See BMS Research Themes

Emerging Technologies & Societal Transformations

research program

Steering group:

Peter-Paul Verbeek, Kornelia Konrad, Menno de Jong, and Michael Nagenborg

Advisory board:
Anne Dijkstra, Anna Bos-Nehles, Andreas Weber, Michiel A. Heldeweg, Simone Borsci, David Fernandez Rivas, Karin Pfeffer, and Marteen van Steen

Daily coordination theme activities:

Kornelia Konrad and Michael Nagenborg

Support Staff:
Hester ter Horst 

DOMAIN CHALLENGES

Technological societies are in a continuous state of transformation. Technological developments come with important social, economic and political implications and are sometimes even disruptive. With the Internet of Things, our material environment is rapidly changing – from public spaces and schools and hospitals to scientific laboratories and homes – with major implications for the relations between governments and citizens, practices in management, healthcare and education, and social interactions. Artificial agents like robots and algorithms fulfil ever more complex tasks and challenge existing notions of agency, expertise, responsibility, and employability. The huge volume of data from increasingly instantaneously communicating devices and machines across platforms and networks is testing not only present-day security and privacy mechanisms but is also challenging norms of ownership. The application of gene editing technologies may affect our responsibilities to future generations and our relations to our own bodies. How to understand these transformations? What ethical, societal and policy questions do they raise? And how to design and govern socio-technical innovations in a responsible manner? These are key questions guiding the research program ‘Emerging Technologies and Socio-Technical Transformations’.

The program is strongly connected to the other four research programs of the faculty of Behavioral, Management, and Social Sciences (Smart Industry, Learning, Resilience, and Health) as well as to the central research themes of the University of Twente (personalized healthcare, digital society, smart materials, energy, engineering for a resilient world, intelligent manufacturing). The research theme has a twofold aim: (1) addressing fundamental and reflexive questions regarding the interactions between technology and society, in its own right and as they emerge in the other four BMS programs; and (2) engaging in research collaboration with technical researchers and designers.

SCIENTIFIC CONTRIBUTION

The research program ‘Emerging Technologies and Societal Transformations’ has a descriptive, normative, and interventionist dimension: it aims to provide the conditions for responsible innovation, by analysing, evaluating, and governing the close interactions between technology and society. The central questions guiding research activities within the program are: How can new and emerging technologies affect society, culture, and human existence? How are emerging technologies shaped and how do socio-technical transformation unfold? How to evaluate societal implications? And how to take these implications into account in governance, policy-making, innovation and design?

‘Socio-technical transformations’ occur at the micro, the meso and the macro-level: the level of individual users and human-technology relations; the level of social practices and organizations (e.g. in education, healthcare, industry); and the level of societal and political structures and processes, such as power relations, democratic institutions, legal regulation, and cultural change. Each of these levels raises specific academic questions and societal challenges, and for this reason, need to be integrated into the programme. At all levels, the triad of analysing, evaluating, and intervening plays a central role: how to understand the relations between technology and social transformation at the micro-, meso-, and macro-level?; how to address the normative aspects of these transformations?; and how to intervene in them in an effective and responsible way?

a)      Human-technology relations
New technologies affect human beings in new ways, by influencing people’s behaviour, perceptions, motivations, and frameworks of interpretation. E-coaching systems influence the lifestyle of users. Smart shopping windows have an impact on consumer behaviour. Augmented reality glasses affect interpersonal relations, and even change our notion of privacy. Telecare technologies change our relation to our bodies and reconfigure the relationship between patients and healthcare professionals. How to understand these new configurations of humans and technologies? How to rethink central notions in the humanities and the social sciences like agency, responsibility, perception, social interaction? How to evaluate the quality of these human-technology relations and the impacts of technologies on human beings? How to determine the social acceptance and acceptability of new technologies? How to enable users to develop a critical relation to the influences of technologies? And how to take the impacts of technologies on users into account in practices of design and policy-making?

b)      Technology, values, and social practices
With the uptake of technologies in society also common social practices are transformed. Learning analytics, teaching robots, and telepresence technologies change practices of teaching and learning. Carebots, diagnostic algorithms, and wearable technologies enable new practices in healthcare, and responsibilities shift from doctors to patients and vice versa. Production robots and algorithms affect practices of labour and work. Changing practices often go along with a rethinking of central concepts in education, medicine, and economics, like ‘Bildung’, ‘health’, ‘patient autonomy’, ‘human resources', ‘expertise’, ‘skills’, ‘profession’, et cetera. How do these changes in socio-technical practices and core concepts come about and what are their ethical implications? What ethical theories do we need to address the social implications of these technologies? How can design and governance approaches take such changes into account or guide them into desirable directions?

