The animal check-up wall at Auckland's Starship Hospital, designed and built by RUSH (photo: supplied)

Technology to serve humankind: a New Zealand studio with an ethics-first mission

Russell Brown talks to Auckland business RUSH about the challenges and rewards of being an ethical business in the competitive world of technology design.

“We design technology to better serve humankind.”

It’s the first thing you read on RUSH’s website, and it’s also written on a banner in the middle of its Parnell office. It’s the purpose statement that emerged from a staff-led process to define what the Auckland-based tech-design company exists for. And it is, acknowledges creative director Terry Williams-Willcock, a high bar to meet.

“We certainly found that when we first wrote the words,” he says. “It’s easy to challenge and it’s sometimes hard to justify. It means we’re constantly ensuring that we are being challenged by our own staff as much as ourselves and we’re going, ‘is this the right thing to do?’ Then we can have a conversation with our clients and go, “Look, this is what we believe in. Do you believe in that? How are you proving that?” And we have challenged a few clients on that side of things.”

The chance to succeed commercially while doing meaningful work is clearly a key reason why Williams-Willcock and others are at RUSH, and one high-profile project that ticked those boxes was the Kupu app for Spark. The design and build process behind the popular translation app involved working with Spark, Google and – crucially – advisors like Dean Mahuta, senior lecturer at AUT and Māori language researcher at Te Ipukarea, the National Māori Language Institute.

When asked about where the business’ ethical focus originated, Williams-Willcock gestures across the table to Danushka Abeysuriya, who founded RUSH in 2009. Abeysuriya, “Danu” to his colleagues, stepped back from the senior role at the company to be its technical lead in 2013, but is still very much the soul of RUSH.

Abeysuriya, whose family came to New Zealand from Sri Lanka via Zimbabwe, escaping trouble in both places, was only just out of university when he co-founded the P3 Foundation with Dr Divya Dhar – with the lofty goal of ending extreme poverty, globally.

Danushka ‘Danu’ Abeysuriya, RUSH founder and technical lead (photo: supplied)

The ethical base he carried through into RUSH is, he says, more important than ever in the context of the company’s growing work with artificial intelligence technologies and computer vision in particular.

“One thing we recently added to our release checklist is checking our algorithms for bias. Before we release software, we have a process to verify that we are not introducing any form of bias,” he says. “We also treat privacy as an important factor in all of the technology we develop – [for example], we’re adding in the ability for our computer vision software systems to automatically blur faces. By default, it will protect the privacy of individuals in any images being analysed, and a user will have to justify taking that out.”

RUSH’s AI work was harnessed for meaningful purpose when the company’s staff sat down to discuss a response to the looming Covid crisis back in February. Already working on a digital platform for mental health social enterprise Ignite Aotearoa, the RUSH team expedited their work in order to launch during lockdown, getting wellbeing resources and video content into the hands of essential workers and the general public. Lockdown also saw the launch of Aroha, a digital chatbot designed to help young people manage the stress and isolation of the pandemic and built by University of Auckland researchers on the back of the RUSH-designed Headstrong platform.

Both align with what RUSH chief executive Pavan Vyas characterises as a company resolve to address “wicked problems”.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, there’s an ageing population, associated economic and political upheaval, high suicide rates, cyber security issues, data privacy issues, all those things. As a design tech company, it creates a very big choice: which side of fence do we fall on?”

It’s quite a remarkable trajectory for what was, when Vyas came aboard in 2016, still largely a game developer – albeit one with stellar international clients like Disney and Microsoft. But Vyas says the gaming DNA is still a key part of what RUSH does, firstly in its attention to engineering excellence.

“What’s special about games designers and game developers is they inherently care about customer experience. Games would be useless if they weren’t fun. So when our engineers build stuff, they want to make it fun. They want to make it intuitive. They want to make it fast. That’s the DNA.”

Secondly, says Vyas, it’s the sense of play. When Starship Hospital came to RUSH with a broad brief – it had funding for new digital tech in its ED room and was open to ideas – the company sent a small team in to sit in the room over several days.

“We just observed all the things that were happening. Things like kids running around and stressing their parents, or kids being pretty nervous, because a lot of them would be going to the hospital for the first time in their lives. What might be two or three things which would really make a big difference to the emergency room environment, which is probably the most stressful room in the country.”

The result was the Magic Forest: a room with a giant play screen that fosters calm by rewarding slow, gentle movements with visualisations of brilliant birds and flowers. Move too quickly and the birds disappear; be gentle and they return. There’s also Starship Animal Check-ups – a triage tool presented as an animated wall that measures children’s height, heart rate and temperature – and also sees when they’re smiling.

“I think the one of the things that has come from RUSH having a history in gaming is that people come here because they enjoy creating things for others to enjoy”, says design director Stephen Horner. “We’ve just increased the scope of that to go after bigger problems.”

L: Staff socialise at RUSH’s offices in Parnell, Auckland; R: The Ignite (top) and Headstrong (bottom) projects (Photos: supplied)

There’s science at work too. The Starship installations were tested and iterated repeatedly before going in. It’s an approach RUSH UX specialist Chloe Fong likens to “the methodology seen in the traditional hard sciences. We gather research about the users’ attitudes and behaviours and make hypotheses, test them by building something and releasing it to the public, and learn by looking at how people are using it with analytics data. This is not a linear process.”

Not every job is like Starship. RUSH is still a commercial business and sometimes it will pitch for a job that challenges its goals. Abeysuriya says that before the team took on the job of designing the popular Fastlane application for Z Energy, there was a company-wide discussion about whether that met its purpose statement.

“At a basic level, what Z does is sell fuel, right?” he says. “You go, well, clearly, that doesn’t better serve humankind. You could walk away at that point. But they’re looking to the future. They are a key player in the market and have the ability to influence the market. And if we were able to help them in the journey that they’ve already committed to – transforming and being the only fuel company in the world that acknowledges that it contributes to climate change – then we can make a meaningful dent.”

The ability of the two companies to “respectfully challenge each other occasionally” is part of what makes Z’s relationship with RUSH an “awesome partnership” says Z’s Hudson Dimock. He says he admires the innovative way that RUSH uses technology to solve tricky customer problems, which “aligns strongly with Z’s recent focus on innovation and digitalisation.” The nature of the partnership has allowed the two companies to “grow and mature together” in their three years working together, says Dimock.

The staff discussions at RUSH sometimes make their way out into the world. It’s a company with an unusual multiplicity of voices. The company website carries blog posts by team members, often expressing quite personal takes on technology, business and society. When Fong became a team leader for the first time recently, she was asked to share her thoughts about “human-centred leadership” on the website. She says that invitation was an example of why culture is so important” in a modern workplace: “Not only having a voice but being listened to is key to driving empowerment.”

Wellbeing, culture, making the world better: it might seem a curious place for a former big-three consultant like Vyas to be leading things.

“I need to be careful here,” he chuckles in deference to his old line of work, “But I guess you’d buy a [consultant] for a different reason than you’d buy a RUSH person, right? People buy us when they want to take risks.”



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.