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Tech for Transformative Change? Looking beyond Disruption

27 Feb 2018


Tech for Transformative Change? Looking beyond Disruption
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, From Disruption to Transformation? Linking Technology and Human Rights for Sustainable Development, launched to coincide with the 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this series, experts from academia, think tanks and civil society engage with the topic of linking technology and human rights, and share their experience at the front lines of policy-driven research and advocacy aimed at leaving no one behind in an increasingly digital, automated world.

In this introductory think piece for the From Disruption to Transformation? Linking Technology and Human Rights for Sustainable Development series, Kelly Stetter reflects on the relationship between technology and changing institutions of social development, and sets the stage for UNRISD’s engagement with this issue. In this context, this piece discusses the role of international human rights frameworks, which can provide the normative basis for proactive social policies able to keep pace with the speed of technology and innovation.

Kelly Stetter is Research Analyst with the Social Policy and Development Programme at UNRISD.

A story of technology and social change


Technology is, perhaps in perpetuity, a hot topic of conversation. Often a metaphor for the future, in the popular imagination technology represents both the fear and hope of what tomorrow may bring. In this sense, this story is centuries old. At the same time, few could deny that we are living in a time of rapid change, driven by increasing digitization and so-called disruption of many of the institutions and relationships around which we structure our societies and our lives. This change, and elements of it, have different names and conceptualizations—the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, the Platform Society and so on—alternatively promoted and critiqued across disciplines and sectors. At the heart of these debates is the understanding that something new is emerging, and a sense that we do not quite grasp what the outcomes of these changes will be, or how to address them, for better or for worse.

Technology-driven changes are not confined to one sector or industry, nor are their impacts felt exclusively in one part of the world or by one group or social class. Rather, these changes are far-reaching and intersectional, and may even call into question many of the analytical tools that have long underpinned our understanding of social development and policy making. For example, how do we ensure the right to fair, decent work when the nature of employment is shifting as a result of new digital platforms and increasingly "smarter" automation? And how do we safeguard freedom of expression and civic participation when the site of public discourse pivots to transnational, privately controlled digital platforms?

Our understanding of the shifts taking place across and between political, social and economic spheres, and our responses to them, have not kept up with the speed of technological innovation. Nor could they. Research and evidence-based policy making inherently and necessarily take time, while the global tech sector never sleeps. But this does not mean that it is a lost cause. To keep pace with innovation requires approaches that are proactive rather than reactive to the shifting ground below us. And while it is not possible to predict the future and what new "disruptions" it may bring, we do have the norms and values embodied in international human rights frameworks, and the corresponding rights-based approach to global development, to guide us and provide the means to ensure that no one is left behind, as advocated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Human rights for transformative tech


This UNRISD Think Piece Series, From Disruption to Transformation? Linking Technology and Human Rights for Sustainable Development, seeks both to contribute to the emerging picture of how the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution impacts our conceptual understanding of human rights and the rights-based approach to sustainable development, and to shed light on how technological shifts impact diverse groups of people on a global scale. To this end, we present a collection of "snapshots" of the intersections between new technology and various dimensions of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health, work, social protection, freedom of expression and more, in addition to reflections on the concepts and practice of human rights themselves.

Over the next several weeks and coinciding with the 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this space will provide a platform for experts from academia, think tanks and civil society to engage with this topic and to share their experience at the front lines of policy-driven research and advocacy aimed at leaving no one behind in an increasingly digital, automated world.

By bringing these issues together, this series aims to contribute to a better understanding of how technological change that respects human rights can contribute to transformative change for inclusive development, which UNRISD defines as tackling the root causes that generate and reproduce economic, social, political and environmental problems and inequities, not merely their symptoms. Given the speed, scale and scope of innovation today, there is little doubt that emerging technology will shape social development via institutions and systems of redistribution, production, reproduction and protection in the future. The challenge will be to ensure that this change is also transformative.

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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.