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Inspiring inflections: Socially-directed technology and the pursuit of promising horizons

December 6, 2023

By Christine Ortiz, PhD

Quote by Christine Ortiz, PhD: Professor at MIT and Founder of Station1: “The cross-disciplinary integration of technological research and development processes with humanistic fields and the social sciences is a critical challenge and opportunity.”

We must revolutionize the processes of technological research and development in higher education to support a more sustainable and equitable world.

Technology has seamlessly woven itself into the intricate fabric of our modern world, leaving an indelible mark on everything from transportation and infrastructure to communication, computation and medicine. Simultaneously, our technological trajectories have led us down a path of formidable challenges — an escalating planetary crisis and amplified social inequities which threaten life on Earth as we know it. Higher education faces an imperative to collectively reform the process of technological research and development and to educate the next generation of technologists to effectively formulate, interrogate, understand, envision, and make decisions which shape technologically driven societal impact towards more sustainable and equitable outcomes.

This post is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

The intentional, holistic and granular cross-disciplinary integration of technological research and development processes — from beginning to end — with humanistic fields and the social sciences is a critical challenge and opportunity. Cross-disciplinary research centers, instrumental communities of practice, multi-departmental education programs, and social innovation efforts have all made advancements through proximity, dialogue and collaboration, yet progress remains slow. In 2016, I accelerated my involvement with this topic both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and through the co-founding of Station1opens in new tab/window, a new higher education institution focused on socially-directed science and technologyopens in new tab/window. In the years since, I have collaborated with hundreds of individuals and organizations worldwide — from students and academic colleagues to entrepreneurs, nonprofits, government agencies and industrial corporations — united by the common purpose of reshaping our technological trajectory to preserve and promote a healthier and just future for the Earth and for humanity. Station1 has coordinated over 65 collaborative research projects, developed and delivered a 10-week, 100-hour curriculum focused on socially-directed science and technology with faculty and students across the nation and the world, and led a multi-university collective impact network overseeing more than 30,000 students nationwide.

We began by considering the traditional scaffolding of technological research and development — that is, the identification, articulation and refinement of research questions and hypotheses; a critical review of the literature; experimental design; data collection and analysis; uncertainty assessment; iteration; synthesis; contextualization and interpretation. The explicit integration of science and engineering disciplines with concepts, knowledge, case studies and data from humanistic and social science fields has opened the way for new research directions, pedagogical approaches and curricula.

Through this experience, we identified that there is a great need for the formulation of deeply integrated methodologies at every stage of the research and development process which can serve as an operational scaffold for decision-making. Convergent methodologies, metrics, datasets and tools that can be standardized, open-sourced, replicated, scaled and utilized by technologists, as well as incorporated into educational programs, hold great potential for advancing socially-directed science and technology. Such approaches will more effectively enable researchers to reflect iteratively on the nuances, trade-offs and systemic complexity of technological development and to operationalize these insights in pursuing new pathways. With emerging computational capabilities as well as discussions and new funding calls for accelerating research and development processes through automation (for example, “artificial AI scientist” or artificial intelligence capable of performing the full process of research and development autonomously), the reform of research and development processes is becoming increasingly urgent.

Image of a highway winding and diverging into the clouds to represent technological pathways and outcomes resulting from a multitude of decisions by scientists and engineers. (©

Technological pathways and outcomes stem from a multitude of decisions by scientists and engineers: New integrated methodologies, tools and datasets are needed to support informed decision-making in technological research and development processes.

An example of socially-directed science and technology: The imperative of materials sustainability

Close to my own field of expertise, there is an increasing interest and passion among researchers — and in particular the next generation of technologists — in materials sustainability. Material pollution, contamination, waste, emissions, and environmental injustice (i.e., when particular groups bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences, burden, and risks resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies) are all points of focus.

