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January 11, 2024

C Space Studio Interview With Dr. David Steel

The C Space Studio is a pop-up studio that hosts 1:1 conversational interviews with industry visionaries discussing disruptive trends and how they are going to change the future.

On January 10, 2024, UL Standards & Engagement Executive Director Dr. David Steel sat down with C Space Studio host James Kotecki at CES 2024 to discuss how safety standards can drive innovation, why brands should bring safety out of the background when creating and marketing their products, and the importance of incorporating diverse voices in the standards development process.

Watch the discussion above.


Kotecki: Welcome back. You're in the C Space Studio. I am James Kotecki. We are at CES 2024, and we get to talk to Dr. David Steel, executive director, UL Standards & Engagement. Welcome to the C Space studio.

Steel: Good morning.

Kotecki: Good morning. So, UL Standards & Engagement – let's just start by defining what that is. I understand the organization itself is relatively new.

Steel: Yes, so we trace our roots back to really 1894, the Chicago World's Fair, when electricity was coming to buildings and they were catching fire, and our founder, William Henry Merrill, was hired by the insurance industry to look at the risks from electricity. And that was the birth of Underwriters Laboratories. And since then, we've gone through some changes. Most recently, we're now three distinct organizations. So, UL Research Institutes does safety research, looking at impending threats and so on. Our organization, UL Standards & Engagement, is a nonprofit that develops safety standards and does advocacy for safety. And then there's a for-profit, UL Solutions, which does testing, inspection, and certification for companies. So, if you look at your toaster, you look at your washing machine, and you see that little UL mark – that's coming from UL Solutions. But our entity is nonprofit, looking purely at safety through standards.

Kotecki: So, UL overall as a brand kind of means there's some kind of standard to it, there's some kind of safety protocol to it, someone has checked it out and made sure that it's safe. So, what are you thinking about then here at CES? What brings you to CES this year?

Steel: So, really, the key for us is looking at areas of innovation and thinking about that safety dimension to it. And really, throughout the history of Underwriters Laboratories and now UL, it's about various innovations coming and then the role that we can play in ensuring safety first. As I mentioned, it was electricity coming to buildings. Then, we were active in aviation 100 years ago when that was coming out. Then it was automotive. Now more recently, it's areas around the new electrification – clean energy, batteries, other technologies there. How do we ensure that those are safe so that we can provide a platform for innovation (which is the big CES message) but in a safe way? So, a customer or a partner knows safety is built into something and then innovation can flourish on that.

Kotecki: And maybe a philosophical question, but how do you define safety? I mean, a building bursting into fire because the electricity wasn't wired correctly – that's certainly one thing that's unsafe. Do you have a broader definition of it other than physical safety? Do you mostly focus on the physical side of it?

Steel: Yes, so traditionally we've looked a lot at electrical safety and fire safety. Those have been kind of core areas for us, so obviously it's clear what the safety implications are there. But now we're looking more at emerging areas of technology like autonomy. Well, how should autonomous vehicles behave to be safe? Or, looking at robotics. But always just looking at that – yes, physical safety – and how do we ensure that manufacturers, developers, designers understand a platform on which they can develop things. And then it becomes really that trust as to, yes, we know that this is safe, and then we can innovate on top of that.

Kotecki: And how does the organization actually work to create a safety standard? I imagine you're not just on high from a mountain proclaiming something. It must be a highly collaborative effort, right?

Steel: And so that's really the beauty of this voluntary consensus-based standards approach. I know it's a bit of a mouthful, but the way we develop standards is through voluntary technical committees. So, we have over 4,000 volunteers from industry,  from academia, from government, other organizations, who volunteer their time on our technical committees. And those committees then develop these standards by consensus so that no group can sort of game the system. But what comes out of that is a consensus-based standard. And it's just a remarkable thing that we can convene these groups, and people are volunteering their time to be there, to come up with a result that is really this guidance document for industry, for regulators, for partners – this is a way to use this technology in a safe manner.

Kotecki: And how often does this kind of bridge over into regulatory? Because it sounds like this is a consensus-based approach when you're doing it. A regulator, a lawmaker can force somebody to do something, and maybe sometimes that's important and maybe the industry actually wants that to happen. So, tell me about the bridge there between something that you develop and something that eventually might become a regulation.

Steel: That's absolutely right. The standards that we develop, they're freely available to folks to read, to look at, we make them as broadly accessible as possible, but then it's up to manufactures to adopt them. We hope they do. Or retailers look at them, and then sometimes regulators will adopt them into code. So, we saw for example last year the problems of e-bike fires in New York City, where this was a major safety risk. New York City Council voted last year that from September of last year any e-bike sold, leased, rented in New York City had to comply with UL standards. So, that was their way of ensuring, okay, let's make sure that we'll have that safe sort of floor, and then let companies innovate on that. So, sometimes there's regulation.

