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MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences - Great Ideas Change the World

THE HUMAN FACTOR
Solving the political, cultural, economic dimensions of global issues

 

A sarpanch, or head village decision-maker, in India. Photocredit, clevercort, MIT J-PAL



MIT is working to advance solutions to major issues in energy, education, the environment, and health. For example: How can we reduce morbidity and mortality in cancer cases? How can we halve carbon output by 2050? How can we provide quality education to all people who wish to learn?


Framing the questions

As the editors of the journal Nature have said, framing such questions effectively — incorporating all factors that influence the issue — is a key to generating successful solutions. Science and technology are essential tools for innovation, and to reap their full potential, we also need to articulate and solve the many aspects of today’s global issues that are rooted in the political, cultural, and economic realities of the human world.

Sociotechnical collaboration

With that mission in mind, MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences has launched The Human Factor Series — an ongoing collection of stories and interviews that highlight research and perspectives on the human dimensions of global challenges. Contributors to this series describe humanities, arts, and social science research that generates social innovation, and share ideas for cultivating the sociotechnical collaborations that are needed to solve the major civilizational issues of our time. 

Take a look!
 

Interviews and Stories

The MIT Campaign for a Better World

Announcing the new comprehensive campaign, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said, "Humanity faces urgent challenges—challenges whose solutions depend on marrying advanced technical and scientific capabilities with a deep understanding of the world's political, cultural, and economic complexities." More

Ken Oye, MIT Political Science

THE HUMAN FACTOR

Political scientist Ken Oye and the art of sociotechnical collaboration
 

Over the course of 26 years at MIT, political scientist Kenneth Oye has discovered that collaborating with technologists is a very effective way to inform good policy on the issues he cares most about — from climate change to synthetic biology. More

HEALTH AND INNOVATION ECONOMICS

Heidi Williams on the economics of healthcare innovation
 

MIT economist, and 2015 MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, discusses how updated policies and tweaks to the R&D pipeline could create more drugs for prevention, and for treating cancers at earlier stages. More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | INNOVATION & ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY ARE LINKED

Interview with economic historian Anne McCants
 

"Economic history viewed on a very long timescale tells us that innovation and population size/density are highly correlated. A shorter time horizon tells us that population size alone is not enough. Rather, it is in populations where lots of people are both permitted and capable of 'having a go,' where innovation thrives best." More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | HEATH CARE AND EQUITY

Interview with MIT political scientist Andrea Campbell
 

"Any initiative to address health and health care goals must wrestle with and address the enormous disparities that exist in health coverage, access, and outcomes across racial and income groups in the United States. It’s as if poor or black Americans are living in a different country, and in terms of poverty, health insurance, and health care access, effectively they are. This is a political and social problem as much as a technical one."  More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | ENVIRONMENT

MIT economics students testing projects to reduce pollution in India
 

In India, industrial development and rapid urbanization have far outpaced efforts to protect the environment, resulting in levels of air and water pollution that pose major threats to human health. Working with the Tata Center, two MIT-SHASS economics doctoral students are addressing this challenge by generating incentives for polluters to change their ways. More

HEATH CARE | MEDICAL HUMANITIES

Anthropologist Erica Caple James broadens MIT's health portfolio with work in medical humanities
 

As a specialist in how culture and behavior influence illness, treatments, and health outcomes, James researches how to leverage innovations in health-care and medical research to make care affordable and universally available. More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | UNDERSTANDING SOCIETY

Opinion from the Editors Nature: Time for the social sciences + humanities + science + tech
 

"If you want science to deliver for society, through commerce, government or philanthropy, you need to support a capacity to understand that society that is as deep as your capacity to understand the science." More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS

So you want to reform democracy
 

Reforming democracy is not a technology problem, writes open government activist Joshua Tauberer. It’s not something that a slick website solves. Building power is a social, societal, institutional challenge. More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | FAIRNESS

Solve Talks at Google: Rebalancing Inequality
 

Is there anything we can actually do about growing inequality in the U.S? (Yes!) David Autor, Professor of Economics, and Ian Condry, cultural anthropologist and MIT Professor of Comparative Media Studies, along with Marybeth Campbell, of SkillWorks, explain the causes for U.S. inequality, and what real solutions might look like. More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | MEANINGFUL TALK

3 Questions: Sherry Turkle on “Reclaiming Conversation”
 

MIT professor makes the case that meaningful, face-to-face dialogue is necessary for human beings to develop self-knowledge, empathy, and cognitive skill. More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT

Anthropologist Susan Silbey on the role of culture for solving environmental issues
 

"Transferring the models of physical matter or rational calculation to these massive global problems can do a great deal to help solve our current issues — but only when they are informed by a nuanced understanding of how humans and human organizations operate." More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | POLICY

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf PhD '81 on the politics of global issues
 

"The search for the answers to society’s most pressing questions always involves a political science dimension. Politics is the art of figuring out what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and how you’re going to convince others to go along with what you want to do." More

children in Mongolia and laptop

THE HUMAN FACTOR | SOCIOTECHNICAL SOLUTIONS

Ethan Zuckerman on sociotechnical problem-solving
   

"[W]e should understand that when the problems we’re trying to solve with tech are social, we need sociotechnical solutions that look at the interaction between people and technology." More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | CREATING SOCIAL CHANGE

Kentaro Toyama on the role of human institutions in social change
 

Toyama reached the conclusion that it is the social and cultural institutions surrounding a certain problem that prevent the technology from having the desired result. In order to achieve good outcomes, the institutions themselves need to be changed. More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | THE POWER OF LANGUAGE

Linguist Michel DeGraff on the role of language in education and economic development
 

MIT Associate Professor Michel DeGraff recently received a $1M grant from the NSF for research to develop tools to teach STEM subjects in Haitian KreyĆ²l—part of a larger, transformative project to use Kreyol, the language Haitians actually speak, in the country's classrooms. In this interview, DeGraff speaks about his vision, and how the project is a model for teaching in other local languages around the globe. Read more