UTFacultiesBMSResearchBMS Research ThemesEmerging Technologies & Societal Transformations

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 Maarten van Steen

Daily coordination theme activities:

Kornelia Konrad and Michael Nagenborg

Support Staff:
Gea Nijland

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: Three Main Research Lines

INNOVATING RESPONSIBLY WITH EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) has been put forward as a priority by the European Union, just as by Dutch science policy. RRI aims to enable the capabilities, structures and processes of researchers, innovators and the related organizations and innovation systems to anticipate and consider actual implications, do research and innovation in inclusive ways, and make these insights actionable. Different BMS research groups have contributed with their interdisciplinary expertise in ethics, philosophy of technology, science, technology and innovation studies, governance studies and communication science. They have developed conceptual frameworks and intervention approaches, and conducted empirical work, for making responsible research and innovation happen at different levels of research and innovation processes and systems. 

Societal impact is created via multiple pathways addressing the macro, meso and micro level of research and innovation. Ethical and governance frameworks provide generalizable directions for implementing RRI in organizations, such as industry, research organizations, research funding organizations or civil society organizations. Other projects are conducted in collaboration with societal partners as cities and regional policy and support the shaping of responsible smart cities and regional innovation in inclusive ways, or bring researchers, innovators, start-ups, stakeholders and citizens in conversation around particular innovation fields, such as nanotechnology-based innovations for health, food, energy or water, while at the same time studying innovation and societal embedding processes, and anticipating and assessing possible future developments. 

Societal impact is furthermore created by addressing design projects, or exploring together with technical researchers and innovators possible societal implications, applications and conditions for the societal embedding of specific technologies. Here, impact is created via the shaping of research directions and design decisions, but also by sensitizing technical researchers and innovators for societal and ethical implications of their work, thereby contributing to capacity-building.

Core competences feeding into this line of research are ethics, philosophy of technology, science and technology studies, innovation studies, entrepreneurship, governance studies and regulation, public engagement, communication science / science communication.

A broad field of emerging technologies are addressed in these projects with important clusters in the fields of nanotechnologies, for instance for health, food, energy, chemistry; in biomedical and health technologiesartificial intelligencesmart citiesblockchaintechnologies, robotics and drones.

More specific research directions include among others fundamental philosophical-ethical questions, such as how emerging technologies challenge fundamental concepts as identity, autonomy, democracy, or naturalness, and thus how emerging technologies may disrupt the self-understanding of human beings, trigger techno-moral change, challenge or contribute to environmental justice. Another important line comprises questions related to the governance and regulation of emerging technologies, such as experimental regulation, governance of socio-technical transitions, and governance of research and innovation. A third line refers to various anticipatory practices, such as the role of future expectations and imaginaries around emerging technologies, the possibilities and limitations of specific practices in future studies, or different forms of (constructive) technology assessment. Furthermore, research addresses the innovation processes, practices, and systems that contribute to the emergence of new technologies. Here research interests include entrepreneurship, user innovation and citizen science, innovation journeys and innovation ecosystems.

This research is mainly funded by European projects, such as H2020 projects, by national research funding, such as an NWO gravitational grant, various NWO-MVI or NWO-NWA projects, strategic calls as NWO Smart Industries / Creative Cities, personal grants as NWO-VICI, governmental funding, or other international collaborations, e.g. funded by the Norwegian Research Council.

Some examples of projects in this research line:

DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION OF SOCIETY

Within the scope of societal and technological transformation, we pay special attention to the ongoing process of the digital transformation of society. While recognizing that research, development and deployment of computers date back to the beginning twentieth century, we study the ongoing digitalization of goods and services and the increased role of algorithmic interpretation and decision-making (e.g. AI) across in concrete societal contexts such as eHealth, human resource management, and digital collections. Moreover, we focus on the bridging of digital and material worlds through the Internet of Things (IoT), robots and new forms of data-driven production (e.g. 3D printing) and the emergence of virtual and augmented reality systems that promise to extend the borders of the paradigms of embodied, situated and distributed cognition.

Not only is BMS at the forefront of making use of emerging digital research tools, we also are promoting Responsible Research and Innovation and Responsible Design by working together with relevant stakeholders including municipal, regional and national authorities, companies, NGOs, cultural institutions, and citizens. We do not only bring in our expertise into the design and evaluation process to enable and safeguard deployment of novel applications. We also develop and bring in a critical perspective to decolonize digital technologies, promote digital commons, and challenge AI myths.

Our contribution to the field is rooted in contemporary approaches to Educational Science, Human Factors, Human Resources, Philosophy of Technology, Public Administration, Science and Technology Studies (including historical approaches). For instance, we are working on new methodological approaches to assess and develop human and AI interaction by deepening our understanding of key aspects that determine trust and acceptance. We study how to make technology fair, resilient, safe and explainable to humans. And we are searching for new epistemological and ethical approaches to steer the embedding of these new digital technologies agents in our societies.

While digitalization is still an ongoing trend in many domains, within our research theme we especially focus on algorithmic interpretation and decision-making processes within businesses, political institutions, smart environments (such as smart houses, smart cities, and smart ruban areas), digita cultural heritage, and digitalization of education.

Some examples of projects:

 NEW AND EMERGING INFRASTRUCTURE TECHNOLOGIES FOR GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY

Moving towards more sustainable societies is a long-standing concern with challenges ranging from the most local to global levels. In this line researchers are concerned with questions relating to innovations in socio-technical and socio-ecological infrastructure systems, such as energy, water or digital infrastructures. These new and changing infrastructure technologies are of major importance as they shape to a large extent the conditions for societies to become more sustainable. BMS researchers investigate the modes of governance of infrastructure systems in the diverse social and political contexts of the Global South and the Global North, environmental and societal impacts, and innovation processes and systems.

Societal impact is created via analysing and assessing governance models and providing policy advice in collaborative projects with societal partners, including governmental authorities, NGOs and the industry, and in pilot projects that allow to focus on conditions and implications of concrete local and regional implementation contexts. Moreover, societal impacts are identified and assessed from organizational and regional perspectives through strategic managerial models in collaboration with relevant stakeholders from public and private sectors.

Core competences feeding into this line of research are governance studies, science and technology studies, innovation studies, business and entrepreneurship, sustainability sciences, and ethics.

A broad field of new and emerging technologies are addressed in these projects, for instance smart grids, renewables (e.g. solar, wind, green hydrogen, anaerobic digestion), new (waste)water and solid materials treatment technologies, NetZero technologies (neutralization of greenhouse emissions), or technologies that affect the environmental impact of digital infrastructures, such as blockchain, Internet of things, or those enabling new data-intesive services.

More specific research directions include among others experimental regulation, how technological change enables or drives governance change, the role of discourses, frames and imaginaries in transitions, the role of recognition and protection of people’s rights, human-environment relations, societal and environmental life cycle assessments of products and services, future energy demand of datacenters, or alternative ways of designing infrastructures that are tailored to the diverse capacities and contexts of countries in the Gobal South and the Global North. 

This research is mainly funded by European projects, such as H2020 projects, NWO-MVI or governmental funding. See some of the following examples:

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:

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:

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.