Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

The Center for Science, Technology, and Society and The Tech Awards

Geoffrey Bowker

At Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society, our mission is to research and promote the use of science and technology for the public good.  It is our privilege every year to judge the Tech Awards, bringing together leaders from industry, the academy, and civil society to evaluate the hundreds of nominations we receive from around the world.

Working on the Tech Awards is integral to the work that the Center does within its local community and around the world to further its mission. Every summer we host a two-week “boot camp” for social benefit entrepreneurs (who are Laureates of the Tech Awards and similar programs) to help them make their organizations sustainable and scalable.  This educational program, the Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI), joins leading entrepreneurs from the Valley who act as Mentors to participants (a number of them also have served as Tech Awards judges) and our own faculty from the Leavey School of Business in a program at the leading edge of education for social benefit entrepreneurs. 

We are currently extending the scope and reach of the GSBI program by developing a Web-based collaboratory that will keep mentors in touch with the organizations they advise throughout the year. Taking full advantage of what the Web has to offer, the collaboratory will enable us to develop a content-rich site that will provide a mix of local knowledge (how to get things done in a particular country), best practices (what worked in one setting and may work in another), and ongoing project oversight.

The challenge of building this collaboratory is theoretical as well as practical.  Accordingly, our Associate Director, Pedro Hernandez-Ramos, is heading up the research effort to discover and put into practice the best ways to nourish and grow a highly distributed community. One of the lessons from the literature in this field is that electronic environments work best in association with periodic face-to-face contacts.  Thus we are growing the GSBI to include internationally based consultants who voluntarily visit and work in country with selected projects.

The Tech Awards honors Laureates who design solutions intending to make a difference in the lives of the underserved and the disadvantaged. We at the Center are committed to this vision. Design of information systems for the public good is the focus of a biennial, doctoral student workshop that brings together 20 doctoral students from around the world to examine the issues of how to design information systems that incorporate a range of social values such as privacy rights, access for the disabled and gender equity. This program, run in conjunction with Professor Helen Nissenbaum from New York University, convenes international academic leaders and introduces students to companies in Silicon Valley who understand the benefits to the world- and to their bottom lines- of this approach.

One of the great virtues of The Tech Awards is that it brings us into contact with people who are bringing science and technology out of the research labs into the public sphere. We believe it is vital for people around the world to find a voice in complex issues at the intersections between science, technology, and society. We believe the public should be engaged with policy debates rather than be helpless bystanders. We have therefore inaugurated a combined research and practice program to explore new forms of public engagement. The first of these annual events has put the spotlight on municipal broadband: What role, if any, should municipalities play in providing Internet access, especially to underserved communities? We have gathered a group of citizens from such communities (low-income, ethnically diverse, disabled, youths, seniors, English-language learners, and rural residents) together with industry and government experts to learn and add their voice on this issue, and we will be working with the California League of Cities to disseminate our policy recommendations.

Finally, we believe that the success of the Tech Awards Gala demonstrates the deep commitment of companies and individuals in Silicon Valley to making a difference in the world. We are looking to ground the energy generated at the event in a continued dialogue between corporate and civic leaders from the Valley, together with academia and the development community, to create new ways to collectively and collaboratively put science and technology to work for the public good. As a first step, on November 16, 2006, the Center will host a one-day event, the Silicon Valley Challenge Summit, which will bring together these leaders with Tech Awards Laureates and Fellows of the Reuters Foundation Digital Vision Program to begin this transformational work. The Summit will sketch a framework that, with good will, discipline and a sustained focus, the Center for Science, Technology and Society will fulfill in the years ahead. We look forward to your support and participation.

About the Author

Geof Bowker

Geoffrey C. Bowker

Geoffrey C. Bowker is the Regis and Dianne McKenna Professor at Santa Clara University and Executive Director at the Center for Science, Technology, and Society.  Prior to joining Santa   Clara University, Bowker was professor and chair of the Department of Communication, UC San Diego. He studies social and organizational aspects of the development of very large-scale information infrastructures. His first book, Science on the Run, discussed the development of information practices in the oil industry. Along with Leigh Star, he has recently completed a book on the history and sociology of medical classifications, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Practice (1999). Since his invitation to join the biodiversity subcommittee of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, Bowker has been working in the field of biodiversity and environmental informatics. He has just completed a digital government funded project on long term databases in environmental science. He was a 2002-2003 member of an OECD working group on international data sharing in science. He is also working on projects at the San Diego Computer Center and in the Long Term Ecological Research Network on the formative evaluation of scientific cyber infrastructures. Bowker has a Ph.D in history and philosophy of science from Melbourne University.

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