A broad understanding of digital technologies is of utmost importance in the information era. How do we make sure that humans stay in the loop in a socially sustainable way as societies become ever more digitalised?

Our societies must strive for a future that is not only green and digital but also just. The United Nations offers a blueprint for this transition in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG16, which aims to promote inclusive, transparent, and responsible governance. The emerging information era will continue to test how technology affects the societal relationships between individuals and organisations. These relationships are forged, and lost, through experiences of trust – the willingness to become vulnerable. Without trust, the promise of digital technologies will slip away. 

This challenge hasn’t gone unnoticed in the EU, which is encouraging a green and digital transition to support progress in the SDGs. The EU has dubbed the 2020s Europe’s Digital Decade and set targets to accelerate progress in digitalisation.

‘The digital decade is our last chance to follow through on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals,’ said Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s chief digital official, in March 2021. ‘We know that digital technology has the potential to facilitate inclusion and access to public services around the world.’

Yet the asymmetry between technological progress and the rights and skills of digitalized citizens threatens to undermine such goals. Autocratic governments are increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) to build surveillance capabilities which feed into social scoring systems and enable the suppression of dissident voices. Democratic states are grappling with regulating big tech, controversial surveillance and the myriad problems of content moderation. The list of negative effects seems endless.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. The discipline of computer science has come a long way since its inception and now takes a more human-centric approach to technological development. Recent work has critiqued how technologies are applied and developed novel approaches for tackling the societal challenges left in the wake of technological progress.

‘Increasingly, computer science is no longer just about what happens inside the machine,’ explains Nitin Sawhney, professor of practice at Aalto’s Department of Computer Science. ‘It’s about our experiences of everyday devices we use and the digital services we interact with. The landscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 years in terms of how computer science affects society, especially with the increasing prevalence of big data and AI.’

Bringing humans into the loop has been a key driver in transforming the field.

‘Technology development has tended to operate in a top-down manner, with little involvement or agency for end users in the process,’ explains Sawhney. ‘We need to create better mechanisms of inclusion and participatory design to engage civil society.’

Read the full article here: https://www.aalto.fi/en/news/designing-sustainable-societies-through-trust

Published: 15.9.2022, Aalto University