Social Justice in Technology Starts in the Classroom, IAC Researcher Says

Posted February 22, 2023

Key takeaways

  • Reframing the questions we ask can reform the technologies we design.

  • More diverse perspectives make a better product, and a more well-rounded understanding of the social and political landscape a product will inhabit can help create a more just society.

  • We can kick start these changes by integrating subjects such as ethics, philosophy, politics, and history throughout every part of the STEM curriculums in schools.


Imagine a smart city where sensors and cameras at every stop light can turn them green to expedite ambulances to the hospital.

Sounds great, right?

Maybe, says Nassim Parvin, director of the Design and Justice Studio and associate professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, who poses this question to students in her classes.

But what if we built more hospitals instead, she asks, so people didn't have to travel as far? Or changed traffic and gun laws or access to health insurance to reduce the need for emergency room visits at all? The world might be a better place, Parvin says, and that's why she wants her students — and all STEM scholars — to start asking questions like these in their work.

"We have these experts who are brilliant when it comes to technology, but when it comes to social issues, they're like, 'Oh, that's not what I do,'" Parvin says. "They can build a smart city but they’re not able to put it into a larger social and political setting. They don't have the ethical toolkits to think about what the alternatives might be."

In a new field review published in Just Tech, Parvin discusses how technology can create and worsen injustices and what we can do to combat it. She has spent the past 15 years researching design ethics and the social and political impacts of emerging tech, but with new advancements in artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, "the reach and decision-making power of these technologies have brought them into the spotlight," Parvin says.

"If technology is making life and death decisions, or decisions about who gets a loan, the ethical dimension of it is even more pronounced," she explains.

Parvin suggests more inclusive design processes and foregrounding ethics from the start — rather than applying ethical ideas or theories to already-made products after the fact — to make advances more accessible to all.

She also urges the importance of rethinking our education systems and incorporating ethical design as a primary feature of the college curriculum, where "the current approach of offering a couple of ethics courses is woefully inadequate,” she writes.

Even for an engineer, a bridge isn't just a bridge, Parvin explains. There are environmental factors — where are the resources coming from, what is the bridge replacing? — and social factors such as who has access to it, who gets left behind. "We need to think about the lives and livelihoods of the neighborhoods and ecosystems surrounding the bridge. We cannot approach it as merely an engineering problem," she says.

But if they only have one or two humanities classes, "students are not taught how the ethical principles are actually going to help them in their design process," Parvin says. "We leave it up to them to make the connection, but we really need to change our curricula, so the study of the social impacts and political aspects of technologies go hand-in-hand with the design."

And if we do?

"Then we have livable cities and more inclusive infrastructures," Parvin says. "We have technologies that everybody can use."

“Just Design: Pasts, Presents, and Future Trajectories of Technology” was published in Just Tech in February 2023. Read more:

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