Responsible Digital Futures: Who are we and what are we trying to achieve?

Written by Bernd Stahl, in consultation with all team members

We live in a rapidly changing world. Many of the changes we encounter are driven or facilitated by digital technologies. In recent years digital innovations have provided citizens across the world with opportunities to communicate that vastly exceed what our ancestors could have imagined. We can connect using social media, buy and sell world-wide, access knowledge, answer questions at the click of a button and work in ways that embed rich collaboration. These and many other benefits of the changes engendered by digital technologies are counterbalanced by concerns over privacy, surveillance, online harms, misinformation disempowerment, exclusion and social inequality, which are driven or facilitated by the same innovations. Current developments in digital technologies which have implications for every aspect of life on earth and beyond include: artificial intelligence, quantum computing to blockchains and the internet of things. These technologies, the services and products they offer and the platforms and media they provide are rapidly developing, but these developments come with both benefits and concerns. Identifying and exploring these concerns can provide an early opportunity to address them, so that we, on a societal level, can positively shape the trajectory of innovation to minimise potential harms. 

Responsible Digital Futures brings together a team of multidisciplinary researchers interested in exploring how current and future digital technologies can be designed, developed, used and retired in ways that are acceptable, desirable and sustainable. It builds on a rich history of research in these areas. This includes scientific and technical research as well as what might be termed ‘reflective research’, i.e., work undertaken to observe and reflect on digital technologies, their development and use. We see multi/cross/trans-interdisciplinary research as a crucial component of rendering digital futures responsibly. It is therefore not surprising that members have a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds ranging from computer science and engineering to various disciplines in the social science and humanities, including ethics, law, science and technology studies. 

The purpose of Responsible Digital Futures is to provide a forum for discussing relevant topics, developing new ideas and ways of researching them. The forum is open to members of the University of Nottingham and beyond. We see the topic area of responsible digital futures as one that will remain relevant for the foreseeable future and thus hope to provide a degree of permanence to this discussion that goes beyond the time-limited nature of specific projects or other funded activities. By providing this longer-term perspective, the forum aims to build up a body of knowledge and practice(s) that are accumulated through past, current and future projects. It aims to be a home to discussions that inspire new ideas, spawn new projects and contributions to the debate. It also seeks to develop into a centre of excellence that can provide input into questions of the integration of reflexivity on future digital technologies into other projects or organisational structures.  

We believe that our topic area is not only academically exciting but also of high practical relevance. Understanding and shaping socio-technical systems with a view to ensuring that their development and their eventual consequences are acceptable, socially desirable, and sustainable will be a key contribution that academia can make to the wellbeing of individuals and society.  Responsible Digital Futures aims to contribute to this goal, bringing together academic excellence and practical relevance. We would like to invite everybody who shares this aspiration to join us and collaborate with us.