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EuroTech Alliance’s High-Level event 2021: Focus on Technology for Society

EuroTech Alliance’s High-Level event 2021: Focus on Technology for Society
26 Nov. 2021

From left to right: Rita Bruckstein, Director, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Robert-Jan Smits, President of Eindhoven University of Technology, Eric Labaye, President of École Polytechnique and Institut Polytechnique de Paris, Juliane Winkelmann, Vice-President for International Alliances & Alumni at Technical University of Munich, Jan Molzen, Head of Partnerships at Technical University of Denmark, Jan Hesthaven, Vice-President for Academic Affairs of École Polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne - © EuroTech Universities Alliance

Reflecting the Alliance’s aim to empower society, this year’s High-level Event focused on the benefits of technology for the community but also addressed its limitations. Thus, the question “Technology for society – are we getting it right?” served as a leitmotiv, which the speakers addressed from different angles. The conference was live-streamed to allow a broader audience to participate in the discussions.

The focal point of the opening session was on the social responsibility of universities of science and technology. Specifying that scientists have a long tradition of discussing their social responsibility, Maja Horst, Professor at Technical University of Denmark (DTU), noted that the questions are becoming ever more complex as controversies around new and emerging technologies are multiplying.

She has studied the dynamics of such debates and stresses that technological controversies are partly rooted in fundamental questions linked to values. Hence, they are not solved by simply providing more information. Technical efficiency and economic viability aren't sufficient to enable a given technology to impact society positively. It also has to be socially legitimate, and only a proper engagement with society's values can establish this legitimacy. Given that how we imagine future technology is closely intertwined with our value systems, Professor Horst emphasized the need to aim for a culture of socially responsible technology development based on shared values.

Improving innovation through public engagement 

Many new technologies raise questions regarding their dual-use potential: in addition to the purpose they are originally designed for, they might also serve questionable purposes (e.g., smart cities imply the risk of enabling constant surveillance). Not only do existing technologies impact society but so do visions and predictions. Professor Horst stressed that new technology is one of the most powerful forces in society, which makes it extremely important that science and technology universities take responsibility for how their vision and development of technology influence society and cooperate with relevant stakeholders, including public interest groups and NGOs. Furthermore, she pointed out that many examples demonstrate how a more comprehensive public engagement improves innovation, making it an opportunity to seize
Professor Horst concluded that responsible innovation is a continuous process focused on reflection, inclusion, and the ability to be “response-able”. Universities are instrumental to foster the dialogue about how we want science and technology to shape society in the future.

Eric Labaye, President of École Polytechnique and Institut Polytechnique de Paris, opened the next session titled “Do we ask the right questions?”. The session brought together academia and society to elaborate on how both parties can best collaborate to include society in the innovation process to match science and technology endeavors to societal needs.

In the course of his dialogue with Dr. Heidrun Mollenkopf, a former researcher and incumbent Vice-President of AGE Platform Europe, Eric Labaye focused on the challenges that need to be addressed to foster effective collaboration between universities and civil society. Provided that society’s interests have constantly been at the core of universities’ activities, Eric Labaye reminded that École Polytechnique was founded in the aftermath of the French Revolution, with a strong commitment to serving the common good. Training, research, and innovation have been driven by the School’s values to improve living standards through science and technology. Today, an acceleration and innovations in various technology sectors surge, and at the same time pressing concerns regarding climate change, sustainability, and inequalities require adjustments.

Eric Labaye proposed three sets of questions, which need to be addressed whenever new technology is developed. First, the question of its potential impact on the environment, resources, and biodiversity in order to ensure the new technology complies with the global sustainability goals. Second, the question of its inclusiveness and potential impact on equalities has to weigh in the development process. Third, the need to ensure the new technology complies with ethical responsibility. As universities drive innovations for society, these three points should serve as indispensable guidelines to promote technologies and innovations that are both responsible and inclusive.

As Dr. Mollenkopf’s research focused on the interplay among personal, societal, technical, and environmental conditions determining the quality of life in old age, she brought her knowledge to the following discussion and shared valuable insights to help remove innovation barriers for senior citizens.

Raising the question “Do we have the right policies in place?”, the following session brought together the EU representatives Antoaneta Angelova-Krasteva, Director for Innovation, Digital Education and International Cooperation at the European Commission, and Eva Kaili, Member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy of the European Parliament, Pirita Lindholm Director of European Regions Research and Innovation Network, and Robert-Jan Smits, President of the Eindhoven University of Technology. Nina Zuber, a student from the Technical University of Munich, also participated in the panel.

Robert-Jan Smits highlighted that the European Commission’s target plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 sets an ambitious agenda and the policy actions required to achieve this goal. Additional policies in the field of education and research can contribute.

He explained that the member universities of EuroTech currently focus on further developing and integrating challenge-based learning into the programs to train skills such as solving problems, working in teams, and collaborating across disciplines, which are increasingly important in professional life. Initiated by the EuroTech Universities Alliance and funded by the EU, the EuroteQ Engineering University is pioneering an educational approach reinforcing the link between cutting-edge engineering education and society.

Collaboration, co-creation, and interdisciplinarity are the focal points of the project and enable students to acquire the competencies these proceedings require. In addition to teaching expert knowledge, the universities also equip students with the crucial skills to further involve society in a responsible and interdisciplinary innovation process.

EuroTech Universities Alliance celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

A strategic partnership of leading European universities of science and technology committed to excellence in research and education, EuroTech jointly develops solutions to the grand challenges of society. The alliance combines the complementary strengths of its partner universities to achieve collective multi-scale initiatives of high impact for society and for the industry in an international context. It engages with all societal actors to raise awareness of the opportunities offered by science and technology. École Polytechnique joined the EuroTech Universities Alliance in 2018. The six EuroTech universities are: École Polytechnique, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), Technical University of Munich (TUM), Technical University of Denmark (DTU), and Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.

The recording of the live-streamed discussions is accessible here.

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