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Dr Cian O'Donovan

Dr Cian O'Donovan

Research Associate

Dept of Science & Technology Studies

Faculty of Maths & Physical Sciences

Joined UCL
21st Aug 2018

Research summary

Two questions drive my work:

  1. How can the benefits of emerging technologies best contribute to a flourishing world?
  2. What diverse sets of knowledge, systems and human capabilities are required to imagine and build this world?
The work of trying to answer these questions - qualitative and quantitative social science - can be organised across three themes:
  1. Science, technology and innovation policy
  2. Systems, infrastructures and capabilities for flourishing
  3. Participation, diversity and democracy
This work is described in more detail below. I also do my best to ensure this research contributes to building capabilities and movements that can challenge powerful interests in order to achieve a more sustainable and fairer world. With that aim, in 2014 I helped found Uplift, Ireland's largest people-powered organisation for change, where I advise on strategy and governance.

Teaching summary

I teach the core first year STS module, HPSC008 Science Communication and Public Engagement. This course introduces the public dimensions of science and technology. It explores the relationship between the professional world of science and the social, cultural and personal spaces in which science contributes to the shaping of society


Research project information:

Personal information:

Education

University of Sussex
Doctorate, PhD. Science and Technology Policy Studies | 2016
Royal Holloway, University of London
Other higher degree, MSc. Sustainability and Management | 2010
Trinity College Dublin
First Degree, BA (Mod) Information and Communication Technology | 2001

Biography

My research spans the following three themes:

1. Science, technology and innovation policy

My work is about finding ways in which innovation can be directed towards social progress, and providing correctives to the reasons why it is so often pointed in the opposite direction. I have worked on innovation in robotics, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and renewable energy technologies using ideas from the fields of Innovation Studies and Science and Technology Studies.
Right now I am part of an ambitious pan-European project, SCALINGS. We are investigating how ideas such as co-creation - that involve people and organisations usually excluded from innovation - can be scaled. And whether the imperative to scale should be the focus of innovation policies in the first place.

2. Systems, infrastructures and capabilities for flourishing

Automation is not automatic. New technologies are always embedded within systems and infrastructures. Just imagine a washing machine without plumbing, or Amazon without delivery. Much of my work is about revealing the social and technological details of how technologies work behind the scenes.
In ongoing research I am examining the impact of robotics and AI technologies on systems of elderly care in the UK. The social care sector has been long-neglected by policy, with fatal consequences during the Covid-19 crisis. Yet in recent years it has been the location of innovation by teams of interdisciplinary roboticists. As part of this work I'm looking at the role of 'real-world' testing infrastructures such as living labs and test-beds. These infrastructures are notable also in the in the development of self-driving cars in the UK and with colleagues across Europe.
An important and innovative part of this work has been developing ways of thinking about the social and material settings that technology use takes place in. How conditions of access, rules, cultures, biases, race, class, abilities and prior knowledge often curtail the well-being of technology users. I've done this, with colleagues, by building on ideas about Human Capabilities (from Amartya Sen, Ingrid Robeyns and others), Science and Technology Studies, and feminist ideas of care. This means paying attention to how capabilities and ethics are practiced on the ground by technology users, designers and researchers. And how these practices interact with powerful structures and incentives to increase well-being for individuals and communities, or not, as the case may be.
This work has implications for the training and research practices of scientists, technologists and roboticists; for how funders plan and evaluate inter- and transdisciplinary research, and for efforts to steer our economies towards environmental sustainability.

3. Participation, diversity and democracy

But policy on its own is no silver bullet. It is too often the means by which unsustainable and irresponsible innovation is maintained. And so much of my work takes the form of building collective capabilities to challenge unsustainable and to hold powerful firms and political interests - through both research and advocacy. My research is centered on the capabilities required by transdisciplinry researchers to be critical, questioning and transgressive.
I have also worked for and advised 38 Degrees, the UK's mass-participation advocacy organisation. In 2014 I helped found Uplift, Ireland's largest people-powered organisation for change. Uplift have shown that when people have the means and resources, they actively engage in democratic processes for change. I chair Uplift's board of directors where my role is focused on governance and strategy.

Publications