineering of a philanthropy that has a couple of parts, but it's very heavily influenced by the work of the iconic Australian bioethicist Peter Singer. He wrote an essay back in the mid seventies called “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” which helped to provide the theoretical underpinnings. That essay included the analogy of the drowning child - so if I believe I have the context correct, there was a time when Bangladesh was facing a famine and basically he argued that if you were a person walking down the street in your neighbourhood or your suburb and you saw a child drowning in a pond, you would feel morally obligated to go and help that child. And he was basically saying just because the child is drowning in a pond on the other side of the planet, that doesn't mean that we have any less of an obligation to contribute and to help that person.

So the two parts of the effective altruism in its contemporary format is first that effective altruists are often encouraged to pursue the most profitable career open to them with the intention that they will then donate as much of that profit as possible to charity. There's two parts to the second element of ‘EA’ as it is otherwise known, which is that the charities go to organisations that can show measurement in the good they do. Obviously most people are nowadays aware, they didn't used to be, but nowadays it's quite common knowledge, you'll find that some charities have operating costs that are rather high, sometimes it can be as much as 50% of what you'll donate will go into the administration of the charity and won’t actually get to the people in need.

So charities that are EA approved, (and there are websites you can look up to see which charities are officially approved by effective altruist organisations), tend to be organisations that have very low overheads, so that the majority of the money that you donate is going to be doing some good.

They all seem to be organisations that have a really good ability to measure the impact they have, that have a very high focus on metrics because it's almost an empirical approach to doing good.

While that's all good and well, there are criticisms that people have about measurement as a concern in EA. A lot of those concerns are probably valid because there are some serious problems in the world that we face that need more resources, more donations, more philanthropy, that don’t get as many donations simply because they're difficult to measure.

The second part of it that I have more severe criticisms of is the axiology, which is the value system that most EA’s follow, which derives from the work with Peter Singer. They say saving lives is more important than improving the quality of life. So I suppose the analogy there is to say that if you could give $5 to one organisation, in Africa or in the South Pacific for example, that will build one malaria net for $5 and that malaria net will save a life. But it might cost $100 or $1,000, for example, to train a seeing eye dog in a country like Australia or the United States. So basically what EA’s would argue is that for the price of one seeing eye dog that will improve the quality of one blind person's life, you could save the entire lives of many children who may be affected by malaria. I am a negative preference utilitarian, and what that means is that I see suffering as significantly more important than the presence of pleasure. Most utilitarians balance those two things. So if you had say a vaccine, you're getting a jab for meningococcal or small pox or something, the jab of a needle is one unit of bad, one unit of pain. But the prevention of something like meningococcal or small pox is a hundred units of good. Now that'll make sense to someone who was a balanced utilitarian, even that makes sense to someone who's a negative utilitarian. But a negative utilitarian might take a pause on something like a routine blood test, because a routine blood test is only five units of good or ten units of good - so we basically have a construct that's like an offset. We're more concerned with the alleviation of suffering, which only happens within existence, so negative preference utilitarians tend to be more focused on improving the quality of life than just existing.

Another way of saying that I suppose is that if all you are concerned with is expanding the number of people who are alive, you're just concerned with expanding the number of people who are alive who have the ability to suffer, rather than decreasing the amount of suffering that takes place in the world. It's a rather intricate ethical argument, but that's the way that I would put my lens on effective altruism. 


I think that's such an interesting argument as well. For our next question, do you believe that social enterprise fits the mold of effective altruism in its dedication to do social good?

I'd say that generally speaking, social enterprise doesn't fit the mold of effective altruism because social enterprise is more about alternative modes of capitalism than it is about a philosophy of contribution. And to that extent I guess I could be arguing, somewhat controversially, that social entrepreneurs are somewhat selfish. 

They are dedicating their lives to doing good rather than doing the most amount of good that they can do. It's a subtle distinction, but with an important difference. Another way of phrasing it is to say that someone who has all the same impulses as a social entrepreneur in wanting to do good, they would be sacrificing the appearance of doing good. No one goes up to someone who's working at Deloitte or KPMG and says ‘Well done, good on you, pat on the back, you're doing a fantastic job”. There are no awards for effective altruists - yet. If I can be permitted a pop culture reference, it's sort of like how in ‘The Dark Knight’, Batman gives up being the hero because giving up being the hero is how he can contribute the most to Gotham. So it's a good probe I would say for the consciousness of a social entrepreneur, to say to someone who's wanting to do this sort of work “If you wanted to do this sort of work, but everyone thought you were a self-centred sell out, would you still be doing it?”. If the answer is no, then you might want to reevaluate your purpose or your value for why you want to follow this sort of work.

