Making human driven technologists

4 August 2022

HUman driven pix

Vintage etching of the statue ‘Edward Jenner Vaccinating a Child Against Smallpox’ by Giulio Monteverde.

Article by Professor Andrew Parfitt FTSE

Why educating a generation of conscientious STEM professionals is the key to confronting our biggest challenges.

In her essay Of the Madness of Mad Scientists, commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, Margaret Atwood powerfully explores the ethical framework society
expects of science. 

She references the ‘projectors’ from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (an order of nascent scientists who conduct strange experimental ‘projects’) to argue that we need to think about how technology should progress, not just how it can.

The assumed social licence for science and technology asks us to celebrate innovation and create solutions to critical problems. But it also forces us to consider the implications and consequences of those developments. There are many examples of this predicament.

Unimagined heights and unforeseen consequences

Atwood points to the automobile and highways of the 20th century: created as the machines and infrastructure of freedom; now polluting, clogged and far from the liberating agents they were originally designed to be.

The COVID-19 pandemic has again highlighted our capacity to transform the world with technology. Who would have envisaged that in just two years we would traverse the emergence and global spread of a new airborne virus to have fully vaccinated populations with enough immunity to return to almost-normal daily life?

But our self-satisfaction at the quality of our technological response must be moderated by the social, political, commercial, and logistical impediments to its equitable deployment. 

Yet the global immunisation rate is less than 60 per cent, far below the rate we need to control the spread of the infection. 

The inequity between rich and poor countries is stark.

The internet has facilitated enormous advances in how we share and access information, and opened opportunities for education, health, and other crucial services.

But social media has facilitated the dissemination of more myth and misinformation than any platform in human history — take anti-vaccination stances. That’s not to mention growing concerns about how social media affects the mental health of children and young people.

HUman driven pix2

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are admirable technologies that could reduce tedious work and automate routine tasks. But their threats to jobs, possible abuses in the wrong hands, and potential to intrude into privacy and erode social liberties, loom as concerns for regulators and adopters around the world.

Drones and robots used for environmental and resource management can also be used for surveillance and to deliver weapons. 

The list goes on across so many areas of potential benefit to the community.

Conscientious innovation

So, as technology creators, do we focus solely on the scientific advances, the new frontiers, making the impossible possible? Or as the custodians of innovation, should we also take a stand on the responsible use of technology? 

This is a key dilemma for all of us: for institutions like the University of Technology Sydney, for those involved in the future of technology education — indeed also for the Academy.

My emphatic answer is that we must take a stand. And as a pragmatist, I believe the solution lies in how we educate people to envisage, develop, use, and respond to technology.

There will always be a place for appropriate regulation. But since education lies at the core of the challenges we face; it should also be central to our response.  

Breadth and depth

I’ve long believed that technological innovation lives in an ecosystem that transcends the laboratories and workshops where it begins. 

When ideas leave the incubators and are implemented, users in the workforce and other decision-makers face wider considerations about how the technology will be deployed in the products and systems of the future.

Modern technology and engineering education attempts to embed business skills, ethical principles, global perspectives, creative and design practices, and many other dimensions within already crowded curricula. 

At UTS, where I have the privilege to be Vice-Chancellor, we also pride ourselves on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary learning, and ensuring our graduates understand Indigenous Australian perspectives for professional practice.

But with so many important priorities, how can we comprehensively and thoroughly educate technology professionals for the future?

The answer, I believe, lies not in any single degree. We need to turn to lifetime learning. 

I’ve long believed that technological innovation lives in an ecosystem that transcends the laboratories and workshops where it begins.

Never stop learning

Continuous development has long been a fundamental part of professional practice. But in our complex, interconnected world of economic, political, environmental, and technological disruption, it’s the only way we can create the breadth of capability we need to be a technologically responsible professional community.

This idea is integral to ATSE’s vision. The Academy engages, educates, and empowers STEM leaders at every turn in their career journeys. STELR and CS In Schools instil kids with a love of learning; IMNIS equips graduates to achieve their dreams in industry; and the Fellowship itself — a community of Australia’s most experienced and innovators — shares knowledge and skills through events and other initiatives.

Employers and universities also increasingly see the importance of lifelong learning. They’re creating new opportunities for upskilling and reskilling, and broadening offerings to meet the needs of both recent graduates and established professionals. 

Informing the professionals of the future is not just about keeping their training up to date with the latest innovations. 

We also need to increase technological literacy among those who have not needed it to date
(just think about remote online working) and to broaden the capabilities of those who are already technologically literate.

Higher education is about more
 than just skills. As we strive to adapt to an ever-changing world, here are
a few suggestions for a tech
powered, human driven future.

Humanise STEM

First, we need to frame technology disciplines as human-centred professions, couched in the ideal
of society’s progression.

When I was growing up, the power and potential of electronics in and of itself inspired me to pursue a career in engineering. But now that digital technology has been adopted in all aspects of modern society, I’m not so sure that our digital natives are attracted to careers in technology
for technology’s sake.

The opportunity, then, is to curate learning journeys for students that provide intersections between the technologies themselves and the contexts in which they are used. 

Doing this more overtly in our continuous learning offers enormous potential to engage and educate digital natives to help them evolve into cohorts of digitally informed professionals.

Nurture diversity

Secondly, STEM education, and particularly the IT and engineering professions, have long suffered from a lack of diversity. This lack of diversity becomes even more pronounced at senior levels within organisations and within the innovation ecosystem. 

Achieving greater gender diversity has been a particular focus, but in most technology-related areas we have a very long way to go. This widens the perceived gap between the power
of technology and our human experience of it. 

It has been well documented that diversity is a key element in organisational success. I proffer that the goal of humanising technology will only be achieved if we address this issue — not because equality will make technology more human-centric but because humanity itself is diverse. 

Break down boundaries

In the 21st century it is no longer adequate to view technology development and adoption as a
purely scientific endeavour. 

We often view other disciplines as complementing STEM. But it’s a mistake to think of humanities, arts, and social science disciplines as the social conscience of technology, and the business or creative disciplines as the packaging. Today’s students deserve and need more. 

To frame a lifetime learning journey with both breadth and depth, it’s essential that we integrate these disciplines in a way that empowers professionals to understand and use technologies for positive outcomes and avoid the unintended and often unforeseen consequences of poor adoption.

Tomorrow’s leaders

Finally, in achieving a human driven approach to our technology powered future, we need this change to lifelong learning to be comprehensive and transformational right across the workforce. 

More of the same — a just-in-time approach to skills needs in a market environment — simply won’t get us
to where we need to be. 

The leaders of tomorrow must embed technology in their businesses and organisations from the inside. We will need their commitment to humanise that technology-enabled world. 


Professor Andrew Parfitt FTSE

Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Technology Sydney

Download this article as a PDF

Making human driven technologists article page 2

IMP213 spreads

IMPACT #213 — A tech powered, human driven future

This issue of IMPACT considers what a tech powered, human driven future for Australia might look like. With 60,000+ years of science, Australia is driven by a long culture of innovation and Professor Marcia Langton discusses how incorporating Indigenous knowledge can and should inform our society. Professor Lachlan Blackhall and Professor John Söderbaum examine Australia’s energy future. Professor Andrew Parfitt and Professor Genevieve Bell consider the next generation of custodians of innovation – technologists and systems thinkers. Professor Emma Johnston reflects on ‘riskiest’ stages of research commercialisation and the spirit of experimentation. Expert groups also consider the potential of both AI and soil carbon to shape Australia’s economic, social, and environmental future.

See the rest of the IMPACT #213