UCD professor seeks to use technology for a better society

16 Aug 2013

Prof Lizbeth Goodman, director of the SMARTlab at University College Dublin

Technology can be a gateway to positive social change, and Prof Lizbeth Goodman, who directs the SMARTlab at University College Dublin (UCD), is determined to make it so. Claire O’Connell found out more.

“Our remit is technology innovation for real social change,” explains Goodman. “By that we mean developing inclusive technology tools for people of all levels of intellectual and physical ability, all ages and all cultures.”

She has a long track record in the field: Goodman previously worked with the Open University-BBC and with David Puttnam’s Futurelab in the UK, and today she is chair of Creative Technology Innovation at UCD, where she takes a practical and philosophical approach to what she terms Creative Technology Innovation. 

More technology for more people

Future Human

“What we need are more accessible and non-proprietary tools for delivery,” she says. “We have easy access to most of the technology tools we use on a daily basis because industry producers have been successful at marketing them, not necessarily because they are the best tools. We want to help people to understand how much cheaper and easier it would be for everyone to use a more inclusive, open-source approach.”

She is working on a range of projects to make that happen, including a European Leonardo da Vinci Lifelong Learning initiative for alternative e-access. In practice that means developing open-source, customisable software that can run on relatively cheap and available hardware and that can be adapted for language, culture and disability access.

“A person with a disability or an elderly citizen shouldn’t have to invest in fancy technology in order to have access to the same level of communication and education as everyone else,” says Goodman. “So we have invented multilingual, translatable tools that can be personalised easily and for free, and we are adding on assistive technologies, such as eye control, to make interfaces both accessible and intuitive.”

And when people can engage easily and equally with online technology, she wants to be sure that they are connecting in meaningful ways. Through the Learnovate Centre, Goodman’s team at SMARTlab is linking recommender systems into virtual worlds so that users can quickly find the information they want and online social groups with parallel interests, she explains: “We want people who are presenting themselves virtually to be able to find relevant information and other people interested in the same issues quickly, so the time spent online is spent well.” 

Goodman also is working in parallel on projects that use technology to improve design for people with intellectual disabilities, to tackle obesity in teens and even to help keep women and children safe from abuse.

Tackling core issues 

At a fundamental level, Goodman is keen to change the mindsets of policy-makers and educators about how we deliver education from pre-school to later life.  

“What I see lacking at the moment is a real sense that the values of empathy, engagement and social responsibility should be at the core of everything we do in education,” she says. “Instead of all these ideas about social inclusion and community value being the ‘add on’ at the end of every research grant application – where someone makes up something about how it might contribute to society to put into that little box for ‘impact’ – we need to view impact as the centre, and if we don’t have a genuine contribution of a positive social kind then we don’t move forward.”

Goodman argues the need for a change of vision and for long-term studies to provide the supporting evidence. “We are never going to make a positive social change on the scale required unless we have longitudinal studies which have first principles at their centre,” she says. “We really need Government and research funding agencies to be working together and committing to support more longitudinal studies with reasonable funding to ensure the demonstration of real-world efficacy.”

Fresh thinking for the road ahead

It’s not just education that can benefit from new thinking – Goodman has climate change in her sights, too. Last month, she co-facilitated the Dublin Climate Gathering, where scientists, politicians, funders and other interested people shared ideas about using the internet to drive a low-carbon revolution. 

And she recently developed a roadmap – or as she puts it, a ‘Six-Lane Highway’ – for responsible open innovation in European research programmes, which is soon to be discussed at a think-tank in the European Parliament in Brussels. 

“We cannot predict where the road will take us, but we can and must nevertheless engage fully in the global effort to build better, safe, more inclusive roads to progress,” she says. “By using creative technology innovation to provide more and better tools, we can include a wider and more inclusive social movement in the invention or our joint futures.” 

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication