July 27, 2018

Material Social Futures CDT

The future of society is most often treated as a consequence of a myriad of merging technological outcomes, which drive industrial trends, globalization, and the ubiquity of consumerism. Such a future is often seen as inevitable; the future we get is the one we are given.

Whilst many people desire ethical futures, ones which, for example, balance industrialization with environmental impact, or a future where individual need is alloyed with social coherence and value, may people feel powerless to shape the future; they fear it is outside of their control.

This feeling of inevitability is compounded by the intellectual tools people have:  many think they do not necessarily have, for instance, all the information they require to better shape the future; others feel they cannot question the validity of information they use to imagine what the future will be. Making better choices about the future requires better understanding of the present as well as the future.

One potential break in this ‘vicious circle’ is to transform the thinking of those most engaged in developing the very technologies that shape our future – not just the material basis of those technologies but the design of them, not just research on the user-driven shaping of technologies but the accounts and narratives developed to explain and understand them which in turn shape what technologies are thought to enable.


In Material Social Futures, researchers will be encouraged to look beyond the direct utility or purpose of the technologies they devise, and instead look at such things as the ‘cost’ of their development and the potential applications (and misapplications) holistically; they will be encouraged too to explore how the social shaping of technological possibility may lead to good and bad outcomes, and how, through bigger picture investigations of these possibilities, a shift to more desirable outcomes may be achieved. They will be encouraged to investigate too how technologies are invoked in narratives about the future, and how these shape political and social understandings of those same technologies. Researchers will be directed to explore new speculative and design oriented techniques for imaging what the future might be, and from there, to reimagine what they do now in their own research endeavours.

This broadening approach has the potential to change the aspirations of Social Science, the Arts and Humanities, Computer Science and Engineering as well as Materials Science in profound ways.  But, a transformational change will require research cadres who know how to work both within the frame of traditional disciplinary competence alongside and creatively with others in different disciplines, so as to develop these new toolkits.

Material Social Futures will transform the traditional PhD training such that researchers will be able to explore their disciplinary-specific endeavours from multiple viewpoints.  For  example, current training of materials scientists does not adequately equip them for today’s challenges:  material science offers potential technological solutions to (aspects of) climate change, rising demands for cheap, clean reliable energy, faster communication and greater data storage, the financial and social impacts of an ageing population, etc, yet the possible consequences of technological interventions are rarely, if ever thought through.  A simple example is the demand for high energy density (clean) battery technologies (Li ion batteries) which drives a vast amount of global research. Whilst these batteries carry achieve ever greater energy densities (currently) these very batteries require the element cobalt, and the need for large quantities of this element drives political instability in some of the poorest parts of the planet!

Specifically, through the Material Social Futures CDT we will provide students with:

  • training in developing big picture, material social futures research agendas;
  • the techniques whereby these agendas can be unpacked into those problems that can be dealt with by traditional disciplinary tools and those which require new tools and solutions;
  • the development of those tools and solutions into a growing corpus of research findings and know-how which will anchor and guide future research;
  • the collaborative working skills necessary for such research;
  • and the communication skills required both to work with other disciplines as part of material social futures research and to share findings with the world at large.

Material Social Futures provides a new PhD training programme that will be ultimately rolled out across the University and will create something that is truly distinctive about Lancaster. And, as consumers and governments increasingly call companies to account for their behaviours (a recent obvious example concerns the storage and distribution of personal data!) these very companies will need to hire high-level staff who are literature and skilled in the complexity of dealing with multi-faceted issues of moral and ethical behavior and longer term impacts of technologically enabled and socially shaped change. The environmental impact is one of these dimensions; questions of sustainability anther, social values a third.

Material Social Futures training will ensure demand for our graduates.