Solving the social, cultural, political dimensions of global issues

Kentaro Toyama: The role of human institutions in social change

“As a country we are not focused on the elimination of poverty. No amount of technology will change that social situation.” If we do focus our energy on the problem, he said, “then our technology will magically realign and begin amplifying these values.”

— Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy:
    Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology

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 also 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 Kentaro Toyoma at the Tata Center Website

October 2015 — Recently the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics hosted a talk by Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, in which he laid out his thesis that technology, in and of itself, primarily “amplifies the underlying human forces” already at work in a society.

Toyama, a professor at the University of Michigan and former head of Microsoft Research India, said he came to this conclusion through a long and difficult personal journey. With a background in computer science, he was trained to solve problems through technology. “I thought that more tech overall was somehow better.” But it was his time working for Microsoft in India that began to change his mind about the role of technology in social development.

“I worked on 50 or more projects [aimed at making a difference] and very often the solution failed at scale. The technology worked, but had no impact.” He eventually reached the conclusion that it was the social and cultural institutions surrounding a certain problem that prevented the technology from having the desired result. In order to get that result, the institutions themselves would have to be changed.

Toyoma did acknowledge that there are ways to deploy technology for major impact. “Look for an existing social trend or organization that is already achieving your goal, and see if your technology can help them do it even more.”

Suggested links

Complete story at the Tata Center website

More stories in The Human Factor series

About Kentaro Toyoma | About Geek Heresy

“Toyama’s research reminds us that there are few one-size-fits-all solutions. If technology is going to improve the lives of the world’s poorest, it must be grounded in a deep understanding of human behavior and an appreciation for cultural differences.” 
— Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation