Creating a More Equitable World through Inclusive Design

Matteo Zallio is an inclusive design activist. I was looking forward to talking to Matteo about his work that focuses on creating more inclusive and equitable places, products and services, and a more equitable world for all.

We got started with Matteo introducing himself and the work that he does as an inclusive design activist.

‘Thank you for the introduction, Toby. Well, in short, as you said, I’m an inclusive design activist, because I’m passionate about making technology, products and environments accessible to everyone. Now it sounds like a very difficult task, but it means helping teams to design inclusive, physical, or virtual reality experiences, buildings or hybrid working experiences, or creating user-friendly digital tools. My goal is to ensure that people of all backgrounds, cultures, and abilities, can benefit from the latest innovations to make their life a little bit better and easier.

My background is in architecture. I worked as an architect and then later on I started doing more research in academia and industry. I also love to share back, to teach, to mentor, to bring the message of inclusive design to as many people as possible.

Through the years, I had a lot of opportunities to live and work in different countries across Europe and the States and work on some cool projects. I founded some startups, most recently the Metavethics Institute. This is a not-for-profit that deals with the inclusion and ethical challenges of virtual reality and augmented reality environments. I work for different companies and academic institutions such as Stanford and the University of Cambridge.

Ultimately, throughout my journey, I have understood that inclusively designed environments and products are not just nice to have, but are essential for creating a better, more equitable future for all. So, that’s a little story about me.’

My next question for Matteo was, ‘Why do you think there isn’t a stronger demand for creating more inclusive and accessible buildings or built environment?’

‘Well, this is a very interesting question because for years there have been assumptions about why we’re not making enough inclusive and accessible buildings. At Cambridge, the research that I have done in the past few years shines a light on the challenges that influence how architects, designers, engineers and creative people tend to design or maybe non-design inclusive and accessible buildings.

We discovered that around 10% of the survey respondents from a large-scale survey that we shared from the University of Cambridge reported that building owners are well-informed about the benefits of designing inclusively. We also found that more than 7 out of 10 building industry professionals think that clients and building owners don’t perceive the value of inclusive design. This survey was instrumental in understanding the correlation between the scarcity of clients’ awareness of inclusive design and the lack of perceived value of inclusive design.

What that means is people don’t know how valuable it is to design for inclusion and accessibility. They may not understand how valuable and powerful an inclusively-designed building can be, not just for people with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities, but for everyone. We found that as a result of biased perception, the scarcity of client awareness, and project owner’s awareness, these can become the dominant drivers for the lack of clients requesting inclusively designed buildings, facilities, workplaces, schools, museums and everything.’

I asked Matteo how he thinks people could make sure that they’re designing spaces and products that are more inclusive and consider all aspects of human beings.

‘This is a really challenging question. I would say there is no right or wrong answer here. Let’s imagine that you don’t have anyone in your circle of friends with enough knowledge of inclusive design or accessibility or designing for accessibility. Sometimes it’s important that people understand the value of designing for inclusion and designing for accessibility, through empathy and compassion.

So basically, you understand the value of what you do, the value of designing more inclusive spaces, because you actually have a firsthand experience. It’s about understanding how a non-inclusive space can impact the use, the comfort and the well-being of people who are using that space. Through our research we have created a series of tools that go, beyond meeting basic accessibility standards. Ultimately, these tools are about allowing designers, architects, engineers, creators, as well as general contractors or facility managers to understand and have empathy for the diverse needs and experiences of all individuals. It’s not about what a few people can share with you about their needs when you have a project brief, or when you have a meeting or when you’re running a session with them. It is trying to map out the wide variety of needs that a diverse range of people might have.
At the core of this approach, there is the recognition that each person has a unique story, a set of capabilities, desires, and life journeys. There is an opportunity for designers to tap into their empathy, to put themselves in the shoes of those that they are designing for. The designers have to truly understand the perspectives of every single potential occupant of these buildings, either physical or digital or virtual which something I’ve been working on a lot. An example is using templates such as the Inclusive Design Canvas, to really infuse these principles of empathy and compassion to the design process. The Inclusive Design Canvas is a tool that we have created at the University of Cambridge to support designers to prompt around how to consider diverse users, diverse user journeys and capabilities and needs to foster a more holistic approach to design.

