Can Space Enabled Designs Advance Justice and Development?



Edited by Danielle Wood

Danielle Wood, Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences
Mondays, 9am to 12pm
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Course Description

This course examines the theoretical underpinnings of the mission statement  of the Space Enabled research group at the MIT Media Lab. The mission  statement is to advance justice in Earth’s complex systems using designs enabled by space. The class explores each key phrase  in this statement using readings, discussions, and individual projects. The Space Enabled research group defines justice in two ways. First, justice refers to the concept that in a just world, the benefits of public service technology would be available to people living in all nations and from all socioeconomic levels. This is currently not the case due to driving forces of the modern era, including colonialism, racism, and imperialism, which have concentrated both wealth and technology access heavily within a certain countries or urban centers. The second concept of justice is that a just future is one in which the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations are achieved. The course posits that six technologies from space have been used to support sustainable development for decades, but that barriers remain that limit the impact of these technologies. The six technologies are satellite earth observation, satellite communication, satellite positioning, microgravity research, space spinoffs, and the inspiration derived from education and research. The Space Enabled research group conceives of the challenges listed in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals—such as ensuring everyone has access to clean water, food, and health care—as complex systems problems. Complex systems are defined by their complicated interactions between the natural environment, human decision making, and technology. Complex systems operate under internal and external uncertainty and they generally exhibit emergent properties. Designers cannot completely define the behavior of a complex system, but they can seek approaches that tend to maximize the likelihood of desired outcomes. This is divided into three sections: Justice and Development; Complex Systems; and Designs Enabled by Space. For each section, the class reads excerpts from several texts, discusses key themes, and writes reflective responses. Throughout the class, each student is working on their own research design to further explore whether space enabled designs advance justice and development. Thus, the class also teaches foundational skills in defining and executing a research project.

Learning Objectives
After taking this class, students should be able to:

  • Articulate arguments, perspectives, and context for the authors read in class on the topics of justice, development, complex systems, or design
  • Define justice and development in the context of their own research by building on the authors discussed in the class
  • Define a complex system and explain its characteristics of stochasticity, emergence, adaptiveness, and network structure
  • Define design and the role of design to influence the behavior of a complex system 
  • Describe examples of the ways that six space technologies have been used to support sustainable development, while also discussing the barriers that limit their impact
  • Explain the origin, purpose, and impact of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and their relationship to space technology 
  • Conceive and design a research project that follows the steps of the scientific method while addressing a socio-technical topic
  • Describe the impacts that the historical patterns driven by colonialism and racism have had on the global distribution of technology and development by identifying historical trends from the 16th through the 21st century 
  • Write reflective responses that capture learning from the readings 

Structure of Class Meetings
The class will meet once per week for three hours sessions. Attendance in the class meetings is mandatory and it is a vital aspect of class learning and participation. Each student will have the opportunity to lead part of the class activities during the semester. A typical class session includes the following activities:

  •  Hour 1: Warm-up activities and overview lecture led by instructor
  •  Hour 2: Class discussion on readings and lecture material, typically led by instructor
  • Hour 3: Student presenter(s) leads discussion or students break into small groups for discussion
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