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INFO/STS 4240/5240: Designing Technologies for Social Impact

Course Description

Instructors: Prof. Chris Csíkszentmihályi (with special guest Prof. Phoebe Sengers)
Lecture: Tu, Th 1:00pm - 2:15pm
Sections: Fridays, various times and locations

The social impact of technologies is typically thought about fairly late, if ever, in the design process. Indeed, it can be difficult at design time to predict what effects technologies will have. Nevertheless, design decisions always “lock in” particular social values early on. In this course, we will draw on science & technology studies, technology design, and the arts to analyze the values embodied in technology design, and to design technologies to promote positive social impact. How can we “read” what social and cultural values technology designs consciously or unconsciously promote? To what degree can social impact be “written into” a technology? How can we take social and cultural values into account in design?

Technical background is not needed for this course, but may be drawn upon if you have it.

Course Philosophy

Across the contemporary world, technologies are an intimate part of everyone’s daily lives. The act of designing technologies does not simply create efficiencies or functionality; it also offers possibilities for (and constraints on) on our possibile actions, ways of looking at the world, and modes through which we can relate to one another. Designs thus, intentionally or not, embody values—ones we as a community of users sometimes accept, sometimes reject, sometimes build on, and sometimes alter.

This course will equip students to find their own answers to two key questions:

  1. What values do specific technology designs embody, and how and to what extent do they do so? We will look at current and historical case studies of design interventions to identify ways in which technologies can, intentionally or unintentionally, promote specific values and to analyze how those values play out in practice in the complex worlds of everyday life.
  2. How and to what extent is it possible to design technologies to reflect specific values? We will examine and practice a variety of design methods intended to incorporate values in design, and analyze their benefits and drawbacks.

These questions cross between two domains which are not often brought into conversation in undergraduate education: technology design and the social, cultural, and political analysis of technologies. In this course, we will develop a facility to think, speak, and act across these domains using techniques from critically-informed technology design and analysis. These techniques borrow and blend ideas from human-computer interaction, engineering, product design, science & technology studies, and the arts. This course is open to all students from engineering, the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts and design who are interested in reflecting on and improving the role of technology in society. No technical background is required or expected.

This course is oriented to an advanced undergraduate and master’s student audience. An ability to read critically and willingness to take intellectual risks are essential in this course.

Learning objectives

Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Articulate how and to what extent values are built into designed artifacts in early stages of the design process
  • Identify relevant values issues that arise in a particular technology design
  • Use the design workbook method to explore social implications of design and to ideate new design possibilities
  • Appropriately deploy a variety of design strategies that aim to address values issues
  • Weigh the possibilities and limits of different strategies for considering values in design, and identify values commitments inherent in these design strategies themselves
  • Create technology designs which reflect varying value commitments in response to a design brief
  • Recognize and comment on issues in values and design in everyday life
  • Construct a compelling argument that builds on documented evidence and the arguments of others


Graduate students taking this course are registered in 5240, which covers everything in 4240 but adds a parallel layer to the course of 1) understanding the organizational aspect of design for social impact: who is making the design and why? What are the relationships between various entity models (e.g. individual, corporate, non-profit, F/LOSS) and the sorts of designs and impacts they can foster? And 2) extra assignments to codify and convey that understanding. For more details check the 5240 tab above.

For further information

You can explore the rest of the syllabus through the navbar at the top of this page by clicking on the other syllabus topics. If you have questions, please contact instructor Prof. Csikszentmihalyi, at cpc83 at cornell.edu.

You can download the full syllabus with all information in a print-friendly format.

Important Note: This syllabus is written in good faith to indicate as well as possible the arc of the course. Things may change, expecially in a pandemic semester.