Technology and Human Development. A Capability Approach

Applying the capability approach of Nussbaum and Sen to technology, engineering and design

Some influential theories of distributive justice, fairness and equality, like that of John Rawls, discuss fair distribution in terms of shares of primary goods available to people. The main criticism of philosopher and Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen of these views is that it is not the goods that are ultimately important, but what they allow us to do and be, the kind of lives they enable us to live. Giving everyone a laptop or some other piece of technology is no good in and by itself, according to Sen�s approach. Some people will be able to make good use of it and increase their level of functioning, but others who are illiterate or do not have access to reliable power supply cannot possibly convert their possession of the technology into anything useful in their lives. Human functionings and capabilities are therefore at the centre of Sen�s work, referred to as the �capability approach�. Although it has been widely adopted in development thinking, hardly any work has been done on the interrelations between the capability approach and technology. This is remarkable, since technology by definition aims at expanding human capabilities. This project investigates how the capability approach can be utilized in (thinking about) technological innovation and engineering design. The context of application for this project is innovation for the so-called �Base of the Pyramid� (BoP) or the poor in developing countries. Case studies are taken from three engineering areas: ICTs, healthcare/medical technology and sustainable human settlements.


This project has been funded with a grant of 550.000 euro by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), as part of their grant program called 'Responsible Innovation'. Below only a selection of the publications of 3TU.Ethics members in the project are listed. For publications of other project members, please visit their websites (see above).

Related Scientific publications (selection)


  • Oosterlaken, I. (forthcoming). “Design and Individual Human Capabilities - A Capability Approach to Design for Values" In: Handbook of Ethics, Values and Technological Design, eds. J. van den Hoven, I. van de Poel & P. Vermaas. Dordrecht: Springer. click to open pdf
  • Oosterlaken, I. (forthcoming). “ICT4D and Ethics.” In: Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, eds. A. Peng Hwa & R. Mansell. London: Wiley-Blackwell (under contract).
  • Oosterlaken, I. (forthcoming). “Towards an Ethics of Technology and Human Development.” In: Engineering Ethics in a Globalized World, eds. C. Murphy, P. Gardoni, E. Harris et al. Dordrecht: Springer (under contract).


  • Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2013. "Is Pogge a capability theorist in disguise? A critical examination of Thomas Pogge's defence of Rawlsian resourcism". Ethical Theory & Moral Practice, 16(1):pp.205-215; DOI 10.1007/s10677-012-9344-9. click to open pdf


  • Oosterlaken, Ilse; David Grimshaw & Pim Janssen. 2012. "Marrying the capability approach with appropriate technology and STS - The case of podcasting devices in Zimbabwe". In: The Capability Approach, Technology and Design (eds. Ilse Oosterlaken & Jeroen van den Hoven). Dordrecht: Springer. available online
  • Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2012. "Inappropriate artefacts, unjust design? "Human diversity as a key concern in the capability approach and inclusive design". In: The Capability Approach, Technology and Design (eds. Ilse Oosterlaken & Jeroen van den Hoven). Dordrecht: Springer. available online
  • Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2012. "The capability approach, technology and design; Taking stock and looking ahead". In: The Capability Approach, Technology and Design (eds. Ilse Oosterlaken & Jeroen van den Hoven). Dordrecht: Springer. available online
  • Van den Hoven, Jeroen. 2012. "Human Capabilities and Technology". In: The Capability Approach, Technology and Design (eds. Ilse Oosterlaken & Jeroen van den Hoven). Dordrecht: Springer.



  • Oosterlaken, I. (2010). “Applying Sen’s capability approach to technological artifacts & engineering design – accounting for human diversity”. In: Copenhagen Working Papers on Design // 2010 // No. 2 (Plenary sessions & supplementary items of the CEPHAD 2010 Conference, Copenhagen, Jan. 27–29, 2010). Copenhagen: The Danish Design School (ISBN 87-985478-6-0).
  • Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2010. Diseño de tecnologí­a para el desarrollo humano - un enfoque de capacidades. En: Tecnologí­a para el Desarrollo Humano, Ayuda Humanitaria y Emergencias. Actas de las jornadas. 7 y 8 de mayo de 2009. Editor: Centro de Cooperación al Desarrollo, Universidad Politécnica de Valencia. Valencia: Editorial UPV (ISBN: 978-84-8363-536-0). click to open pdf


  • Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2009. "Design for Development; A Capability Approach". In: Design Issues, 25(4). available online
  • Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2009. Human development and technology: some observations on the responsibility of engineers and the role of (development) ethicists. In: VIII Congreso internacional de IDEA Ética del desarrollo humano y justicia global Instituciones y ciudadanos responsables ante el reto de la pobreza, Valencia, del 2 al 4 de diciembre de 2009. Valencia: Nau Llibres (ISBN: 978-84-7642-791-0). click to open pdf


  • Hoven, Jeroen van den & Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2008. Technologies and Human Capabilities. Paper presented at the workshop "Well-being in Low-Income Countries", December 15th 2008, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland (invited). click to open pdf
  • Oosterlaken, E.T. 2008. Product Innovation for Human Development; A Capability Approach to Designing for the Bottom of the Pyramid. Working paper of the 3TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology, May 26th, 2008. Delft: Delft University of Technology. click to open pdf

Related Professional/Popular publications



  • Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2012. "Introduction: The Capability Approach and Innovation/Technology/Design." In: theme issue on this topic of Maitreyee, the e-bulletin of the Human Development & Capability Association (HDCA).