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‘Centre for Sociodigital Futures’ to examine how tech shapes society

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A new £9.8m research centre, centred on the University of Bristol, has been established to examine different theories of how technology will transform the future.

Technology has always driven societal change, and digital technologies are transforming everyday life faster than ever before. Bold claims are being made about how autonomous vehicles, blockchain, embedded AI, and the “metaverse” will shape the future, with every tech giant and its CEO seeking to shape the conversation.

The Centre for Sociodigital Futures will unite experts from around the world to investigate how these various claims about digital futures shape our lives today, and generate new approaches to build fairer, more sustainable societies. The centre is led by the University of Bristol and funded to the tune of £9.8m from UKRI’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), over five years.

Professor Susan Halford, director of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures, said: “We’re living in a “sociodigital world” where digital technologies, devices and data are an integral part of our societies. We can see this throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, which has turbocharged investments in sociodigital transformations and changed everyday lives: from how and where we work, to how children learn, and how we consume good and services.”

“We will examine emerging sociodigital futures, looking at who and what is driving these claims, and what this means for major challenges of our time, including widening inequalities and the climate change crisis. Working with our partners, our goal is to make sociodigital futures accessible in ways that will have direct impact on policy-making, organisational practice, community participation, and technology creation.”

The hub is based in Bristol. Other universities collaborating in the project include the University of the Arts London, University of Edinburgh, University of Birmingham, Goldsmiths University of London, and Lancaster University, all in the UK. Others include University of Naples Federico II, US-based The New School, OsloMet University, Stellenbosch University, and the University of New South Wales.

The centre will create a national and international network of researchers with interdisciplinary expertise spanning social sciences, arts, and engineering. Partners will include the National Cyber Security Centre, BT, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra), Locality, Unesco, and others.

Professor Phil Taylor, the University of Bristol’s pro-VC for Research and Enterprise, said: “This centre will provide intellectual leadership for a tremendously exciting research programme, built on our significant expertise in sociodigital futures. It will have an important role in supporting the university’s ambitions for the 21st century, providing knowledge and capabilities to help tackle huge challenges including social justice and climate change, while also further strengthening Bristol’s reputation as a leading interdisciplinary digital research hub on the global stage.”  

The ESRC funding is part of a £49m investment that aims to create a range of research centres to support law enforcement, trade policy, early years education, and social care.
Professor Dale Southerton, deputy director of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures, commented: “We are surrounded by big claims about how digital technologies will change our futures. These claims are important because they drive corporate investments, government policies, business strategies and inform hopes and fears in our daily lives. Yet the future rarely turns out as predicted, as technologies interact with the realities of everyday life. That’s why we need to have a better understanding of the many ways in which ideas and claims about the future are shaping lives now.”

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, CEO of UKRI, said: “Social science research is central to our efforts to build back better from the pandemic. The latest ESRC research centres will focus on some of the key societal issues to be addressed, such as social care, policing, inequalities between generations and the impact of digital technologies, and will help maintain the UK’s position at the forefront of social science research.”

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