March 11, 2019

21 colleges and universities unite to develop generation of civic-minded technologists across disciplines

At a time when technology shapes every facet of our lives, there’s a growing consensus that its role should be evaluated in a social context so that questions of impact and consequences are considered from its very beginnings.

Colleges and universities have a fundamental responsibility to educate the next generation of leaders in the social context of technology, so that they can more fully connect considerations of technology to questions of individual rights, justice, social welfare and public good.

The new Public Interest Technology University Network is a partnership of 21 colleges and universities dedicated to building the nascent field of public interest technology and growing a new generation of civic-minded technologists. Arizona State University is one of the charter members of the network.

Convened by the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation and New America, the network combines higher education, philanthropy and public policy as part of a new push to define and build the public interest technology sector.

NEW YORK TIMES: ASU an 'early adopter' of interdisciplinary technology studies 

To facilitate a cross-pollination of ideas and expertise, the network includes individuals who approach public interest questions from a technological background, as well as those coming from other disciplines, such as law and the social sciences, who seek to understand, leverage and respond to the changes brought by new technologies.

Applying the model of public interest law to the technology sector, the network brings together colleges and universities committed to building the field of public interest technology, creating robust pathways for students seeking to pursue careers in public interest technology and fostering collaboration across the network. 

ASU also strongly associates public interest technology with related concepts such as responsible innovation and humanitarian engineering, both of which bring public interest technology cognates into the international context.

Public interest technology at work at ASU

While public interest technology activities are distributed widely across the university, one focal point is the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Created in 2015, the school is a transdisciplinary unit at the vanguard of ASU’s commitment to linking innovation to public value. Foundation Professor and Founding Director of the school Dave Guston will serve as a representative for ASU to the network. 

“ASU is particularly interested in extending and creating curricular and co-curricular activities that train students and build career pathways,” said Guston. “We are interested in the real-world outcomes of public interest technology, both in terms of influence on policy- and decision-making, but also in terms of the social, ethical and legal aspects of technologies that help constitute their public interest orientation, as well as in the design of technologies and systems with a holistic consideration of such aspects. We hope to develop partnerships across sectors, especially building technical capacity in nonprofit organizations whose work aligns with the ASU charter.”

In addition to degree programs and areas of study, ASU has several programs and initiatives that address the concerns and needs of those interested in technology for public good.  

Science Outside the Lab explores the relationships among science, policy and societal outcomes in a two-week workshop in Washington, D.C. Doctoral students from science and engineering disciplines meet and interact with congressional staffers, funding-agency officers, lobbyists, regulators, journalists, academics, museum curators and others.

Responsible Research and Innovation in Practice is a three-year project under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research program. It aims to understand the barriers and drivers to the successful implementation of responsible research and innovation; promote reflection on organizational structures and cultures of research-conducting and research-funding organizations; and identify and support best practices to facilitate the uptake of responsible research and innovation in organizations and programs. 

The Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation was created to accelerate the formation of a community of scholars and practitioners who, despite divides in geography and political culture, will create a common concept of responsible innovation for research, training and outreach — and in doing so contribute to the governance of emerging technologies. Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation facilitates collaborative research, training and outreach activities among roughly two dozen institutions across the globe.

Global Resolve began in 2006 working to help provide clean water in a Ghanaian village. Today the program encompasses projects ranging from prosthetic limbs to improved crop production with partners in 13 countries in Asia, Africa and North and South America. Global Resolve offers students a unique opportunity to bridge the global divide with sustainable and collaborative solutions to help relieve the effects of poverty in the developing world.

The Engineering Projects in Community Service program, known as EPICS, is an award-winning national social entrepreneurship program where teams design, build and deploy systems to solve engineering-based problems for charities, schools and other not-for-profit organizations. Participating students represent a variety of disciplines within ASU. A common theme through all projects is that of sustainability — finding environmentally friendly solutions to community problems.

Future goals

Through these activities, ASU is cultivating a new field of study to position the next generation of tech and policy leaders to design, build and govern technologies in ways that advance the public interest.

By offering a systematic way of studying technology in the world — including the unforeseen and adverse consequences of technology and methods to harmonize technology and society — educational institutions like ASU can train a new generation of graduates who have both technological literacy and a rigorous foundation to navigate the societal, ethical, legal and policy implications of our new technological age.

"Public interest technology is a critically important area for our attention," said ASU Executive Vice President and University Provost Mark Searle. "As technology becomes more ubiquitous, it is essential we consider the impacts on people, whether unintended consequences or designs that exclude certain groups or disadvantage them in some way. This is not just an issue for the developed world but also one for the developing world, and so bringing ASU’s expertise to bear is part of our commitment from our charter to be inclusive and take responsibility for the social, economic, cultural and overall health of the communities we serve."

Top photo: Students collaborate at one of ASU's innovation spaces. Photo by ASU