How technologies can transform society

Published in Social Acceptance by


Steering research and innovation directions with full awareness of societal transformation levels

We are all aware of the transformative power technologies exert at all levels of society, from the macro socio-economic level to the level of individuals, influencing the construction of our identity and sense of self as well as relational dynamics. However, the specific moments, levels and aspects in a R&I process (from concept and design to take up and exploitation) with an active role in generating socially-relevant impacts and transformations are often not recognized with clarity. A better awareness on such aspects would positively influence the capacity to design research and innovation projects that express a truly socially-relevant potential.

First of all, when reflecting on the relationship between science, technology and society, we can refer to the framework concept of socio-technical system (STS). Analysing the interaction between technical features and human/community factors, this concept describes the interrelatedness and the capacity of mutual definition and influence existing between social and technical aspects. In a socio-technical system, technology is considered an agent of social change: available technology options strongly shape society, orienting the horizon of what is possible, feasible and desirable, including activating or dismissing certain moral values or societal scenarios. In parallel, technical artefacts are product of a specific social and historical context, and as such they incorporate, at the level of their concept and design, the values, objectives and priorities of the specific culture and historic period in which they have been conceived. This complex relationship generates different types of impacts and dynamics, emerging in different timeframes and at different levels of the societal structure.

What follows is a series of considerations based on extensive practical experiences in research and innovation projects conducted at the EU level. The aim is to highlight some key “points of contacts” between society and technology along the research and innovation context and process, reflecting on the types of impact they relate to and on their potential in influencing or transforming society.

Technology applications to tackle societal issues

The most intuitive and direct form of technological influence on society is probably the use of technologies to address and solve societal challenge. Based on the identification of a social challenge and/or on a number of connected needs, technology-based applications and solutions are devised and applied to a specific vertical sector. Such solutions, especially if strongly supported by public-private partnerships and specific socio-economic policies and strategies, will indelibly and irrevocably shape the development of specific industrial and productive sectors (health, transport, agriculture, energy supply), orienting or determining the set of possibilities connected to them in terms of market offer, products, public services.

When addressing societal problems through technological applications, part of the impact generated at the societal level can be most probably foreseen. We are speaking of expected and possibly planned impacts, directly connected to the product/service objectives and to the benefit they generate for users or in the related productive sector. This type of impact is often elaborated as part of the business analysis, while creating the value proposition, conducting risk/benefit analysis of the product/service, and identifying positive societal, economic or environmental impacts beyond financial returns.

In this innovation scenario which aims at solving societal problems through technology, some methodological aspects could be debated, with an important impact on societal development and transformations:

  • Identifying the levels of intervention. Who does identify what constitutes a priority challenge or a priority need, and what not? Reality is that technological applications are often the result of technology-driven and technology feasibility considerations. This has often resulted into the phenomenon of “Solutions in search of a problem”, with the creation of technological solutions that rarely result in market success, and that are very different from what could emerge from a more participative, user-driven and co-designed approach.
  • Technology-based versus non-technological solutions. Our approach to innovation is most of the time based on an erroneous equivalence or consequentiality between technology and innovation. This leads most of the time to the assumption that a technology-based solution is the best way to address or solve a certain problem. At this regard it interesting to note how, normally, technology-based approaches are oriented to mitigating consequences, whereas non-technological approaches tend to analyse and tackle social determinants – including psychological or behavioural issues. Favouring one approach or another at the policy level, entails important impacts at the societal macro-level.
  • The point of the problem’s cause-effect related chain on which the application intervenes. The more we tackle the determinants of an issue, the more we will act on society at a structural, transformative, and disruptive level.

Besides the more direct and predictable effects produced by technological solutions in their specific use-case, we shall become aware also of the impact and weight of these preliminary methodological steps, where problems are framed, challenges or needs are outlined, and specific approaches, methods, scope and levels of interventions are confirmed. The strategic choices done at this level – often resulting from cultural frameworks we are rarely aware of – actually steer the direction of our civilization, outlining the set of its underpinning values, and the future scenarios we will act in. Once adopted, this opens a way to reflect on implications of technologies at a human and societal level.

Technology implications on society and individuals

Much less known, understood, and consequently considered within research and innovation processes, are the implications of technology on society and on human beings. Such implications are the result of interactions between different dimensions: the technological solution, the specific social and cultural context of adoption (with its regulatory, cultural, value and political framework), and the appropriation by individual users. Within this complex dynamic, unexpected effects or transformations may occur concerning the meaning, interpretation, purpose and potentiality of given services and solutions. These produce, in turn, structural and transformative effects on societal dynamics, including the emotional, relational or behavioural level of individuals.

