The "fourth industrial revolution" is a technological revolution that could profoundly transform humanity for the better. But it is also an inherently social revolution, as both society and technology become more and more tightly coupled. And this means that people, with all our beliefs, values, perceptions, aspirations, desires, fears and longings, are integral to how the revolution will play out.

Ignore this “people” part of the revolution, and the odds of it leading to a brighter future become increasingly small.

So how do we ensure that society isn’t left out of the equation as we set out to “master” this industrial revolution?

In the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS), part of Arizona State University, we address this by spending time introducing our students to ideas and concepts around technology and society. These are often foreign to the scientists and engineers amongst them – and sometimes jarring, as they challenge cherished beliefs and assumptions. Yet they are foundational to informed leadership and decision-making in the brave new technological world we are building.

This is a rich area of study, and a typical course’s reading list is long and deep. However, the ten “readings” below give a good introduction to the social side of technology innovation.

They do come with a caution through – some of them may make for uncomfortable reading.

That’s to be expected – I don’t agree with everything here myself. But the point of the readings is not to create an echo chamber. Rather, it’s to open up new perspectives.

Perspectives that, hopefully, facilitate innovation that benefits society, rather than ultimately harming it.

Essential reading: understanding the social side of the fourth industrial revolution

1. “Technologies of Humility” by Sheila Jasanoff (2007). Nature, volume 450, page 33.

“Humility instructs us to think harder about how to reframe problems so that their ethical dimensions are brought to light, which new facts to seek and when to resist asking science for clarification. Humility directs us to alleviate known causes of people’s vulnerability to harm, to pay attention to the distribution of risks and benefits, and to reflect on the social factors that promote or discourage learning.”

2. “CRISPR: Science can’t solve it” by Dan Sarewitz (2015). Nature, volume 522, pages 413-414.

“The idea that the risks, benefits and ethical challenges of these emerging technologies are something to be decided by experts is wrong-headed, futile and self-defeating. It misunderstands the role of science in public discussions about technological risk. It seriously under-estimates the democratic sources of science’s vitality and the capacities of democratic deliberation. And it will further delegitimize and politicize science in modern societies.”

3. “Why I’ve ditched the ‘Responsible Innovation’ moniker to form ‘Principles for Sustainable Innovation’” by Hilary Sutcliffe (2015). Matter blog.

“We have chosen to use the language of the Sustainability to ‘frame’ our approach to the future of innovation. This has the added benefit of anchoring the discussion around a positive debate about the benefit of innovation, whereas Responsible Innovation smacks a little of ‘you are naughty, you must do it this way’. But on the other hand, we want to make sure that it is not a science-promo initiative about ‘how great innovation is and how it’s going to save us all’.”

4. “The Future of Technology Assessment” by Michael Rodemeyer, Dan Sarewitz and James Wilsdon (2005). Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Science and Technology Innovation Program.

“So let’s get back to the problem at hand: society seems to be on the threshold of a technological revolution whose implications equal, and may well exceed, those of previous technological revolutions. What appears particularly to distinguish this emergent revolution from previous ones is the potential transformation not just of human activities (warfare, work, recreation, travel, communication, etc.), but of the abilities and characteristics—and perhaps the evolutionary future—of human beings themselves. It is a grand experiment whose prospects are breathlessly extolled by some and fearfully derided by others, an experiment which from either perspective embodies the enormous contradiction between the ideal of democratic governance and the momentum of scientific and technological advance. “

5. “Innovation policy: not just a jumbo shrimp” by David Guston (2008). Nature, volume 454, pages 940-941.

“Global society needs much of what knowledge-based innovation has to offer. Anticipatory governance is a necessary exercise. It defrays the inherent contradictions of innovation policy, while ensuring that public values and foresight accompany scientific practice, keeping the revolution from turning unproductively against itself and against us.”

6. “Coordinating Technology Governance” by Gary Marchant and Wendell Wallach (2015). Issues in Science and Technology volume XXXI, issue 4.

“Emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, synthetic biology, applied neuroscience, geoengineering, regenerative medicine, robotics, and artificial intelligence involve a complex mix of applications, risks, benefits, uncertainties, stakeholders, and public concerns. As a result, no single entity is capable of fully governing any of these multifaceted and rapidly developing fields and the innovative tools and techniques they produce.”

7. “Developing a framework for Responsible Innovation” by Jack Stilgoe, Richard Owen and Phil Macnaughten (2013). Research Policy, volume 42, issue 9, pages 1568-1580.

“Responsible innovation means taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present.”

8. “21st Century Tech Governance? What would Ned Ludd do?” by Jim Thomas (2009). 2020 Science Blog.

“Once again we are in the early phases of a new industrial revolution. Once again powerful technologies (Converging Technologies ) are physically remaking and sometimes disintegrating our societies. Those of us in civil society carrying out bit-part campaigns, issuing press releases and launching legal challenges are in a sense attempting to drag technology governance away from the darkness of narrow expert committees and into the sunny court of public deliberation for a broader hearing.. It seems a perfectly reasonable and democratic urge. But there’s got to be a better and more systematic way to do that?”

9. “Possibilities for global governance of converging technologies” by Mihail Roco (2007). Journal of Nanoparticle Research, volume 10, issue 1, pages 11-29.

“The convergence of nanotechnology, modern biology, the digital revolution and cognitive sciences will bring about tremendous improvements in transformative tools, generate new products and services, enable opportunities to meet and enhance human potential and social achievements, and in time reshape societal relationships.”

10. “Navigating the fourth industrial revolution” by Andrew Maynard (2015). Nature Nanotechnology, volume 10, pages 1005-1006.

“The growing movement to take advantage of this convergence involves researchers, investors, businesses, governments, non-government organizations, hobbyists, citizens and many others — it is a truly collaborative affair. Yet, this is a movement that also comes with great responsibility. Understanding how to navigate the complexities of the emerging risk landscape towards a better future is likewise going to have to be a collaborative affair.”