Examples of research and development efforts include circular economy initiatives, biodegradable and bio-based materials, material innovation for energy efficiency, smart materials for sustainability, recycling technologies, waste valorization, digital material passport systems, materials for carbon capture, and sustainable packaging solutions — which have led to growing ecosystems of climate tech, agtech, biotech, civic tech and more. However, there is a dearth of cross-disciplinary metrics, datasets, tools and methodologies to rigorously evaluate the systemic complexity, trade-offs and optimization of the technical, environmental, social and financial impacts and unintended consequences of such approaches. This has resulted in research and development efforts with values and objectives aligned towards sustainability and social equity unintentionally causing harm and negative consequences. Examples include the ecological impacts of solar technologies, the health consequences associated with reclamation and recycling of electronics, and cases of disparate fire and safety risks resulting from energy-efficient housing incentives.

One initiative I am leading in this area is a National Science Foundation supported multi-institutional collaborationopens in new tab/window that focuses on addressing this challenge of materials sustainability. Datasets and metrics are disparate and sparse and span a variety of disciplines and stakeholder perspectives, including chemistry and toxicology, environmental engineering, ecosystems and biodiversity, environmental policy, science and technology studies, business (ESG), social impacts and socioeconomic factors, product development, civil engineering and the built environment, supply chain, legal and regulatory compliance, and materials science and engineering. We identified over 150 sustainability-relevant metrics across technical, environmental, social and financial categories. Environmental Life Cycle Assessment (E-LCA) and Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA) — which aim to quantify environmental and social impacts associated with a material, product, process or service across its entire lifecycle — have created an initial intellectual framework. Our work in this area involves integrating and optimizing technical, environmental, social and financial metrics, as well as upstream computational physiochemical materials design and optimization, for use as a decision-support platform. There is an urgency to significantly expand work in this area. A recent national report on sustainable chemistryopens in new tab/window from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Joint Subcommittee on Environment, Innovation, and Public Health Sustainable Chemistry Strategy Team of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) highlighted this topic as critical national strategic area of opportunity.

The urgency for a national and international initiative or center for comprehensive, holistic and rigorous reform of research and development processes is becoming ever more critical. Other examples of methodologies with potential for enhanced integration include community-based participatory research (CBPR), civic and equity-based design, multi-objective Bayesian optimization methods, thinking with time and historical methods, future studies, scenario analysis, technology risk assessment, and multiscale ethical reasoning (Spero and Ortiz: Diseña 18, 2021).

We welcome collaborative engagement related to the advancement of integrated methodologies for research and development through socially-directed science and technology ([email protected]opens in new tab/window).


The author would like to acknowledge collaboration and contributions from Dr Ellan Spero, Instructor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, Historian of Science and Technology, and co-founder and Professor of the Practice at Station1; Dr Francisco Martin-Martinez, Senior Lecturer at Swansea University; Professor Jingjie Yeo of Cornell University Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering; Dr James Saal of Citrine Informatics; and Alina Gavrilov, Bridge Engineer with the City of Columbus, Ohio, and Researcher at Station1. I would also like to express gratitude to over 265 supporters of Station1 and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator (CA), in particular program director Linda Molnar.

Christine Ortiz, PhD

Dr Christine Ortiz is a higher education leader, professor, engineer, scientist, former dean, board director and trustee, and social entrepreneur. Dr Ortiz has over 25 years of experience in higher education and a passion for advancing emerging, cross-disciplinary, integrative science and technologies towards sustainable and equitable societal outcomes.

As the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she is an internationally recognized researcher in the field of biological and bio-inspired materials. Dr Ortiz has given invited lectures in over 40 countries, has over 200 scholarly publications, has supervised the research projects of more than 100 students from 10 different academic disciplines, and received more than 30 national and international honors.

Dr Ortiz is the Founder and Chair of the Board of Directors of Station1opens in new tab/window, an innovative startup nonprofit higher education institution that has developed a new model of frontier learning and research — socially-directed science and technology. She has led large cross-disciplinary teams and research grants and served on over 50 scientific advisory boards and expert panels. Dr Ortiz currently serves on the board of directors of the publicly traded companies Mueller Water Products (a water infrastructure and technology company) and Enovis (a medical technology company). She also serves as a trustee of the Essex County Community Foundation and on the advisory boards of the MIT Museum, the Cornell University School of Engineering, and the Boston College Engineering Advisory and Partnership Board.


Prof Christine Ortiz, PhD


Christine Ortiz, PhD

Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) | Founder, Station1