Justin Lai ’10
Transformation Officer, U.S. Department of Labor
Leads a design and research team to advise state agencies on updating their systems to improve the user experience for customers from vulnerable communities.
How does technology impact today’s challenges in public health?
Reducing barriers to access is a big issue. My focus in graduate school was how technology could increase access to mental health services. For the federal government, I advise all U.S. states and territories in modernizing their unemployment insurance systems. So many people applied for benefits during the pandemic and didn’t receive them in time. My team thinks about how we can use technology to increase access to previously inaccessible services, especially during moments of crisis.
What is the potential of how we interact with computers and how we think about how we live?
The big question is how do we better understand how we communicate with each other, and how might technology magnify those capabilities and meaningful ways? What kind of tools can we develop that enrich the human experience? For example, if we focus on people with disabilities and build tools that work well for them, there’s a trickle-down effect where the mainstream society can benefit as well. Text messaging was invented for those who are deaf. It was first seen as a niche technology but is now one of our main sources of communication.
What has allowed you to be successful in seeing the possibilities of innovation?
What has guided my approach to my work is a sense of humility. The heart of innovation is first focusing on understanding the problems as opposed to jumping to solutions. In Silicon Valley, there’s a technocratic philosophy that technology can solve problems, but it’s so much more than that. You have to understand the lived experience of the people whose problems you’re trying to solve.