Safe-by-Design: from Safety to Responsibility

Ibo van de Poel*, Zoë Robaey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

67 Citations (Scopus)
77 Downloads (Pure)


Safe-by-design (SbD) aims at addressing safety issues already during the R&D and design phases of new technologies. SbD has increasingly become popular in the last few years for addressing the risks of emerging technologies like nanotechnology and synthetic biology. We ask to what extent SbD approaches can deal with uncertainty, in particular with indeterminacy, i.e., the fact that the actual safety of a technology depends on the behavior of actors in the value chain like users and operators. We argue that while indeterminacy may be approached by designing out users as much as possible in attaining safety, this is often not a good strategy. It will not only make it more difficult to deal with unexpected risks; it also misses out on the resources that users (and others) can bring for achieving safety, and it is undemocratic. We argue that rather than directly designing for safety, it is better to design for the responsibility for safety, i.e., designers should think where the responsibility for safety is best situated and design technologies accordingly. We propose some heuristics that can be used in deciding how to share and distribute responsibility for safety through design.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalNanoEthics: ethics for technologies that converge at the nanoscale
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Design
  • Ethics
  • Indeterminacy
  • Nanotechnology
  • Responsibility
  • Risk
  • Safe-by-design
  • Safety
  • Safety engineering
  • SbD
  • Synthetic biology
  • Uncertainty
  • Users


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