University of Bristol: New £10m centre set to drive digital futures towards fair and sustainable ways of life

But, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crisis, and widening inequalities, what lies ahead seems more uncertain than ever. A pioneering new centre will unite experts from across the world to investigate how different claims about digital futures shape our lives today, in order to generate new approaches to fairer and more sustainable societies.

The Centre for Sociodigital Futures, led by the University of Bristol, is a £10million flagship government investment from the UK Research & Innovation’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It will create a national and international network of leading researchers with expertise spanning social sciences, engineering, and arts. This first-of-its-kind hub will also feature strategic partnerships with BT, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Locality, the National Cyber Security Centre, and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), amongst others.

Professor Susan Halford, Director of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures, said: “We’re living in a ‘sociodigital world’, where digital technologies, devices and data are an integral part of our societies. We can see this throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which has turbocharged investments in sociodigital transformations and changed everyday lives – from how and where we work, to how children learn, and how we consume good and services.

“We will examine emerging sociodigital futures, looking at who and what is driving these claims, and what this means for major challenges of our time, including widening inequalities and the climate change crisis. Working with our partners, our goal is to make sociodigital futures accessible in ways that will have direct impact on policy-making, organisational practice, community participation, and technology creation.”

Based at the University of Bristol, the hub is a five-year collaboration with the University of the Arts London, University of Edinburgh, University of Birmingham, Goldsmiths University of London, and Lancaster University in the UK. International academic partners from across four continents include University of Naples Federico II in Italy, The New School in the United States, OsloMet University in Norway, Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and University of New South Wales in Australia.

Professor Dale Southerton, Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures, said: “We are surrounded by big claims about how digital technologies will change our futures. These claims are important because they drive corporate investments, government policies, business strategies and inform hopes and fears in our daily lives. Yet the future rarely turns out as predicted, as technologies interact with the realities of everyday life. That’s why we need to have a better understanding of the many ways in which ideas and claims about the future are shaping lives now.”

The £9.8m funding is part of a £49m investment by ESRC which will see the creation of other centres to support policing, trade policy, early years education, and social care.

Professor Phil Taylor, the university’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, said: “This centre will provide intellectual leadership for a tremendously exciting research programme, built on our significant expertise in sociodigital futures. It will have an important role in supporting the university’s ambitions for the 21st century, providing knowledge and capabilities to help tackle huge challenges including social justice and climate change, while also further strengthening Bristol’s reputation as a leading interdisciplinary digital research hub on the global stage.”

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, said: “Social science research is central to our efforts to build back better from the pandemic. The latest ESRC research centres will focus on some of the key societal issues to be addressed, such as social care, policing, inequalities between generations and the impact of digital technologies, and will help maintain the UK’s position at the forefront of social science research.”

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