Now having said that, effective altruists also have a flaw, which is that they need charities, they need nonprofits, they need social entrepreneurs in order to be able to achieve the good that they intend to do. After all EA’s need a place to donate to once they've made as much profit as they can. If they don't have the organisations that are actually out there doing the work, then the theory behind their principal is somewhat null and void. I've looped charities, nonprofits and social enterprises in a sort of bucket in there, and of course the idea behind social enterprise is that it's not dependent upon donations and philanthropy, but I think it's worthwhile to say that sometimes in reality the clientele of social enterprises engage their services with the intention of treating it like a charitable contribution, which is something that social entrepreneurs should be aware of. It could just be a utilitarian way of making a decision to say “Look, business coming in means we can do good” - but then how does that make me different from a charity? Just something you've got to throw up and weigh up, because otherwise you're just letting these companies get away with an illusionary form of virtue signalling in which they're trying to act like that donating to a charity, but they're not really donating to a charity.

I really like how that comes back to that study of axiology of understanding what are your core values and moving from that, especially what your values are as a social enterprise and reflecting on what your values are as a person, especially before you enter social enterprise. So these are definitely key questions you need to ask yourself.

I would say that as a negative preference utilitarian, the thing that makes social entrepreneurs have a sort of ‘mirrored approach’ to the way that I'm thinking, is that often I hear when I talk to social entrepreneurs they have a personal connection to the cause that they're working towards, and that's actually a good thing. To an extent I am sometimes a part of the crowd that will critique that sort of ‘identity politics’ for lack of a better term, but at the same time without that direct connection, we run the risk of falling into the effective altruism whirlpool where all of our charitable resources and output goes to only the most dire of circumstances, and we don't do anything that focuses on improving the quality of life which I think is very important. So, you know, if you have a cousin who's blind, a nephew who's deaf, those sorts of motivators for doing social good are positive and they are more than just anecdotal - they serve a real purpose in society. 

Can you give us an overview of how social initiatives can approach innovation within their company and how they can implement that to that social enterprise?

Yeah, so I guess as a design strategist in innovation one of the things that we try to do, apart from coming up with ideas for clients, is to say “Look, the best thing you can do is to be constantly coming up with ideas’. To that extent the work that we do tends to be around, ‘Okay, how can this organisation, how can this group be continuously coming up with ideas?’. 

It's a cultural thing, not just a methodological thing that you put into an organisation, because it's time and it's effort which means money. And not all of those ideas that you've come up with are going to be a fantastic and actually contribute. But the ones that do will help keep the enterprise feeling fresh and feeling like it's brand new.

So the first step in constantly coming up with ideas, is having access to the right information. If you're basing your ideation, your brainstorming, your innovation strategies around the wrong sorts of insights, then you're going to be coming up with the wrong sorts of ideas.

So I now advocate for a division of labor when it comes to customer insights. In the fifties and sixties in America, England and Australia, it was very common for ad firms and design firms to employ psychologists to do customer insights, such that is seemed like a natural fit. 

During the postmodern wave in the 1980s and 1990s, that role shifted to designers, designers became the owners of these dual roles where we had to understand the customer and then directly relate to the product. And I think the thinking behind that was wanting to close the distance between the two, in the odd case that the psychologists couldn't explain themselves well enough to the designers who had to interpret what they were saying in order to make sure that the information got into the products that were designing. There is actually a market shift back to that sort of thinking, but away from psychology and instead now towards sociology and anthropology. So basic overview, obviously everyone's familiar with psychologists who are people who study individuals' behaviours - sociologists study group's behaviour. So when you hear terms like organisational psychology, to a certain extent its interchangeable with sociology. 

Anthropology is somewhat different, it's the study of culture. Obviously nowadays we get the term culture in companies and organisations all the time. Anthropologists have a very specific method they use which is called ethnography, which is basically a really in depth, detailed observation of the culture. If you're a designer, you've basically done a project where you've had the outputs of ethnography or you haven't, and when you have it's a world of difference. You get this giant, lovely, detailed report - here's everything you could possibly want to know about your customer. And it's revolutionary, because designers are lucky if we study a little bit of psychology, a little bit of sociology - but it's just not our practice. We are after all the makers, we are the creators, and it's an important division of labor that I'm happy to see is expanding now in the marketplace.

The second thing that enterprises need is the courage and the intelligence to be provocative with that information. Because when you take information, data or insights, however you'd like to frame it, you put a spin on it that's no one has heard of before, intentionally, something that sounds ridiculous, it generates discussion that will often at times produce the idea, the outcome that you've been looking for. And as I said before, that's something that social enterprises tend to do very well, whether it's just looking for a way to differentiate themselves in the market or because someone in the group has just had a fantastic idea. They tend to be very provocative in the way in which they either think about the problem or they deliver their solution to their customers. 


Can you give us a few examples of companies or social initiatives that are really successfully using innovation based strategies to maximise their impact?

