I am intrigued by how science, technology, and society are related.
By studying these relationships, I aim to improve the process of policy making and decision-making, for example by enabling and enhancing communication between scientists, policy makers and other social groups. In addition, I wish to contribute to the development of technological innovations that take into account organizational, political, and social demands.
Technology assessment: studying the impacts of technological innovations on society, primarily in the area of ‘smart cities’ and urban governance.
Present-day discussions on urban governance and future cities are replete with the term ‘smart city’. From Songdo City in South Korea to the municipality of Amsterdam, everybody wants to be ‘smart’. Although there is no single definition of the term ‘smart city’, its interpretations usually involve the intertwining of urban environments and Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Many debates on smart cities tend to adopt a more optimistic understanding of technology as an enabler of more efficient forms of urban life that can simply be plugged into existing urban settings. ICT may indeed have advantageous effects by making cities more sustainable, innovative, and safer. However, ICT may also create or exacerbate social inequality by increasing the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, make cities vulnerable to malfunctioning software, or lead to privacy-related concerns.
There is no reason to expect the adherents of the different ideas about the smart city will reach consensus in a straightforward manner. Rather, interests that are often only partially compatible need to be consolidated. The practice of desiging smart cities involves an environment of various social groups in which economic, technocratic, and ecological interests play a role of profound importance. Inquiring into the various social groups involved with smart cities and their agendas provides an understanding of the ‘actually existing smart city’ that is far too often lost in the mists of techno-optimism. It is of profound importance to study how smart cities can become more inclusive cities, e.g. by looking at how citizen participation can be enhanced in order to unleash the potential of more involved and ‘energetic’ smart citizens.
Science-policy interfacing: enabling and enhancing the exchange of knowledge between scientists and policymakers.
In the paradigm of ‘speaking truth to power’, scientists are expected to provide ‘objective’ knowledge to policymakers, who can subsequently implement this knowledge in processes of policymaking and decision-making. Most risks entail a degree of complexity and uncertainty (e.g. global warming), which does not bode well for approaches to risk that rely on quantitative methods exclusively. Although there is greater attention for the uncertainties concomitant with scientific theories and instruments, and a greater appreciation of blind spots in knowledge, producing more knowledge about risks does not automatically lead to better forms of risk management. What is more, scientists, decision makers, policy makers often do not share the same approach to risk, uncertainty, and ignorance. In my research, I look at how the interface between science and policy can be improved to deal with risk, uncertainty, and ignorance.
In addition, governments are confronted with ‘wicked problems’ of insurmountable social complexity due to the various ideas and sentiments about a particular issue. Climate is such a highly debated and contested geopolitical issue, where scientists are but one type of voice amidst a tumultuous environment. More and more approaches to climate governance stress the need to involve various social groups. My own work takes such approaches as a starting point, and asks what interfaces between science and society contribute to dealing with risks in a participatory and transparent way, how social groups can become more involved in countering the effects of global warming and building a more sustainable society, and what technologies (e.g. data visualization and information graphics) can contribute to participatory forms governance.
Simulation and modelling: studying the effects of increasing reliance on models and (computer) simulations.
Disciplines such as meteorology, hydrology, civil engineering, and ecology make extensive use of models, e.g. to monitor and predict phenomena. Modeling phenomena often requires dramatic simplifications of the systems in which one is interested, which implies the question whether models capture key characteristics of systems, and what the effects of the increasing reliance on models may be. Such issues also lead to a concern with how modeling actually takes place. I am particularly interested in how modeling expertise is codified in the form of software, and the roles models play in the work of engineers, decision makers, and policy makers. In my PhD, I explored these topics by asking how models are constructed, how models acquire the status of sufficiently exhaustive representations of complex systems, and how models are used in risk communication and participatory approaches to water governance.
Data visualization and big data: assessing the impact of data-intensive science and information graphics in science and governance.
Although common wisdom has it that an image says more than a thousand words, visualizations may lead to both discovery and manipulation. How do visual representations of data enable an understanding of data sets, what technologies are used in the process of data visualization, and how do various social groups respond to visual representations of data? These questions can only be answered by inquiring into the material, organizational, institutional, and social setting in which data visualization and big data are mobilized for their epistemic prowess, i.e. as technologies that enable an exhaustive and innovative understanding of complex phenomena.