Digital platforms and responsible innovation: expanding value sensitive design to overcome ontological uncertainty

Mark de Reuver*, Aimee van Wynsberghe, Marijn Janssen, Ibo van de Poel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
164 Downloads (Pure)


In this paper, we argue that the characteristics of digital platforms challenge the fundamental assumptions of value sensitive design (VSD). Traditionally, VSD methods assume that we can identify relevant values during the design phase of new technologies. The underlying assumption is that there is only epistemic uncertainty about which values will be impacted by a technology. VSD methods suggest that one can predict which values will be affected by new technologies by increasing knowledge about how values are interpreted or understood in context. In contrast, digital platforms exhibit a novel form of uncertainty, namely, ontological uncertainty: even with full information and overview, it cannot be foreseen what users or developers will do with digital platforms. Hence, predictions about which values are affected might not hold. In this paper, we suggest expanding VSD methods to account for value dynamism resulting from ontological uncertainty. Our expansions involve (1) extending VSD to the entire lifecycle of a platform, (2) broadening VSD through the addition of reflexivity, i.e. second-order learning about what values to aim at, and (3) adding specific tools of moral sandboxing and moral prototyping to enhance such reflexivity. While we illustrate our approach with a short case study about ride-sharing platforms such as Uber, our approach is relevant for other technologies exhibiting ontological uncertainty as well, such as machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)257-267
Number of pages11
JournalEthics and Information Technology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Digital platforms
  • Emergent values
  • Responsible innovation
  • Value dynamism
  • Value sensitive design


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