Friday, February 28, 2014

“Shaping Technology” for the Protection of Refugees

Marko Szilveszter MACSKOVICH

The incorporation of innovation into the humanitarian workflow, striving to find new solutions, especially from outside of the sector and to express willingness to embrace novelty is an emerging tendency in the behavior of humanitarian agencies. Solutionsthat enter through the humanitarian gateway can have minor, complementary as well as major paradigm shift causing attributes.

The innovation culture wherein the decision is being made on novel solutions has the rigorous task to ensure that the choice will serve the intended output. For technology-based solutions, especially the ones that are affecting and even defining identity, the threshold of acceptance must be set proportionally to the strictness of privacy safeguards and the purpose envisaged. Further, the understanding of the technology behind the solution to grasp its potential, its risks, limitations and life span is pivotal.

The rationale for reaching out to technology is that it has an inherent potential to expand protection space against contracting tendencies. To discover the spaces where it can deliver these outputs, refugee protection is being placed in the notion of social shaping processes where innovative ideas may enter and materialize in technological artifacts.

Only being aware of the capability of a technology to produce an output is not enough to capture its full potential. Technology needs to be understood from the outside, as much as from the inside: what are the shaping forces, how they are interconnected, how control can be employed, what are the limits, the risks and through what modalities can they be resolved and mitigated in the short- as well as in the long term. While the decision is being negotiated on the use of a particular solution, the knowledge-base and methodology of the organizational innovation culture should take note of the solution’s inherent attributes. Not just its impact but also the shaping forces of the solution,from the inside and from the outside.

These considerations are even more focal in the humanitarian context where funding, and thus room to maneuver in choices, is limited and the target population is highly sensitive to risks. Humanitarian organizations ought to endeavor for a thorough understanding of the envisaged technology’s holistic posture, especially in reference to the expected output as it rests at the core of the decision-making process. The “black-box” of technology needs to be opened and its composing elements need to be looked at with the requirement of transparency.

Space is present within the refugee protection realm to employ novel ways to positively impact the life of this particular social group. In this article I focus on how this space can be cultivated and consciously developed. It remains conscious of positive expectations generally connected to the employment of technologies, and although acknowledging the potential of benefits, it simultaneously endorses a cautious approach. Technology cannot be expected as the ultimate solution, rather a tool of complementarity. The solution it delivers – especially in the refugee context – is highly time sensitive and susceptible to all environmental variables. Technology’s deployment should be accompanied with the tool’s thorough understanding, including its potential benefits balanced with cautious expectations in light of realities in the field.

The “social shaping of technology” (SST) approach (Williams & Edge, 1996)argues that a technology to be perceived and looked at with the impetus purely on its impact and outcomes does not allow for a deep understanding of the “technology artifact”, and does not broaden the corresponding technology policy agenda. Instead of the linear, traditional approach the SST argues for the opening of the black-box of technology to make visible the socio-economic patterns embedded in the content of technology and the process of innovation(Bijker & Law, 1994; Ruth Schwartz Cowan, 1985). It implies that there is a particular process behind the shaping, design and implementation of technology, impacted by organizational, political, economic and cultural factors and not only an inner technical logic. Understanding these factors and their role and impact has a positive effect on the apprehension of the relationship between scientific excellence, technological innovation and economic and social well-being.

The argument of social shaping also implies the existence of shaping forces with the existence of a set of choices made at every stage in the generation and implementation of technology-based solutions, not just resting on purely technology attribute focused considerations but in pair with technology content influencing social factors. Choices can be made on various levels including design, systems, and trajectory of innovation processes leading to potentially different technological outcomes, ultimately impacting the implication towards society and towards a particular social group. The choices that can be made over technology and with consideration of the position of those who make these choices and their relationships with other actors, agents in the same or adjoining issue areas, create the setting for the politics of technology. Such a setting renders technology as non-neutral, subjecting it to the interest of particular actor(s) or (social) group(s) to preserve or alter social relations. Ultimately technology therewith becomes a platform for/of politics (Bruno Latour, 1988; Hård, 1993; Winner, 1978,1980).

In thecontext of forced migration, and zooming-in further on refugee protection, the agents that are exercising protection mandates are the ones who make the ultimate choices on technology. These choices are envisaged to be democratic to allow for a constructive technology assessment, involving therewith primarily the refugees – as the ultimate beneficiaries – to participate. Yet due to their“exposed” beneficiary position, the shaping and the control of the process what leads to the final choice on technology remains incomplete. (Rip, Misa, & Schot, 1995; Schot, 1992)

In this article’s scope, the technological artifact forming social processes are clustered into three categories: (1) general social processes, (2) refugee initiated processes, and (3) refugee targeted, through UNHCR, and other humanitarian agents. The interpretative sequence in each case differs. This classification takes note of the linkage between user and consumer and implies the use of the SST model. In the wave of economic dynamics and profit-oriented entrepreneurism the greater bulk of the population, across all social groups, are subject to a general socialization process through which they are able to access technological artifacts designed for the general population. These artifacts are stipulated to be accessible by its envisaged target groups.

The particular attributes of the refugee domain, such as the area covering the ultra-vulnerable refugee population, have its own dedicated social interpretative and shaping dynamics. Refugees, through the general social processes, are able to access and take advantage of the global market produced technological artifacts, such as mobile phones and the internet. To a minuscule degree they also contribute to the shaping of these products. Owing to the particularities of this – ultra-vulnerable – social group they can genuinely perceive and can also become suppliers of technological artifact to their own need. These solutions are not to be understood here as high-end products; rather solutions adapted or compiled from the general market but with the insider’s advantage to market its sub-version.

The category centre to this article is the social process that manifests between the suppliers and the refugees, with the inclusion of the humanitarian agents. The linkage that then impacts the development and control of the technological artifact creation and deployment rests on the humanitarian agents’ interpretation of the refugees’ needs, expectations. The thereby silhouetted humanitarian goals will formulate the baseline information that will define the choice and employment of the solution. The attention of this article is directed on the segment where the humanitarian agent interacts with the technology-based solution and its supplier; to what extent the SST model’s attributes are being manifested – in policy development (a technology-aware innovation policy and innovation cycle) and the understanding and choice of solution (based on an technology-aware assessment scheme).

Defining the needs of the population of concern is an initial step to embark on finding corresponding technology-based solutions. Most of the applied solutions are building on already invented formulas and being adapted to particular needs. Yet to ensure that the right mainstreamed solution is being employed or a new potential solution is being endeavored, an out-and-out apprehension is innate in reference to the interpreted value-needs/gaps of the displaced persons.

This social shaping discourse intends to direct attention to the social processes that the refugee protection domain similarly witnesses. Refugee protection practices also employ technology. Moreover, technology is even being used not just through the deployment of humanitarian actors, but by way of the general social processes the refugees are subject to. Practices of agencies and entities within the refugee domain can be also interpreted within the linear and the SST models.

This article emphasizes the need that technology-based solutions should be looked at beyond the linear perception. Proper technology-aware policies need to be developed that capture the need to understand what shapes technology, and the potential ways of how envisaged impacts can be achieved and their processes controlled. Policies are stipulated to include a scheme or mechanism that ensures such insights.

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