Kotecki: And I imagine this is a good thing for industry because if you had e-bike fires and there was no regulation or no potential framework for guidance, you would have lawmakers either scrambling to catch up, maybe just banning it outright because they didn't have anything to kind of hold on to, putting some kind of indefinite pause on it – this actually allows the industry into the conversation.

Steel: Exactly, and that's also part of the message here at CES. There's so much innovation, so many new things, but sometimes the tendency if there is a risk or a hazard would be to ban that, and we saw that with e-bikes. We saw that some agencies in New York were saying, maybe we should just ban this technology completely. And our view is always that standards can really facilitate the innovation safely. So, it's standards that kind of unlock that promise of innovation, but in a safe way. And particularly battery technologies, we see so much of that now with the transition to renewable and clean energy – whether it's e-bikes, e-mobility devices, electric vehicles, energy storage systems – lithium-ion batteries are at the heart of those. So, let's make sure we have safety standards in all those critical parts of the value chain, and then let innovation flourish around those.

Kotecki: There's always a sense, especially if you walk the show floor here at CES, that innovation technology is accelerating faster and faster every year. You said you had at least 4,000 groups who were looking at different standards potentially, but do you feel confident that you can keep up? Or do you feel like eventually – or maybe now we're at the point where – is the pace of innovation ever going to exceed the ability of humans to judiciously figure out how to put standards in place for this stuff?

Steel: So, we already see with things like regulation, right, lots of conversation of, “Does innovation outstrip policy makers ability to think about it, to regulate it, and so on?” In safety standards, it's also very much on our responsibility to ensure that we keep up with that. And that's a big part of our message here at CES – looking for technical committee members who will join our technical committees and give us their input – looking to seed new areas so that we can go after these emerging technologies and ensure their safety. But it's very much because of the way we do this, with this volunteer consensus process. We need those volunteers to be a part of it.

Kotecki: I suppose that's the only way to really do it, right? You have the people who are involved in creating the technology help to, at least, propose certain standards for it, otherwise you get people that aren't involved and it would be a much slower pace. Are you concerned with bringing diverse minds into the process of creating these standards, and can you talk to me a bit about that?

Steel: Yes, diversity is a big piece of what we're thinking about. It’s just firstly making sure that our standards are relevant to all abilities. We just signed an agreement with Accessibility Standards Canada, and in Canada, we're looking there at how we make our standards more relevant to different accessibility groups. We're looking at how we make our technical committees more diverse so that we get different viewpoints there. And just here at the show, we're announcing that we're looking at our whole library of 1,800 standards and other documents to ensure gender-inclusive language and that those are truly responsive to the population that we serve. Safety needs to be universal. It can't just be safety for a specific population or group. It's universal.

Kotecki: I assume that's important – you go back, you review things that may have been written a few years ago or more, and you make sure that they're still relevant for as many audiences as you can. Even if there wasn't as much diversity as you wanted at the time, maybe now you can get another set of eyes on that.

Steel: And we celebrated last year 120 years of our first standard, which was for fire doors. It's still a standard in effect. It's been updated many times. But, when you've got that sort of history and legacy of contributions to safety, you need to stay with the times, whether it's innovation, whether it's different populations, but yes, we've got to stay current.

Kotecki:  I understand you do some work with the paralympic games. Does that work cross over into the inspiration that you have for the work that you do with UL Standards & Engagement?

Steel: It does. I think firstly, it's very mission-driven. Both what we do as UL Standards & Engagement as a nonprofit driven by safety – extremely mission-driven. What I do volunteering with Paralympics – same thing. It's about, how do you provide elite sport opportunities to people of all abilities? And if you believe in the power of that mission, both those missions, there's a lot in common. As well as inclusivity, right? We're living in a time when it's about finding opportunities for everyone. Safety should belong to everyone. Sporting opportunities should belong to everyone. So, yes, there is a lot of great stuff that gets me excited, both about my UL Standards & Engagement mission, but also the Paralympics.

Kotecki: And are the Paralympics happening along alongside the Olympic Games here in Paris this year? Are you going to be there in Paris? 

Steel. I think so. Maybe.

Kotecki: We’ll try to see you there. Dr. David Steel, UL Standards & Engagement, thanks so much for joining us in the C Space Studio. And I am James Kotecki here in the C Space Studio. This is CES 2024, we're having a lot of exciting conversations and so many more are yet to come. We are live on so many different CES channels. Please stay with us.

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