Ten billion people. Megacities. Massive increases in food production. Double, even triple energy demand. Impacts of climate change and the need for access to clean water. Potential pandemics. We face many challenges to sustain our planet’s quality of life, today and for decades to come. Daunting? Exceedingly so. The future of society hangs in the balance.

Rising to meet these challenges: a focused convergence of technological experts and social scientists.


Tapping Technology

From nanotechnology to synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, quantum computing and robotics, technology is advancing exponentially.  As the cost of many technologies decreases, global access to their benefits increases faster than we ever envisioned. Technology, then, promises to help us tackle and solve grand challenges.

Today we speak of a future where everything is “smart” and “precise.” Precision agriculture and medicine and smart transportation, cities and manufacturing are a sampling of the current rhetoric about the future of everything. In this future, technology augments human capacity, presenting yet another challenge: fewer people will be needed in the workplace.


Heeding Societal Implications

As technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics replace humans on the job, what is the future of work?

In 1810, about 95 percent of the U.S. population worked in agriculture. Today, only about 2 percent do. In those 200 years, we transformed the nature of work, found new jobs and trained our growing population. However, exponential technology begets exponential change, and the McKinsey Global Institute predicts by 2035, just 18 years from now, about 45 percent of today’s jobs will be performed by machines. To ameliorate this transition, some advocate for a universal basic income to replace work-related income. In my opinion, the issues are broader than income support and need a fuller consideration. We must ask: What are the ethical, legal and societal implications of such a movement?

Solving these global challenges calls for addressing societal issues through deep and rigorous research. Technology and the social sciences together must inform new, “smart” policies to help us progress.


Transdisciplinary Work at Purdue Policy Research Institute

While definitive answers are yet to be determined, faculty at Purdue University’s Discovery Park are seeking solutions rooted in transdisciplinary research and education. True solutions, with positive social impact, require working across and beyond traditional boundaries that often separate humanists and social scientists from natural scientists, engineers and technologists. At Discovery Park, these disciplines converge to address global challenges.

One example is the Purdue Policy Research Institute, led by S. Laurel Weldon, distinguished professor of political science, which works across traditional boundaries to better understand how the convergence of technology and social sciences can yield well-informed policy and a better understanding of our changing world.

The power of this approach is illustrated in the Mellon Foundation-funded partnership between Purdue Libraries and the Institute. Purdue researchers are taking a unique approach in their research, developing and integrating innovative models of scholarly communication by embedding publishing professionals, library faculty and policy experts in the research and communication process. The approach is also unique in involving humanists and social scientists at the core of efforts to understand and find solutions to grand challenges.

This grant four interdisciplinary teams who are tackling issues such as sustainability in U.S. agriculture, big data ethics, climate change governance and the effectiveness of science-policy interaction, and decision support tools for flood risk mitigation.


Autonomous Systems

The Institute is also undertaking research—initially through a fellowship program—in autonomous systems. While technology enabling autonomous vehicles is developing quickly, the ethical, legal and societal implications of these future transportation and mobility systems are not yet thoroughly understood. PPRI aims to catalyze the discussions, and ultimately the research, to fill this gap, again, by involving scholars from multiple disciplines and stakeholders in the research process right from the start.

Similarly, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are growing in popularity and for a variety of purposes. Like many technologies, they are proliferating at a greater pace than regulations to ensure safety and security without unduly restricting growth in technology and industry. The Institute has created the Drone Regulatory Research Initiative, a public/private, interdisciplinary partnership, to deepen understanding of these issues and develop fresh approaches and alternative solutions.

This project brings together engineers, aviation technology experts, social scientists, agricultural scientists and others. In 2016-2017, an interdisciplinary group of honors students worked with the Institute staff to develop a brief outlining the main uses and policy issues, and a policy brief series will run through this academic year. The Institute has also developed partnerships with Airmap and Pierce Aerospace, participates in the University Aviation Association for education and policy analysis subcommittee, and contributes to federal regulations and policy implementation of drones.


Net-Zero Energy Housing

Yet another area is the importance of policy supporting sustainable, accessible-to-all and affordable housing. The Institute is working with Purdue political science professor Leigh Raymond, former director of the Center for the Environment, on net-zero energy housing, to employ “smart” technologies to develop housing returning as much energy to the grid as it takes away. Raymond, who will be a PPRI Faculty Fellow this academic year, is leading the project, which, in partnership with the State of Indiana’s Energy Systems Network and Move Forward Program, will develop both technological solutions and a policy framework to make net-zero feasible. When technology and social policy integrate to address grand challenges, it can help us solve seemingly intractable situations.


Gender Equality

Weldon’s own research focuses on gender equality and public policy, a grand challenge area necessitating transdisciplinary research. This year, the Institute plans to further develop work on women’s human rights and the connection to science and technology issues. A major part is understanding how social norms, including attitudes about gender, affect the ways we use or do not use science and technology to their greatest effect.

For example, technology can help or hinder women’s access to markets and economic empowerment. The Internet, for example, can facilitate opportunity for women while also being a source of online violence and harassment. Cell phones and cashless banking make it possible for women in the developing world to work and access funds without exposing themselves to sexual assault and harassment as they travel to distant financial institutions. However, women are disproportionately disadvantaged by the emphasis on cell phones in much of the developed world. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates women in low-to-middle income countries are 20 percent less likely to have a mobile phone, a gap meaning some 300 million women in the developing world lack access to phones.  Weldon will make a presentation on this subject for the Dawn or Doom series next month, and will take part in the “goalkeepers” events organized in New York City next month to focus attention on the Sustainable Development Goals and the progress that has been made on women’s human rights.


These are a few ways technologists and social scientists are partnering to address holistically some grand challenges so tomorrow’s megacities, energy and water demands and income opportunities benefit all. Look for many more convergence stories to emerge from Purdue’s Discovery Park.