Exploring scaling dignity— reflections from EPIC Conference 2020

"What is this all about?" by antwerpenR licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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For the past couple of days, I’ve been attending the EPIC conference. Completely online (of course). In three different timezones. EPIC is “a global community advancing the value of ethnography in business and organization”. I’ve also had the pleasure of contributing a Pecha Kucha to one of the conference sessions on “Humanizing scale”.

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Humanizing Scale session at EPIC Conference 2020

A Pecha Kucha, for those unfamiliar (like I was before doing this one!) is a presentation format of 20 slides that move automatically every 20 seconds. It’s meant to serve as an ‘idea injection’. In this case it was then followed by sharing of two pieces of research…. I imagine that doing one in real life is slightly more terrifying than the situation I found myself in, which was to pre-record it and then somewhat awkwardly watch it being played back before answering some Q&A live afterwards.

The theme of the EPIC conference is scale:

“How can we engage, work across, and reframe scale in a world where bigger, faster, easier, broader are the desired and expected goals? In these times of critical, planet-wide challenges, we explore how concepts of scale define the scopes, contexts, and impacts of ethnographic work in creating value in organizations, and in sustaining our global futures”

(EPIC Conference theme, 2020)

My own provocation to the concept of scale was to consider how we might scale dignity. It was a great opportunity to collate some of my experiences to date across my previous roles as Marketing & Innovation Director at SolarNow and Director at PwC’s Indigenous Consulting and my current experiences considering dignity-enabling technologies as a 3A Institute Masters student.

I was thrilled to be a part of the session with Calen Cole from Stripe PartnersCarolyn Wei from Facebook Research and Thomas Hughes, Ian Dull and Fani Ntavelou-Baum from ReD Associates.

There were some really fascinating questions which I wanted to capture here as we didn’t have a chance to go through them all in the 15 minute Q&A. I’ve loosely grouped these questions into four themes below.

Theme 1: Definitions of dignity

In a 6 minute 40 second presentation, I didn’t focus at all on definitions of dignity. Defining dignity can take on many formats relative to the task at hand, and I’m certainly in the early stages of understanding what this term means for the purpose of unpacking what dignity-centred design could look like or dignity-enabling technologies.

A few of the questions raised in the Q&A were connected to definitions of dignity for example relative vs absolute dignity, what would constitute ‘more’ or less’ dignity etc.

Definitions of dignity have been a part of my explorations to date and definitely warrant further investigation as I progress in my research journey.

So far, my reflections on definitions of dignity are conceptualised in two broad buckets:

  1. Inviolable, universal dignity — something everyone has that cannot be eroded, is fundamental to the human existence. Enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Article 1 for examples “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”
  2. Other forms of dignity also referred to as ‘aspirational dignity’ (Schroeder, 2006)- there are many academics who have taken on trying to define types of dignity that can be affected by others’ behaviours and actions. For example Schroeder (2006), Nordenflet (2004), Bostrom (2008). Bostrom (2008), for example defines two forms of dignity in addition to inviolable dignity:
  • Dignity as a quality — associated with notions of self-worth and self-respect
  • Dignity as a social status — associated with your position in society e.g. as an elder or a doctor or parliamentarian (relative to context)

So, perhaps the distinction between absolute and relative dignity could be mapped to inviolable/ universal dignity and other forms of dignity respectively. Articulating what would be ‘more or less’ dignity would then depend on the specific situation and I anticipate would be more of a spectrum distinction.

An example I gave in one of the sessions was that of a robot designed to assist with moving and washing elderly people. If it’s designed to move a person like an object on an assembly line without asking them, this could impact a person’s sense of self-worth or self-respect (affecting ‘dignity as a quality’). If that same robot personalised the interaction to ask them by name before lifting them, would that be ‘more’ dignified?

Further exploration regarding definitions of dignity can be found in this small online course — a very preliminary reflection on dignity-enabling technologies.

Theme 2: Examples of scaling dignity in practice.

Quite a few questions were associated with translating the concept of scaling dignity into practice, for example:

What does scale mean in the context of ‘scaling dignity’?

What would scaling dignity look like in the context of machine learning where values and decisions are opaque?

I’ve been thinking about this machine learning context particularly as we have spent the majority of this semester’s Build class immersed in machine learning (ML) — not just the ‘technicalities’ of it, but also bias and fairness considerations. Could scaling notions of fairness be a part of dignity-centred design of ML? I look forward to unpacking that further as part of my upcoming Build portfolio.

