School for the Future of Innovation in Society

What does the future hold? David Guston, Founding Director of SFIS, encourages scientists and citizens alike to shape a desirable tomorrow. How? Through the development of innovative ideas that address both existing and foreseeable real-world problems.


As Founding Director, what motivated you to establish the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) at Arizona State University (ASU), USA?

My ASU colleagues and I have been working on the societal aspects of science, technology and innovation since the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) moved here in 2004. CSPO was initially created by Michael Crow, when he was Executive Vice Provost for Research at Columbia University, to be Columbia’s science policy think tank in Washington, DC. After Michael became President of ASU in 2002, he made CSPO Director Dan Sarewitz an offer he couldn’t refuse to recreate the centre at ASU – and then Dan made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to join him.

So, in one sense, the founding of SFIS is the culmination of activities that we’ve been engaged in for more than a decade at ASU – just formalised in an organisation that is more recognisable as an academic unit than CSPO was. Over the years, we’ve hired new faculty, instigated the creation of new graduate programmes – namely, a doctoral programme in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology and the Master of Science and Technology Policy – and generated a lot of new research, especially in the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU, which the US National Science Foundation funded with an initial $6.2 million, five-year award in 2005 and renewed for $6.7 million in 2010.

But in another sense, SFIS is a brand new beginning because, first, as an academic unit reporting to the Provost, we are in greater control of our own destiny and, second, as a school embracing ASU’s particular mission of access, excellence and impact, we are taking on new challenges like creating an undergraduate major and minor. Like ASU’s School of Sustainability, SFIS is a school created from a problem in the world, rather than from a centuries-old tradition of scholarship or the coalescing of a professional community. For us, that problem is the complex and sometimes ambiguous role of innovation in society, and the role that we all have in making our own futures.

How is SFIS preparing students to build upon the incredible accomplishments of science and technology in years to come?Incidental_SFIS2

Our students pay a lot of attention to the so-called emerging technologies – like nanotechnology, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and so forth – that are characterised by high stakes, high uncertainty and what I like to call a ‘politics of novelty’, in which it is essentially impossible to say whether synthetic biology, for example, is not novel because it merely extends a millennia-old practice of husbandry and agriculture, or that it is novel because it introduces species that not only have not been, but could not have been, crafted by evolution.

With emerging technologies, we’re operating without much data and with multiple kinds of uncertainty, so the risk paradigm really falls apart. We’re teaching our students to pursue a vision of what we call ‘anticipatory governance’, in which they work toward three capacities. The first is understanding or generating anticipatory knowledge of plausible futures with an eye toward what can be done today to help better establish the path toward more desirable futures. We’re teaching them about upstream public engagement, in which substantive, two-way dialogues can be created between lay and expert communities at a point in time at which the differences between the two are minimised due to those great uncertainties. And we’re teaching them how to integrate knowledge across the traditional two-cultures divide, and not just work in, but lead, cross-disciplinary teams aimed at real-world problem solving.

But our students are also interested in legacy technologies – think in particular about large-scale systems like energy, water and food – in which contemporary innovation certainly plays a role, but the key factor is the interaction of numerous social and technical subsystems that have evolved over decades in complex ways. At SFIS, we challenge our students to think about how social change (like behaviour with respect to energy use) and technological change (such as smart metering of affordable roof-top solar panels) interact such that it makes little sense to speak of one without the other. In other words, we teach them to analyse socio-technical systems. We also focus on knowledge systems; that is, the connections among the various ways in which knowledge is produced, validated, disseminated and consumed across society. And we teach them in both national and international contexts, such as through our Master of Science in Global Technology and Development.

Read full interview here.