Yeah. There are a few social enterprises that I follow because I think that the work they do is really interesting, and I’ll probably hedge myself again by saying these organisations may not fit everyone's definition of a social enterprise, but nonetheless they’re very innovative groups. So firstly, I was lucky enough to be in New York for one of several launch parties for the UN's ‘He for She Campaign’, which is about engaging men in the campaign for gender equality. The approach of that campaign has taken on the issue of gender equality is just amazing. It's found a way to both engage men in women's issues, without making them feel like monsters for having previously been ignorant. And that's the sort of thing that is sorely missing in today's heavily polarised environment. So the work they do is really good. 

I also like the work of the ‘Circular Experiment’, which I think is now called ‘Coreo’. One of the professors I studied with the US focused on the decoupling of use and ownership, which is a really fanciful way of describing what we now think of as the circular economy, or the sharing economy depending on the way you think about it. These organisations that are working to reevaluate the way in which we as a society think about how and I guess more importantly what we can afford to share.

And the last one I'll give a shout out to cause it's really cute is called ‘Words with Heart’. It's a social enterprise that sells stationary and gives the proceeds to help fund education programs for women. When you go to their website and you look at the stuff they do, they have a very evolved understanding of design and branding, which can never be undervalued in something like a social enterprise. And this is something wonderful about the ontological or semiotic relationship between stationary and education that I just find very appealing.

Thank you so much for those examples. To finish off, could you please share three great design or social innovation books that you would recommend to our listeners.

Three? Oh my God. Okay. Well I guess seeing as how we spoke a great deal about effective altruism, I'll start by recommending a William McCaskill's book. He's a Scottish philosopher. His book is called ‘Doing Good Better’. It really gets into the sort of nitty gritty details behind the EA philosophy, but it's really poignantly written and it makes you feel excited about doing better and not so much guilty about not doing enough, which is really good when you read it ethics books, because there's a fair few that'll do that. 

The second book I'm going to list up is a challenge to all the designers out there. Going back to what I was saying about the differences between design thinking and design strategy, and the heuristics that design thinking uses that design strategy takes a level deeper. The book is called ‘The Body in Pain’ by Elaine Scarry. It's a relatively old book from 1985. Design thinkers or designers should we say, will be very familiar with the use of the term ‘pain points’. Every designer will always talk about “we've going to solve this customer's pain points”. And it's normally just the frustrations that the customer has - they'll do an observation of a situation with a customer and be like “That was where it was frustrating, that's the pain point, we'll solve that”. But that's as deep as the thinking in that area goes. This book is arguably where the concept of pain points originates from, it's really a philosophical deconstruction of the way in which pain affects the human body.

The last chapter is particularly important as it's about the way in which we as designers make objects that are about the alleviation of pain, and that we therefore have an ethical responsibility to be the people who make determinations about what should and should not be the forms of pain we in society need to experience in order to survive. That US professor I was talking about before, Cameron Tonkinwise, he's actually an Australian, he's now back at the University of Technology in Sydney. He gave a fantastic lecture where he referenced the book and was talking about how we think about pain points and pain in design nowadays. The most common way you'd think about it, for example, would be how you get these mugs sometimes and they'll have like a ring at the bottom. When you put it upside down in the dishwasher and it comes out, there's a little bit of water sitting at the top. So when you flip it right side up and you put it back in the cupboard, ‘Uh, I got splashed by that little bit of water’ and a design thinker would look at that and say ‘Oh that's a pain point, that's a frustration, I’ve got to go solve that.” Because designers will solve everything for you - we will make everyone live in castles in clouds in the sky. But as a design ethicist, I think about that dynamic differently, using some of the learnings that are in that book, where you've got to treat the designing of products for customers more like a parent with a child. A child will cry for help all the time, but it's the parent's responsibility in this analogy to be the one who's saying “look, at this moment, this thing that's hurting you - you’ve got to experience that, because it's gonna make you less feeble, less weak’. There's always money to be made in designing for every little issue, but designers should be aware that it is much more good that can be done in contributing to society with the work you do by being more conscious of those sorts of ideas. 

So seeing as how I gave you that book, I'm going to follow that up with an even more challenging book called ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, which is real critical theory, written by a situationist called Guy Debord. His book was very prominent in the occurrence of the Paris riots of 1969, one of the many student revolutions that happened in France. It essentially outlines the way in which people have devolved from a focus on ‘being’ - as in experiencing, living life - into ‘having’, which was the second element, which is materialism, consumerism - and the third one is ‘appearing’. Given the book was written in 1967, it's prescience can't be outstated in the way that it outlined the social media, Instagram, photo-narcissistic generation that we now live in where everything is about appearing as if I am living, but not actually living. And I think as a designer, nothing could be more important than understanding the ways in which the work that we do contributes to that phenomenon, because we should always be striving to do work that makes people aware that they are living and not just really helps them pretend that they are living.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Oliver on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

Find other articles on social innovation.