Solving the social, cultural, political dimensions of global issues

Commentary by Ethan Zuckerman on sociotechnical problem-solving
Can innovators build a future that’s both disruptive and just?

“[W]hen the problems we’re trying to solve with tech are social, we need sociotechnical solutions that look at the interaction between people and technology.”

— Ethan Zuckerman, Director, Center for Civic Media, a joint project of Comparative Media Studies and the Media Lab

The first convening of MIT's inspiring and ambitious SOLVE project brought several hundred people to campus in October 2015 to tackle global challenges in four broad thematic areas. The Institute as a whole is working to advance solutions for major issues in each realm: Innovation, Education, 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 invaluable tools for innovation, and to reap their full potential, we also need to articulate and focus on solving the many aspects of today’s global issues that are not technological per se, but are rooted in the political, cultural, and economic realities of the human world.

Sociotechnical collaborations
With that mission in mind, and to contribute to the MIT initiatives and the SOLVE endeavor, the Human Factor series highlights research and insight on the human dimensions of major global issues. Contributors describe humanities, arts, and social science research that generates knowledge and perspectives for positive change in the world — social innovation — and they share ideas for cultivating the multi-disciplinary, sociotechnical collaborations needed to solve major civilizational issues.


Excerpt from commentary by Ethan Zuckerman in The Conversation

The Media Lab is a place that takes very seriously the idea that we can invent a better future and have it spread around the globe....My work at the Media Lab is about civic media, the idea that citizens can make and share media and use the media they make to make change in the world.

I’m persuaded, in other words, by the power of innovation to improve the world. But I also want to offer some cautions, and I suspect these cautions apply as much to innovators here in the US as much as they do to innovators in the rest of the world.

. . .

Before I was active in international development, the fashion was to support massive infrastructure projects and offer governments big loans to support them. The hot topic when I started Geekcorps was anticorruption, and that was followed by an emphasis on democratic governance and then microentrepreneurship. Now the emphasis is on innovation....But as excited as I am about “hacking and making,” I think it’s important to take a critical look at these other chapters in the history of international development.

. . .

Despite amazing work done at the Media Lab on One Laptop Per Child, an ambitious project to provide children in developing nations with their own laptop computers, the problems of education on the African continent are complicated.

Even if we could get laptops into every school, we’d still have problems with ensuring schools had trained teachers who were sufficiently well-paid to show up for work, with providing safe school buildings – including separate toilets for girls, which have been shown to be essential to ensuring equal access to education – with ensuring that children are fed so they can learn, with ensuring that graduates have access to good jobs.

This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to solve social problems with technology. But it does mean we 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.

It’s not a responsible stance for people who want to change the world with technology to think only about the tech they’re building.


Full commentary at The Conversation

Zuckerman blog entry: Insurrectionist civics in the age of mistrust

About Ethan Zuckerman

Interview upon receiving the Zocalos Book Prize for Wired

More MIT SHASS stories about Social Innovation