Fall 2023: Can Space Enabled Designs Advance Justice and Development? (MAS.858/16.857)



Edited by Danielle Wood

Danielle Wood, Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences; Associate Professor (Joint) of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Mondays, 9am to 12pm ET
E14-493 (Virtual Options are available upon request)
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Office Hours are by announcement. Please join for more information.

Note: Professor Danielle Wood is teaching two subjects for Fall 2023. Learn about the other subject called "Black Feminist Thought and Design for the Future," which will meet Mondays from 2pm to 5pm ET in E14-493.

Course Description

This course meets weekly on Mondays from 9am to 12pm ET from September 11 to December 11. 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 engages with the concept of justice in three ways. First, advancing justice can refer to ameliorating the harm caused by long term patterns of social hierarchy and moving toward liberatory self-determination for intersectional groups that consistently experience oppression, such as Black women, low-income immigrants, Indigenous people impacted by climate change, or transsexual people in the U.S. who speak English as a second language. Second, justice refers to the concept that in a just world, the benefits of a public service technology – such as space 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, exploitative capitalism and imperialism, which have concentrated both wealth and technology access heavily within certain countries, companies or urban centers. The third concept of justice is that a just future is one in which countries are advancing toward meeting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. 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 fundamental scientific 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. The course 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 paper to further explore what it means for space enabled designs to advance justice and development. Thus, the class also teaches foundational skills in defining and executing a research project or proposal.

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

  • Articulate arguments, perspectives and context for the authors assigned in class on the topics of justice, development, complex systems, design and space technology
  • Define the role of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and heteronormative culture to oppress intersectional identity groups, especially in the context of the Americas, Europe and Africa, as defined by class readings and related readings
  • Define the liberatory movements, efforts toward resisting oppression, and efforts seeking self-determination that members of intersectional identity groups have pursued, as discussed by the class readings and related readings
  • Describe the impacts that the historical patterns driven by colonialism and racism have had on the global distribution of technology, wealth and development by identifying historical trends from the 16th through the 21st century
  • Define justice and development in the context of each students’ research by building on the authors discussed in the class
  • Define a complex system and explain its characteristics of stochasticity, emergence, 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 the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
  • Describe approaches to designing space systems that support broad accessibility and long-term environmental sustainability, on Earth and in Space
  • Write reflective responses that capture learning from the readings
  •  Conceive and design a research proposal or write a research paper that follows the steps of the scientific method while addressing a socio-technical topic

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:

  •  Section 1: Opening activities led by instructor & Students gives short presentation on assigned reading (as needed)
  • Section 2: Either a presentation/discussion by the instructor or student presentations on class projects
  • Section 3: Instructor or guest speaker lectures

Read about the course requirements at this draft syllabus (subject to change).

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