Foto: DTU

Technology must also be socially sustainable

Thursday 15 Oct 20


Anders Overgaard Bjarklev
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Discussion article by Anders Bjarklev for Frederiksborg Amtsavis, published on 16 October 2020.

We have gradually realized that—in our eagerness to invent smart technology—we risk overexploitation of the resources available on this planet. We may also create new environmental and climate problems if we exclusively focus on economic gains. But there is a third aspect that I think we should pay at least as much attention to: The technological development must also be socially sustainable.

If we forget to involve and meet the needs of the general population, I am afraid that we will see more cases of popular opposition and increased support for politicians who do not necessarily focus on climate change and the environment. We are, for example, seeing this in the United States, where the financial problems of many Americans are overriding climate problems.

As President of DTU and President of the Danish Academy of Technical Sciences (ATV), I am obviously convinced that technology offers great opportunities for solving the climate challenges we are facing. But technology and natural sciences cannot stand alone, they must be linked with a broader understanding of social conditions, equality, and ethics.

"Technology and natural sciences cannot stand alone, they must be linked with a broader understanding of social conditions, equality, and ethics."
Anders Bjarklev, President

One area in which technology and ethics become fused are in the development of algorithms and artificial intelligence. When, for example, researchers create advanced diagnostic tools, it is extremely important that they are conscious of the basic assumptions they rely on for the algorithms, so that any prejudices and stereotypes in society are not reflected in the finished tool. We should generally pay attention to not only developing technology for the most resourceful persons, but also for those with special needs that society does not cater for adequately.

In a free society, we should all expect to be taken seriously, regardless of our education or background. And technology provides a unique opportunity to develop solutions, aids, and appliances for persons who are impaired, either by age or various disabilities. Technology can thus help create a better version of the world and ensure that society does not experience mass anger as well as surplus or worn-out people.

We talk so much about people with physically demanding jobs who should be entitled to early retirement, but I think that many of them would prefer not to have back problems and to remain another five years on the labour market. This may be possible if they are given a technological tool that could spare them from the heaviest work. Likewise, more young people with reading difficulties could be helped entering the labour market through the development of visual instead of written manuals.

Through the ‘Technology leaving no one behind’ project in collaboration with the Bevica Foundation and Disabled People’s Organisations Denmark (DPOD), we have special focus at DTU on getting engineering students to work with inclusion and accessibility in connection with their development of new technological solutions.

It may sometimes not be the best business solution or the greenest project that is to win, but the one that meets a socially sustainable need. Technology must also help create a better life where everyone can contribute to society according to their capabilities.

If we can follow that path and impress this mindset on our students, we will truly live up to the founder of DTU, Hans Christian Ørsted’s mission: Natural and technical sciences for the benefit of society—or its more contemporary variant—: Technology for people.