More than the sum of its parts: social science and technological development

By Nigel Gilbert [1]

New technologies can only be successful if they are fit for market and society. The dramatic scale and pace of technological developments offers tremendous potential, but with these opportunities come new dangers and new responsibilities. This implies that technological innovations need to pay close attention to the social contexts in which they are to be placed. Moreover, many social innovations require technological development to be successful. Thus, social and technical research need to go hand in hand.

Robotics, mobiles and Internet based technologies have already caused revolutions in social organisation well beyond the communication area. Similar effects are being caused by the explosively developing bio- and pharma- technologies. Science and technology enabled shifts will contribute to the redrawing not only our economy, culture and society, but also our biology and our ethics. It is thus of utmost importance to incorporate a social sciences and humanities research component in the development of these new technologies from the earliest stage.

However, social science is often seen as merely the ‘handmaiden’ to scientific and technological research, offering at best advice about how to make new developments more socially acceptable, or providing hints about how they can be marketed. In this blog post, I outline some of the ways in which social science (and humanities) can act as equal partners to engineering and science (for a related discussion, see a previous post by Graham Scambler: Six Sociologies).

Among the roles that social science can play are:

1. Opening up new policy questions and identifying new societal needs. For example, users and organisations are increasingly aware of and demanding that software preserves their privacy. In response an approach called ‘privacy by design’ is becoming popular among software designers. But what do users mean by privacy and how should it be designed into software? What are the trade-offs involved? This is an area where the social sciences have already helped to set the agenda.

A second example: the so-called “sharing economy” (as represented by Uber and AirBnB) have pointed to a new kind of division of labour, with the platforms and those who operate and own them making high salaries and large profits while the operators (drivers, room sharers) not only earn little, but are also stuck at the bottom of the organization with little job security. Research, some funded by Horizon 2020, has begun to propose new ways of distributing value in the collaborative economy in a way that is potentially more equitable and is as ‘disruptive’ as the current sharing platforms. However, refining these ideas requires a close cooperation between social scientists and software developers (see for instance the H2020 programme, Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation).

2. Developing and promulgating new social ‘technologies’ and defining a more holistic approach to technology governance. For example, in an increasingly complex world, it becomes ever harder to evaluate public policies to see whether they are actually working as intended, or even to determine whether some observed change is in fact the result of the application of a policy initiative. Social scientists are developing new methods (some involving advanced mathematics and statistics, and some using computational modelling techniques) to get a better understanding of policy impacts. Success would mean that we could become much better at formulating policies that actually have their intended effects.

Another example is the development of ‘community energy’: local, distributed energy generation and supply from renewable sources such as wind, photovoltaics and biomass. Current research shows that the prime obstacles to community energy schemes are social and economic: the need to find ways to bring together volunteers with sources of finance and to develop novel and sustainable business plans. However, these depend on the development of appropriate technologies that are cost-effective at the local scale and can be maintained using local labour. Social and economic research needs to go hand in hand with technical development of the generation equipment.

3. Critiquing current technologies and structures. For example, social science might show that certain technologies, and formations based on those technologies, discriminate against some groups. A classic example is the way in which violent and competitive video games, favoured by boys, can lead to girls being influenced away from pursuing computer science and technology at school and university.

A second example: Some 40 percent of energy is used directly by households, for heating, cooking, leisure etc. Because the demand for electricity is very uneven through the day and capacity has to be provided by generators to meet the maximum demand, even small shifts in the timing of peak electricity demand can yield substantial economic and environmental benefits. One proposed technology is to install smart meters and use differential pricing – charging more during peak hours – but pilots have shown that this achieves very modest reductions. It is probably not new technology that is required, but new social practices: that is, new ways of doing things that become habitual and customary. Understanding behaviour in terms of ‘social practices’ is an emerging and potentially disruptive approach that stands in opposition to the usual ideas of individual behaviour change.

4. Mapping trends in values for the future of Europe. Practices can be modified more efficiently and more rapidly if we know the values and norms that will become predominant in the future. What Europeans think about euthanasia, immigration, vegetarianism and so on, and what they will think about these values in the near future, crucially impacts the kinds of practices and technologies that should be developed. The way in which social and moral norms evolve is an important aspect of social science and its study should go hand in hand with the development of each technology with potential societal impact.

5. Developing a reflection on institutional design. The design of new, more efficient interconnected European institutions (academies, political parties, voting systems, firms) requires a joint reflection from the outset by experts in new technologies and in institutional design. For example, rethinking collective systems of voting through new technologies requires a joint effort between the social sciences and ICT research. Large scale, European collaborative projects to design new institutions can give Europe a competitive advantage and contribute to creating templates for institutions that will serve as models for other countries.

6. Integration of innovative perspectives from the arts and humanities into technological research. The development of socio-technological systems requires a “thinking out of the box” approach. Integrating techniques of reflection coming from arts and humanities (constructing narratives, scenario building, art performances, etc.), through promoting collaborations between the arts and humanities and science and technology will strengthen the creativity of European projects.

7. Improving the usability and attractiveness of technologies. It is often assumed that this is the only contribution that social science and humanities are able to make in technological and scientific projects: a role where social scientists are either consigned to cleaning up the mess that technology design has created, or are used to develop marketing materials to promote technical innovations. Hopefully the above examples show that this is not social sciences’ only role.

What could be done to increase the contribution the social sciences could make to research? The aim should be to have funded projects in which social scientists (and humanities scholars) are equal partners with those from other disciplines. Options to achieve this include:

  1. Making clear in Research Council and other Calls that social science input into science and engineering projects is welcomed and that inter-disciplinary proposals in which the social science questions are the driving force are eligible and encouraged;
  2. Making explicit in research programmes that social science and humanities have a role to play, especially when working with science and technology;
  3. Publicising exemplary projects that feature productive collaborations among social scientists and technologists;
  4. Maintaining a list of reviewers who have a track record of successfully evaluating inter-disciplinary proposals that include social scientists in partnership with scientists and engineers;
  5. Encouraging academic and industrial career paths that provide technologically literate social scientists and social science literate technologists.

[1] The ideas in this blog post have been developed with the members of the Future and Emerging Technologies Advisory Group. The examples quoted are drawn from the author’s research, much of it funded by Horizon 2020, EPSRC, NERC and ESRC.  Nigel Gilbert was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2016 for services to engineering and the social sciences.


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