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Gender, disability, seniors: inclusive innovation finds its place in business

Estelle Peyrard
Estelle Peyrard
Research Associate at Institut Interdisciplinaire de l'Innovation at l'École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • Companies have a role to play in building a more inclusive society, both in their HR policies and in the products and services they design.
  • The group of people who are frequently discriminated against or excluded by companies is extremely large.
  • Paradoxically, inclusion policies for people with disabilities are often devised without the participation of the people most affected.
  • Organisations play a major role in providing a link between companies and the people affected, who are far from the workplace.
  • Good practices such as awareness-raising and employee involvement help to spread inclusive innovations.

Com­pa­nies have a role to play in build­ing an inclu­sive soci­ety. Over and above the legal oblig­a­tions, which since 1987 have required com­pa­nies with more than 20 employ­ees to employ peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, the prod­ucts and ser­vices they design con­tribute to the cre­ation of an envi­ron­ment that is favourable, or unfavourable, to all. In prac­tice, inclu­sive com­pa­nies act on two lev­els: in their human resource poli­cies and in the design of their prod­ucts and ser­vices. And this does not stop at peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, rather it con­cerns all those who may be exclud­ed by the com­pa­ny. The white paper pro­duced by the Obser­va­toire de l’innovation inclu­sive, the APF France hand­i­cap Tech­Lab and the Tech­nol­o­gy for Change Chair at Insti­tut Poly­tech­nique de Paris looks at all aspects of inclu­sive­ness in companies.

This work high­lights the dif­fer­ent groups con­cerned by inclu­sive inno­va­tion. These include women, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, the elder­ly, car­ers, peo­ple in pre­car­i­ous or exclud­ed sit­u­a­tions, peo­ple of for­eign ori­gin, LGBTQ+ peo­ple, chil­dren and young peo­ple in gen­er­al. All these groups of peo­ple can be exclud­ed by the com­pa­ny. Either because they suf­fer dis­crim­i­na­tion, or because the company’s prod­ucts and ser­vices do not meet their needs.

To car­ry out this study, we inter­viewed peo­ple work­ing in human resources depart­ments or in research and devel­op­ment, design and mar­ket­ing. Thir­ty major com­pa­nies opened their doors to us (includ­ing BNP Paribas, La Poste, Decathlon, Renault, King­fish­er and Toy­ota) and 37 peo­ple agreed to give us lengthy interviews.

An HR paradox

Human resources depart­ments are famil­iar with ini­tia­tives aimed at peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, and some­times at women and the elder­ly. But our analy­sis reveals a para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion: although their inclu­sion poli­cies are long-stand­ing, they are not gen­er­al­ly part of an inclu­sive process like the one seen in R&D, because they are most­ly designed with­out the involve­ment of the peo­ple affected.

The organ­i­sa­tions involved in imple­ment­ing these poli­cies vary. Some­times they have ded­i­cat­ed teams, some­times they have a focal point, and some­times all their teams are com­mit­ted to the issue. Organ­i­sa­tions play an impor­tant role in these ser­vices. They act as a link between the peo­ple affect­ed and those who are a long way from the work­force. With­out these third-par­ty play­ers, recruiters may strug­gle to find them.

There are also obsta­cles spe­cif­ic to organ­i­sa­tions in this approach, such as the feel­ing of inequity or favouritism, per­ceived by man­agers who have to make adap­ta­tions or by teams. Teams may find it dif­fi­cult to iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic needs, and man­agers are sub­ject to the con­fi­den­tial­i­ty of per­son­al situations.

Evolving design practices

Inclu­sive design is not sub­ject to any reg­u­la­to­ry con­straints, with the excep­tion of dig­i­tal con­tent and ele­ments of the built envi­ron­ment. It is pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, with a focus on visu­al and motor dis­abil­i­ties, as well as the elder­ly. Hear­ing, cog­ni­tive, and intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ties are less often tak­en into account. Devel­op­ers see these as non-priorities.

It may seem strange to include women in inclu­sive design approach­es. Yet many every­day objects and tools are not adapt­ed to women’s mor­phol­o­gy or strength. Safe­ty equip­ment is a strik­ing exam­ple. No small­er shoe sizes, arms or legs that are too long, gloves that are too large… Even when labelled as mixed, this equip­ment is designed with the male body type as the norm. And yet, when they are not adapt­ed, they endan­ger the health of female employees.

The vast major­i­ty of com­pa­nies prac­tis­ing inclu­sive design use par­tic­i­pa­to­ry design meth­ods. They mobilise pan­els of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties to have a direct say in the design of prod­ucts and ser­vices, through focus groups or qual­i­ta­tive or quan­ti­ta­tive stud­ies. Here again, the organ­i­sa­tions help to con­tact the par­tic­i­pants and adapt the meth­ods. APF France Handicap’s Tech­Lab, through its unit ded­i­cat­ed to inclu­sive inno­va­tion, has devel­oped a method­ol­o­gy ded­i­cat­ed to co-design with peo­ple with disabilities.

From the teams’ point of view, these par­tic­i­pa­tive approach­es con­tribute to the accept­abil­i­ty of the process and to mea­sur­ing the strate­gic inter­est of a mar­ket, some­times per­ceived as niche. Decathlon is con­duct­ing a study into the mor­phol­o­gy of dis­abled peo­ple. Aptar, an Amer­i­can dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems com­pa­ny, has drawn on the needs of dis­abled peo­ple to improve the ergonom­ics of its beau­ty pack­ag­ing. Final­ly, the Seb group is design­ing a range of house­hold appli­ances with improved ergonom­ics thanks to its inclu­sive inno­va­tion approach.

Inclusive innovation is gaining ground

Inclu­sive design devel­ops by oppor­tu­ni­ty, by dif­fu­sion or by sys­tem­a­ti­sa­tion, when these com­pa­nies decide to trans­form all their inno­va­tion process­es. La Poste, for exam­ple, has been using pan­els of dis­abled employ­ees to test the Group’s prod­ucts and ser­vices since 2019. Pub­lic ser­vice com­pa­nies often set the exam­ple. The State has pow­er­ful lever­age through pub­lic procurement.

A num­ber of prac­tices can help to spread inclu­sive inno­va­tion prac­tices. The first involves rais­ing aware­ness among employ­ees. They need to under­stand the exclu­sion cre­at­ed by prod­ucts, ser­vices and prac­tices (both HR and organ­i­sa­tion­al) before com­mit­ting to an approach.

The sec­ond prac­tice is employ­ee involve­ment. For exam­ple, by invit­ing them to vol­un­teer to test the Group’s prod­ucts and ser­vices or to give feed­back on their needs.

The third con­cerns the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the approach. This is achieved by hav­ing sup­port at man­age­ment lev­el and by for­mal­is­ing prac­tices through the draft­ing of char­ters, guides or com­pa­ny agree­ments. For exam­ple, Groupe SEB has drawn up a Good design play­book to pro­mote the results of a part­ner­ship with APF France hand­i­cap. This is used by the teams to ensure that the approach continues.

The fourth is to be oppor­tunis­tic. Small actions, such as increas­ing the con­trast or fonts in inter­nal doc­u­ments, can ini­ti­ate a change of atti­tude and open up a dia­logue on inclu­sion issues.

Agnès Vernet

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