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Design for changing values: a theory of value change in sociotechnical systems

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ValueChange (Design for changing values: a theory of value change in sociotechnical systems)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

One of the key insights from the philosophy of technology is that technologies are not value neutral but support or inhibit certain values. Several philosophical accounts for understanding the embedding of values in technology have been proposed and approaches like Value Sensitive Design, Design for Values and Responsible Research and Innovation have been established for integrating values into technical design. A blind spot is, however, the possibility of value change after a technological artifact or sociotechnical system has been designed. For example, when many of our current energy and transportation systems were designed sustainability was not yet a central value, and we are now struggling to incorporate this value into these systems. Progress in the field is currently inhibited by the lack of a philosophical understanding of value change in sociotechnical systems. This project aims to contributing to filling this gap. It has the following more specific objectives: 1) to propose a notion of value that is applicable to sociotechnical systems and that can account for value change, 2) to develop a taxonomy and mechanisms of value change in sociotechnical systems, 3) to extend philosophical analyses of the embedding of values in technological artifacts to sociotechnical systems 4) to carry out empirical studies about value change in energy systems, and AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robot systems to support the development of a theory of value change, and 5) to develop strategies that can better deal with value change in sociotechnical systems than current value sensitive design approaches.

The first research line explores how to understand the notion of ‘value’ in the context of sociotechnical systems. While the notion of ‘value’ is generally used to refer what is good and desirable, the exact understanding is different between, as well as in, relevant disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, psychology and anthropology. The second research line aims at better understanding value change. We develop a taxonomy of value change and investigate different mechanism by which values may change. We also investigate whether existing philosophical theories of value can, or cannot, account for value change. The third line aims at developing accounts for how value may get embedded in technologies and sociotechnical systems. Sociotechnical systems are here understood as systems that consist of three types of components: technologies, human agents and institutions. The fourth research line studies value change in energy systems. Such systems are typically designed and built to operate for decades, while at the same time the need for an energy transition, based on values like sustainability, is generally felt. We empirically study cases, like the rise of nuclear energy in France, (failed) attempts to introduce tidal power in the UK and the development of community energy systems. The fifth research line studies value change in the domain of artificial intelligence and robotics. These technologies have raised, and are raising, new ethical questions, which may require new values to adequately deal with them. At the same time, the adaptive nature of particularly AI may allow the development of technology than can autonomously trace value change in society and adapt to it, which raises a range of further societal and ethical questions. We particularly study on household robots and voice assistants. The sixth research line aims at better strategies to deal with potential value change in sociotechnical systems. We develop (computational) tools and methodologies to study and anticipate value change, and we build models that help to test whether certain strategies in sociotechnical systems are robust given certain possible value changes.
Concerning the first objective, there are many different accounts of values, in philosophy as well as in related disciplines. A first task was thus to get a better overview of these different notions. This was achieved through organizing an international project workshop with 30 participants and 11 speakers from 9 countries and with researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds. We also carried out an extensive investigation in how the notion of value is understood in philosophy and related disciplines. In addition, we are investigating how different accounts of value in philosophy allow or do not allow for value change.

Concerning the second objective, we have developed a taxonomy of value change and are now investigating different mechanisms for value change, empirically as well as conceptually.

The third objective has been addressed by developing accounts for value embedding in technology based on affordances and on design intentions. The latter account also extends the analysis to sociotechnical systems (with an emphasis on AI systems but broader applicable).

The fourth objective is achieved by carrying out empirical research on value change, particularly in energy systems and robot and AI systems. This research has indeed been (and still is) carried out. Two PhD students are focusing their research on value change in energy systems and one international (online) workshop has been held on value change in energy systems. Two special issues are forthcoming as result of this workshop. In this way, we have succeeded in also encouraging other researchers to study value change in energy systems. Concerning value change in AI systems, a dissertation is in preparation (on household robots and changes in the value of privacy), as well as research on voice assistants.

For the fifth objective, the emphasis is on developing (computational) tools that allow to study, simulate and better anticipate value change. We are developing several innovative tools, based on topic modelling and agent based modelling (ABM), that help to better study and anticipate value change, as well as answer the question whether a certain strategy is adequate or not for dealing with potential value changes in a sociotechnical system.
The project combines a number of disciplinary perspectives, particularly a philosophical/conceptual analysis of values and value change, combined with empirical investigations of the phenomenon, and the development of innovative tools for studying and anticipating value change based on modelling and simulation. This is challenging but also allows us to move beyond the state of the art in the contributing disciplines as well as interdisciplinary.

In moral philosophy, the project moves beyond the state of the art by proposing value change as an important phenomenon that philosophical theories of value should be able to explain. While related notions like moral progress and moral revolutions have been addressed in the philosophical literature, the emphasis on value change is new and potentially ground-breaking.

In the area of ethics of technology and value-sensitive design, we move beyond the state-of-the-art in two ways, i.e. 1) by developing a dynamic (rather than static) account of values, and 2) by extending analyses of value embedding to sociotechnical systems rather than just technical artefacts.

In addition, the project makes a new interdisciplinary contribution by applying (existing and new) modelling and simulation techniques to our philosophical findings with respect to values and value change. This delivers new innovative methods for studying and anticipating value change.