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Innovation is a complicated business.
Especially when the innovation moves faster than our society can adapt to or manage it — whether it’s new technology, energy resources or health solutions.
A new school at Arizona State University will take a transdisciplinary, more encompassing view of innovation in order to better predict those outcomes. In the words of Dave Guston, founding director of the new School for the Future of Innovation in Society, “We are planning now for the kinds of futures that we will want to inhabit.”
“The idea of the school is to take our understanding of innovation — which includes not just technical elements but social elements — and have those technical and social things fit together,” Guston said.
The school has its roots in ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, which aims to enhance the contribution of science and technology to the pursuit of justice, freedom and quality of life. The new school takes what the consortium does as a research center and transforms that into a larger operation with degree programs, Guston said.
Its faculty reflect the transdisciplinary approach, with backgrounds in social sciences, law and policy, renewable energy, marine conservation and more.
“The challenge is we’ve built a society that’s dependent on innovation … but we’re innovating faster than we know how to manage that innovation,” said professor Andrew Maynard, an expert in risk innovation and one of the school’s new faculty. “We need new ways of making sure that innovation is helping people and not going to harm them.”
People tend to think of risk just in terms of whether the technology works, he said. But how people think about an innovation is just as important to its success.
Maynard was drawn from the University of Michigan to the new ASU school because it brings together such a wide range of interests and ways of thinking. People get stuck in ruts of deep expertise, he said, but the goal is to get the physicist talking with the psychologist, the engineer with the artist, the legal expert with the scientist.
“The hope is that brand-new insights come out of that, and brand-new ways to improve people’s lives,” said Maynard, who will be teaching introduction to risk innovation this fall. “The bottom line for the school is making a difference in society.”
The School for the Future of Innovation in Society launches this fall semester with master’s degrees in science and technology policy; global technology and development; and applied ethics in both biomedical and science. There is also a doctorate in human and social dimensions of science and technology, and a certificate in responsible innovation. An undergraduate program is being developed.
One of the students pursuing the school’s doctorate is Monamie Bhadra, who was awarded an American Institute for Indian Studies fellowship to study the Indian government’s decision to continue its plans for new nuclear plants.
She chose India as her case study for reasons both personal — she had spent only a few years there as a child and wanted to get to know the country better — and intellectual.
“India is a unique nation, holding the status of the world’s largest democracy, but also one with fault lines along caste, class, language and religion,” she said. “I wanted to know how developing nations and emerging democracies like India pursue high technologies like nuclear power, while at the same time having commitments to democratic governance.”
Science diplomacy — that tricky area where policy and technology must find common ground — is an area that the new school will be putting resources behind, Guston said. He has spent much of his career thinking about how science and democratic institutions can get along.
“Contrary to a lot of ways that the relationship between science and democracy are currently framed — through the lens of denial of anthropologic climate change or rejection of evolution — I actually think that there are many positive and mutually reinforcing relationships between science and democracy,” he said, “and that we should be more optimistic about some of the opportunities we have to democratize science and technology.”
Students at the new school will study the interplay of such diplomacy, environmental factors and that most intriguing of mysteries: the human factor.
People have been the focus of the research of Jennifer Richter, an assistant professor who holds a joint appointment between the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Social Transformation.
Richter has a background in energy and community activism, branching from her research into nuclear waste; specifically, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
“I was really intrigued by this idea of how we create these sacrifice zones” now uninhabitable to life, she said, “just out of convenience.”
She applies the same curiosity to renewable energy. Why isn’t Phoenix the “solar mecca of the universe?” she said. What are the reasons, political or technical, holding renewable energies back?
It is this sort of interplay between the scientific and the societal that will steer the new school.
“We like the cool gee-whiz stuff,” Richter said, “but we also really like the people.”
For more information about the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, visit sfis.asu.edu .