Co-founding the Ethics Lab

an innovation lab at georgetown university

IN 2013 I began a partnership with the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, a world-renowned bioethics institute at Georgetown University, in Washington DC. Together we created the Ethics Lab, an innovation lab that works to design a more ethical future.

We began with the vaguest of ideas born over a few glasses of whiskey. There was no grand vision at the start, nor did we have any funding, staff, partners, or any other resources. All we had was an intuition that if we put designers and ethicists together under the right conditions, we could make real progress in some of society’s most complex moral challenges.

Upon this nascent intuition we built a thriving organization. We secured a neglected storage room at the heart of the university, and we renovated it to be the most inspiring creative space on campus. We carefully shaped the organization’s vision, structure, strategy, and culture. We recruited allies, developed institutional support, built industry partnerships, and secured major donor funding. Throughout all of this, we pursued a variety of bold experiments aimed to make an impact on the world.

Ethics Lab is a life-changing experience. It changed the way I learn and the way I think; it changed who I am and who I want to be.

Nandini Mullaji, Georgetown student

WE divided the Lab’s activities into two main channels: educational impact and direct impact. On the education side, we sought to fundamentally reshape ethics education. We started with experimental courses in introductory bioethics, using a studio model to infuse creativity into the curriculum. This produced inspiring results, but we were not satisfied with simply redesigning ethics classes—we wanted creative ethics education across the entire curriculum. So we expanded our experiments to include collaborations with courses in science, policy, education, english, rhetoric, and beyond. (It was during these experiments that I began to shape a broader creative pedagogy, ultimately leading to the the studio model of creative education.)

Alongside our curricular initiatives, we also pursued projects meant to make a direct impact on the world outside of academia. Some examples include:

  • Working with researchers and industry partners to design a more ethical pathway to do clinical research on pregnant women.
  • Collaborating with executives at a pharmaceutical company to explore how to create a moral culture within the pharma industry.
  • Working with clinicians to address how medical practitioners care for rape victims without triggering additional trauma.
  • Launching a donor-supported initiative on the ethical implications, policies, and challenges surrounding big data.

We have a policy of play here at Ethics Lab. Just decided.

Arjun Dhillon, to a group of executives

I  co-founded the Ethics Lab and designed its organizational structure, strategy, space, and initial programs. After launching publicly, I served as the Director for the few years of the Lab’s operatins while it was still in startup mode. During this time I guided our initiatives and experiments, scaled our operations, taught new courses, and established a vibrant creative culture that swelled beyond the Lab into the larger university community.

Once the Lab moved out of the startup phase into more stable territory, I left my leadership role to pursue other projects. Today the Ethics Lab continues to grow, tackling new projects and experiments.

The corridors of Georgetown’s Healy Hall building are hushed and stately, with vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows, and ornate libraries that look straight out of Hogwarts. But up on the second floor, there’s an impish room tucked into all that magnificence…

MUSE Magazine, on Ethics Lab