It’s about asking the right questions, mapping them out, and by using the canvas, having all of these inputs laid out in a way that can help to create a design process that is more inclusive and more seamless. There is also an opportunity to assess and understand how good the design is, how inclusive it is, how comfortable it is, and how it caters for well-being. To that end, we developed another tool to help designers, facility managers and building owners assess how good the design is. It helps identify which points of exclusion can be used as a catalyst providing an opportunity to make the design better.

These are just some of the tools that we have developed. But out there, there are a variety of tools that can be used. The focus is really on creating a sense of empathy, then people can put themselves into the shoes of those they are designing for.’

I like how Matteo mentioned the use of empathy because it is so important to understand the experience of the built environment from somebody else’s perspective. In the podcast episodes that I’ve done around inclusive leadership, empathy is one of those key traits that comes out as being critical to being an inclusive manager or an inclusive leader within the organisation. It really is important.

I asked Matteo what favourite tools and resources he would recommend to others to support the process of inclusive design.

‘The Inclusive Design Canvas is available on our website at the Inclusive Design Group from the Engineering Design Centre at the University of Cambridge website. You can download it for free. It’s a PDF, so you can download either a PDF, print it and stick it on your wall and start running sessions with your team or with your customers, or you can use it with online collaboration tools.
In terms of resources and tools, there are many available out there, so it’s really about what the goal is post-occupancy, and how to assess how a building performs. Sometimes tools like surveys or assessments that are commonly used to gauge employee satisfaction, for example, or running co-design workshops or interviews or observation can be truly important. It’s hard to measure the social return on investment of inclusive design. To be better at that and really promote inclusive design by measuring the social return on investment, which is really hard, we have done a lot of research to understand what the metrics are and what the correlation is between what we do to make a building more inclusive, and the social return on investment for the employees, the company, and
the project owners, for example.

To do that we have created another tool that is about measuring and assessing the social return on investment, because then we can understand how good and inclusive our building, our office, our museum, our school or our hospital is. This tool that we have at the University of Cambridge, is a foundational model that helps teams to collect attitudinal data on the perception that people have of inclusion, of diversity, of equity, of accessibility, in a specific workplace.

Basically, with this tool, there is an opportunity to finally know not only that we can measure the perception that every single individual has about inclusion, but also have more holistic views of how good the building is for that. It tells us if and how the return on investment on what we designed has been successful and positive for the company or organisation.

Again, there are multiple tools. We focus on creating tools to support the design phase, but also to support the understanding phase, understanding how we did with our designs. I think that by fostering a more inclusive and equitable workplace, building or facility, ultimately we can increase the sense of happiness and satisfaction. Managers can also have a better return on their investment because people can improve productivity and it can reduce turnover rates which can also enhance their brand reputation.’

My final question for Matteo was, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘This brings back to me to something I mentioned earlier about making workplaces inclusive and accessible, that guarantees principles of equity and diversity for all. To me inclusive growth means creating a world where everyone has equal opportunities to participate, contribute, and thrive.

Think for a moment about how this hybrid working pattern which grew exponentially since the pandemic is leading to unequal opportunities for many employees. If you are working in the office and you’re with your team, you can have different opportunities to talk to some people or maybe to share your ideas with a manager, versus a person that is working remotely and is just taking part to the meetings online. Basically, there can be a bias towards those people that can work in-person in the office versus people who are just having opportunities to join meetings online. This is a question that we have to raise because we want to make sure that people have equal opportunities to participate and contribute to the work they do by being at home or by being in the office.

On the other hand, we have to make sure that those in the office don’t have a specific advantage against somebody that is not able, or does not have the opportunity to go to the office. I think it’s about breaking down some barriers and ensuring that no one is left behind regardless of their background, abilities or circumstances. So, I think inclusive growth is about making sure that there is social cohesion.

Taking workplaces, whether you are in the office or at home, everyone has equal opportunities to grow, flourish and get ahead with your career by leveraging the opportunities to work from home and maybe care about your family or everything else that you have to do at home. But also make sure that you can enjoy the time in-person with your colleagues and feel valued, respected, and empowered to reach your full potential.

I think inclusive growth is really about creating these equal opportunities both in the physical world as well as in the virtual or hybrid world where we currently live.’

If Toby’s conversation with Matteo Zallio has inspired you to learn more about inclusive design and how to make workplaces and buildings more inclusive, visit his website or webpage on the University of Cambridge website where you will find resources, articles, academic papers, and case studies to delve deeper into the topic. Click here to download the Inclusive Design Canvas Matteo talked about.

For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to the website at

Creating a More Equitable World through Inclusive Design - Mildon