One reflection on this theme in particular is that there are dignity-centred practices at all different parts of the lifecycle of new technology development. I think often we spend a lot of time talking about design, which is, of course, very important. However, when it comes to dignity and technology, design is only part of the conversation. How the technology is used ‘in the wild’ may be surprising to the original designers, it may change over time with changing contexts and in ways that they may never had intended or imagined. This opens a lot of questions about monitoring the impact of technologies on dignity of others in operation, management and de-commissioning, as well as in design. Could scaling dignity look like embedding consequence mapping processes, not just for ‘mainstream’ populations of interest but also for people considered ‘fringe’ or ‘edge’? Could it look like embedding these considerations in design phases as well as operation and management phases? Could scaling dignity be a function of mindset? Could scaling dignity be possible through explicit dignity-related values embedded in design, operation and management?

Theme 3: Practicalities of implementing a dignity-centred approach and measures of dignity

Notions of understanding and unpacking impacts of technologies on dignity is closely connected to another theme that emerged regarding implementation and measures of dignity.

How do you know if you’re on the right track?

This is a really important question and I think would benefit from diving in to a specific case study in more detail (hopefully what I will be doing in a next few months as part of my Masters course — if you have a case study that may be interesting to explore, please reach out (see end of article for more details)).

It reminds me a bit of some of career as a strategy consultant where we spent a lot of time translating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration) into an operational framework across multiple frames of maturity. Being able to move from a principles-based framing to one focused on indicators was an valuable tool in being able to communicate how the Declaration was relevant in practice, in businesses, within specific business units and in particular roles. It provided a way of measuring if organisations were ‘on track’ and what they could do to further embed the rights of Indigenous peoples in their systems, processes and organisational cultures. It also fostered a sense of collective responsibility once the breadth of potential intervention points was understood which often brought together otherwise siloed groups across an organisation. Over time, it could also provide a way of businesses learning from each other as well. Given dignity is part of a Human Rights framing, I wonder what can be learned from this experience in embedding more dignity-first approaches.

Theme 4: Dignity and its connection to self-determination, care, justice, inclusivity, accessibility, localisation, listening

It was fascinating to see participants in the session connect the conversation around dignity to concepts used in their own contexts.

Self-determination was identified as a mechanism for scaling dignity in my Pecha Kucha and this resonated with a few different comments and questions from the audience. In the case of the establishment of PwC’s Indigenous Consulting, one crucial manifestation of that self-determination in practice is a majority Indigenous ownership structure which flows into governance considerations such as a majority Indigenous leadership team and majority Indigenous Board and majority Indigenous staff. That, of course, is only a small part of the story, however the connection made between self-determination and ownership by a comment in the session was certainly a part of translating dignity into practice. A lot more could be said about the Indigenous worldviews and wisdom also embedded in the organisation, however that is a story for others to potentially share.

Ideas of care as associated with dignity were also raised which would be an interesting concept to understand further in different organisational cultures. Linkages were also made between poverty and justice. Members of the audience were keen to point out that dignity is not just linked to poverty alleviation, but to broader concepts of inclusivity and accessibility for all.

Concepts of localisation and listening as important to dignity were also raised and I would liken to thoughts about dignity being about seeing people on a personal level, for their uniqueness, not as a generalisation. To have a local view can be helpful for this, as is deep listening.

I believe that all of these linkages to other concepts are useful information points when considering the concept of dignity and I look forward to pondering on them further.

All in all, the EPIC conference has provided a really active and interesting place to further thinking around dignity-first approaches to ethnography, to technology development and beyond. I look forward to further exploring these questions and many more in the months ahead!

Do you have a case study that could be helpful for further unpacking dignity-centred approaches?

As part of the Master of Applied Cybernetics that I am completing at ANU’s 3A Institute, I am currently devising a small research capstone project around dignity-centred technology. Some questions it may explore include (WIP):

What will it take to change our focus to invest in technologies that enable human dignity?

What lessons can we learn from existing dignity-centred technology? How can we reimagine technology with a dignity-first paradigm in mind?

To do this though, we’re looking for a good case study to ground some research and observations in and we’re hoping you may have some ideas.

We believe a “a good case study” could look like:

  • An technological system that appears to have dignity at the centre and seeks to address a need in a population that may often be ‘forgotten’. This could be a ‘success story’ or also be an example that has ‘failed’ OR
  • A particular example of a technological system that seeks to address a need in a population that may often be ‘forgotten’’, which despite its best intentions / its promising start, had consequences ultimately at odds with human dignity.

If you have a case that you think could be a good fit — please reach out!!


Bostrom, N. (2008) Dignity and enhancement. In A. Schulman, F. Daniel Davis, & D. C. Dennett, et al. (Eds.), Human dignity and bioethics: Essays commissioned by the president’s council on bioethics (pp. 173–207). Washington, DC.

Nordenfelt, L. (2004). The varieties of dignity. Health Care Analysis, 12(2), 69–81.

Schroeder, D. (2008). Dignity — two riddles and four concepts. Cambridge Quarterly of Health Care Ethics, 17(2), 230–238.

United Nations. (2007). United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, A/61/295. Retrieved from https://undocs.org/A/RES/61/295