Here’s a question I’ve been pondering ever since I started thinking about the Internet of Everything and what it means for future generations. Just because something is technologically feasible, should we build it? Will it really improve our lives? Is it going to benefit the greater good? What impact will it have on the socialization of our youth? Essentially, what will the societal outcomes be? Ok – that’s more than one question, but this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot. So imagine my delight to discover through a news segment on NPR, that right in my own back yard, at Arizona State University (ASU), an entire school has been established to ponder these very questions, and many, many more, in great detail. I was intrigued, and reached out to David Guston, Ph.D, founding director of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) to learn more. Why? Because I think programs like this will provide the missing link as we move forward to decide exactly what technologies being developed are worth the investment to take to completion.
The Back Story
Guston explained that the school is an outgrowth from a program ASU’s president, Michael Crow, started at Columbia University in the late 1990’s called the Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO). Initially directed at Columbia by Daniel Sarewitz, this university-based think-tank was formed to reimagine the role of science in society. “It examined social outcomes like equity and justice,” explained Guston. “Rather than just ‘how much money do we spend on scientific research?”
Guston got to know Crow and Sarewitz when he taught at Rutgers and took a sabbatical with CSPO in 2000-2001. When Crow left Columbia in 2002 to become president of ASU, he left CSPO and Sarewitz in DC In 2004, however, at Crow’s invitation, Sarewitz and the team relocated and the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes was established at ASU. Guston joined them in 2004 as associate director and later became co-director when Sarewitz returned to DC to re-establish CSPO’s presence there, this time under ASU’s flag. Its mission is “to enhance the contribution of science and technology to society’s pursuit of equality, justice, freedom, and overall quality of life.”
The CSPO quickly grew from a six-person organization to include dozens of faculty and staff. In 2014, Crow decided it was time to take it to the next level and create a school with tenure lines of faculty running masters and PhD programs. Thus, SFIS was born. SFIS’s mission, according to Guston, is not to take a good technical idea and create a product, but rather to focus on joining the social and technical aspects of innovation – to help understand the “should we do this?” question. The school’s faculty is incredibly diverse, with their PhD disciplines including electrical engineering, geology, physics, political science, science and technology studies, law, and management. This diversity allows for the development of a set of capacities that combines knowledge from different disciplines to bring to bear on problem-solving. Students of SFIS recognize that their lives and families will be intertwined with things that other people make, and think about how we as citizens get along. In its students, the school is looking for “makers of futures,” says Guston.
“Anticipatory governance” are the words Guston used to describe one of the school’s goals. “We think about plausible futures to figure out what steps to take now that will lead us toward the desirable and away from the less desirable futures,” he said. The goal is to give up on prediction, because when we’re still working on the technical knowledge piece, we don’t really know what the consequences will be.
In league with ASU’s commitment to access, Guston asserts that the future is for everybody, not just people who can master code. The question being asked is: “what do I want for my future, for my children’s future”. Integrating the different disciplines to understand these things ensures that we get best out of the innovation enterprise. It takes the focus off only the technological ability to do something, and allows exploration into plausible outcomes to find the truly attractive ones.
“(Many) universities say they are innovative when they research material aspects of the future. But rarely do they actually put society and technology together to create strong, responsible innovation,” said Guston.
To illustrate his point, Guston talked about projects that are already underway at the school. In one scenario development workshop, researchers are trying to sort out issues of ownership, privacy, and public value with regard to creating and marketing pre-symptomatic diagnostic devices. Who controls the data and how does this impact the employer/employee relationship in a situation where employers provide healthcare or insurance? Additional scenario workshops will investigate issues associated with monitoring wastewater, with security technologies, and with carbon capture technologies. Masters and PhD programs are well underway, and in fall 2016 undergraduate programs will be available. Details are available on the SFIS website.
One thing I know is that if I was in school right now, this is the program that would grab my interest. Because with all the technology being developed, we need to be sure we give serious thought to its societal impact, and if the IoT/IoE is realized in its fullest form, our lives are going to change in ways we haven’t even imagined. ~ FvT