INFO/STS 4240: Designing Technologies for Social Impact

Instructors: Prof. Phoebe Sengers; teaching team led by Vera Khovanskaya and Ishtiaque Ahmed
Time: Tu, Th 1:25-2:40
Location: Olin Hall 255

The social impact of technologies is typically thought about fairly late, if ever, in the design process. Indeed, it can be difficult at design time to predict what effects technologies will have. Nevertheless, design decisions can inadvertently "lock in" particular values early on. In this course, we will draw on science & technology studies, technology design, and the arts to analyze the values embodied in technology design and to design technologies to promote positive social impact. What social and cultural values do technology designs consciously or unconsciously promote? To what degree can social impact be "built into" a technology? How can we take social and cultural values into account in design?

Technical background is not needed for this course, but may be drawn on if you have it.

Course Philosophy

In the modern world, technologies are an intimate part of everyone's daily lives. The act of designing technologies does not simply create functionality; it also offers possibilities for and constraints on action, ways of looking at the world, and modes through which we can relate to one another. Designs thus, intentionally or not, embody values—ones we as a community of users sometimes accept, sometimes reject, sometimes build on, and sometimes alter.

This course will equip students to find their own answers to two key questions:

  1. What values do specific technology designs embody, and how and to what extent do they do so?
    We will look at current and historical case studies of design interventions to identify ways in which technologies can, intentionally or unintentionally, promote specific values and to analyze how those values play out in practice in the complex worlds of everyday life.
  2. How and to what extent is it possible to design technologies to reflect specific values?
    We will examine and practice a variety of design methods intended to incorporate values in design, and analyze their benefits and drawbacks.

These questions cross between two domains which are not often brought into conversation in undergraduate education: technology design and the social, cultural, and political analysis of technologies. In these course, we will develop a facility to think, speak, and act across these domains using techniques from critically-informed technology design and analysis. These techniques draw on and blend ideas from human-computer interaction, engineering, product design, science & technology studies, and the arts. This course is open to all students from engineering, the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts and design who are interested in reflecting on and improving the role of technology in society. No technical background is required or expected.

This course is oriented to an advanced undergraduate and master's student audience. An ability to read critically and willingness to take intellectual risks are essential in this course.

Learning objectives

Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:

For further information

If you have questions, please contact the instructor, Prof. Phoebe Sengers, at If you include 4240 in the subject line, my mail reader will highlight it for my attention.

You can download the full syllabus with all information from this website in print-friendly format.