Technologies are developed by various organizations, such as research universities, R&D institutes or companies. Furthermore, civil society actors play an important role in the development and societal embedding of technologies and in bringing about broader socio-technical transformations. How do networks and systems of innovation change and how do emerging digital technologies enable new types of innovation processes and catalyse civil engagement in innovation and socio-technical change? Which actor constellations facilitate the creation and diffusion of (socially) responsible products and services? What are effective ways to prioritize users, their needs and strengthen their role in research and innovation? 

c)       Society, Politics, and Technology
Technologies transform social and cultural structures, power relations and democratic institutions. The fourth Industrial Revolution brings challenges that seem to equal those of the first Industrial Revolution, including transformations of labor, the rise of new forms of inclusion and exclusion, and new economic structures. How to analyze these implications, and how to evaluate their quality? Social media, algorithms for news collection and legal practices, and the rise of smart cities challenge fundamental characteristics of our liberal democracy. How to conceptualize these challenges, and how to deal with them in politics, in innovation, and in law and regulation? What new relations between states and citizens do they bring, and how are they related to global power structures and socio-economic structures and characteristics? 

SOCIETAL IMPACT

An important goal of the program in terms of societal impact is to contribute to responsible research and innovation, by developing frameworks and tools to analyse, evaluate, and govern the social implications of technological developments. In order to achieve this goal, we choose various routes:

  • Developing frameworks for the management and governance of innovation, including transformative innovation policy concepts and instruments at local, national and international levels
  • Developing tools and methods for responsible design
  • Participating actively in public discussions in order to stimulate critical reflection and deliberation among citizens and policy-makers
  • Imagination and scenario-building, in order to support anticipation of the societal embedding and future implications of new and emerging technologies
  • Developing research projects with companies, societal organizations and citizens – for which the multiple social and socio-technical labs at the University of Twente (DesignLab, CitizenLab, BMS Lab) are a suitable environment – in order to make research outcomes relevant for societal practices and organizations. 

METHODS

The programme draws on a wide variety of empirical qualitative and quantitative methods and on methods that are geared towards confronting theoretical approaches to technology with actual developments of emerging technologies. These include:

  • Qualitative and quantitative social science research, such as interviews, surveys, focus groups, stakeholder workshops, discourse analysis, document analysis
  • Ethnographic research, including digital ethnography
  • Policy analysis and evaluation 
  • Document analysis, from qualitative to machine-learning-based analysis
  • ‘Empirical philosophy’: combining philosophical analysis with empirical investigations of actual or emerging technological developments
  • Research through design: some elements of the research in the program are conducted as design projects that raise theoretical questions, e.g. by conducting artistic research into human-technology relations, or by engaging in design projects that affect intimate relations between human beings.
  • Scenario-based research and foresight: research based on methods for scenario writing in order to anticipate potential future developments in technology, society, and their interactions.
  • Action research  

INFRASTRUCTURE

In order to study the relations between emerging technologies and social transformations, the program builds on (a) a research infrastructure; (b) a set of methodologies that will be developed as part of the program; and (c) an infrastructure to connect the social science and humanities to technology.

a) BMS Lab
In order to study the interactions between technology and human beings, the program ‘Emerging Technologies and Social Transformation’ combines theoretical conceptualization with empirical research. The BMS Lab offers a crucial technological infrastructure for this, including:

  • Observation and recording technologies: two rooms connected by a two-way mirror, with high-quality audio and video recording facilities to study human interactions with technologies, and to record discussions and interviews (for conversation analysis, ethnographic research, and Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis).
  • Virtual Reality Technologies: simulating potential use practices, social practices and societal transformations can offer new insights in the relations between humans and technologies at the micro-, meso-, and macro-level.
  • Sensor and tracking technologies: the BMS Lab offers sensitive technologies to study how people interact with technologies, or change their behavior and have new perceptions and experiences in interaction with technologies, offering insights in human-technology relations and -interactions that serve as a basis for further theoretical conceptualization.

b) DesignLab
In order to be closely connected to actual technological developments and the social challenges related to them, the program explicitly makes use of the infrastructure of the DesignLab of the University of Twente. The DesignLab is an infrastructure for multidisciplinary cooperation, connecting scientific research to societal challenges. Researchers from all disciplines of the university are connected, aiming to work on technological innovation from the perspective of society: responsible innovation and value-sensitive design. Various researchers in the program are fellows of the DesignLab. The DesignLab operates as a creativity- and interaction-stimulating research environment and a meeting place for interdisciplinary research teams, working on grant proposals or research projects.

c) Citizenlab
In order to engage users and a wide range of citizens into research and design, in particular in the field of health, to explore the use and the implications of new health technologies, and to provide a platform for active citizens the UT together with a range of academic and societal partners is setting up a Citizenlab. In this way, interdisciplinary work in close cooperation with citizens and different stakeholders in the health sector around emerging health technologies and transformations in health practices is facilitated.