As an example, here are just a few effects social media have produced at the level of human interactions and relationships, including cognitive aspects: the way we manage and construct our social identity and seek for social approval or for instant gratifications; search for instant gratifications; reduced perception of hierarchy and of distance among people, no matter their role; opinions’ polarization; antisocial behavior and increased aggressive communication as a consequence of the absence of a number of interaction cues existing in in-person communication; reduced focus capacity, and reduced capacity to control social media exposure, etc. On these lines, thinking about next generation networks, augmented reality and sensing technologies, what will then be the influence on our day-to-day life?

Implications on these levels, although deeply disruptive, are often difficult to detect or perceive immediately, making their identification, measurement, description and wide acknowledgement lengthier and more difficult. Quoting what is known as the Collingridge dilemma [1] (a founding concept for the Responsible Research and Innovation – RRI approach), “during the early stages of technology development, when [a technology] can be controlled, not enough can be known about its harmful social consequences to warrant controlling its development; but by the time these consequences are apparent, control has become costly and slow”.

Indeed, these types of impacts are referred to as indirect, unexpected or unintended consequences triggered by the introduction and adoption of technologies. Indirect, since such effects are not related to the primary use or objective of the technological solution in question; unexpected, because some of these long-term impacts and effects cannot be foreseen prior to use and appropriation in a specific societal and cultural context; unintended because some of these long-term implications may not be positive or desirable. Let’s think of health monitoring wearable devices, on which investments have been strongly supported by R&I policies to strengthen patients’ empowerment and improve remote patient monitoring for better health management of chronic disease. As indirect and unintended effect, it has been observed these solutions could cause, in combination with other factors, psychological distress and anxiety[2].

In relation to sociological implications of technologies, from both the policy and methodological point of view, the following approaches have been progressively gaining attention, as ways to spread higher awareness on these levels of impact:

  • Integrating a humanities and sociological perspective, including ethics considerations as of the early stages of technological development. Through SSH (social science and humanities disciplines) and the anticipatory, reflexive and meta-analytic approach they can bring, societal and ethical implications can be anticipated, investigated, avoided at the concept level, or addressed by design. Keeping a reflexive and anticipatory attitude at the right time it is indeed a necessary step to consciously support, through technological development, the creation of a desirable future, and to avoid the potential difficulties connected to the attempts of adjusting in the future a system that is already “rigid”, under the technical specification or regulatory point of view. SSH perspective shall be integrated as early as possible and throughout the whole R&I process (including the policy level) to counterweigh technology driven or technology push approaches and to relativize technological directions and development orientations.
  • Value-based design and analysis is one of the ways we can analyse and approach technologies through SSH. It deals with gaining awareness and identifying values or biases that are integrated – most of the time unintentionally – into technology in the process of conception, design, construction, or use (e.g. the AI deep learning process).
  • The importance to overcome a human-centred approach in favour of a planet-centred one. We have not yet fully integrated human-centred approaches into our way of thinking, planning and acting, that we shall switch perspective towards a more ecosystemic approach. Impacts and effects shall be considered taking into account our whole ecosystem, and not just the contextual needs of a sector, or of a group of users in a specific societal challenge.

A higher and more widespread awareness about the existence of these aspects, together with the capacity to identify and analyse them is not essential only to anticipate and interpret possible negative or controversial effects of technology; it also allows to steer technological development more consciously as of its strategic phases, with a better control on societal changes affecting the level of norms, values, power structures or relational dynamics. In other words, it deals with the capacity of better accessing and governing the variables acting on the paradigmatic and structural level of our society, creating social capitals, changing economic and governance systems, and helping the transition towards true social innovations.


[1] Collingridge, D., 1980. The Social Control of Technology. Pinter, London.

[2] Schukat M, McCaldin D, Wang K, Schreier G, Lovell NH, Marschollek M, Redmond SJ. Unintended Consequences of Wearable Sensor Use in Healthcare. Contribution of the IMIA Wearable Sensors in Healthcare WG. Yearb Med Inform. 2016 Nov 10;(1):73-86. doi: 10.15265/IY-2016-025. PMID: 27830234; PMCID: PMC5171570.


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