Defense dissertation on the capability approach, technology & design

On Tuesday January 15th, 3 pm, Ilse Oosterlaken will publicly defend her doctoral dissertation Taking a Capability Approach to Technology & Its Design – A Philosophical Exploration. The ceremonial defense, to a committee of 8 professors, will be preceded by the traditional ‘lay talk’ (in Dutch) starting at 2.30pm. Location: Aula TU Delft.

If you are interested in this dissertation/defense, you may also be interested in this event: public lecture ‘Technologies of Choice – ICTs, Development and the Capabilities Approach’, evening of Wednesday January 16th.

Download invitation

Committee members

In addition to TU Delft’s Rector Magnificus and Ilse’s TU Delft supervisors Jeroen van den Hoven and Sabine Roeser, the committee will exist of:

From the back cover of the dissertation

What people are realistically able to do and be in their lives, their capabilities, are of central moral importance according to the capability approach (CA) of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Examples are the capabilities to be healthy or to be part of a community. The CA has become an influential normative framework for reflecting on justice, equality, well-being and development. In the past decades it has been successfully applied to areas such as education and health care. Only quite recently have scholars started to use the CA to reflect on technology, for example on the contribution of ICT to development in the South (ICT4D). Much of this work is empirical. This dissertation contributes to the theoretical foundations for future empirical and ethical work by providing a philosophical exploration of how the CA can be brought to bear on technology. It discusses the applicability and added value of the CA for the design of technical artifacts (‘capability sensitive design’), for the evaluation of technological development projects, and for the assessment of technology from the perspective of the good life.

One main question addressed in this dissertation is which technology theories and design approaches could fruitfully supplement the CA, in order to ‘operationalize’ it in this new area. For this purpose participatory design, value sensitive design, the use plan account of technical artifacts, inclusive/universal design, actor-network theory, appropriate technology, pluralist theories of technology and the system/network view of technology are discussed. Another guiding question is what the exact nature is of (a) human capabilities as discussed in the CA, and (b) technology in the sense of technical artifacts, and how we can then conceptualize the relation between them. It is argued that we need to regularly move back and forth between ‘zooming in’ and ‘zooming out’. The former allows us to see the details of design of technical artifacts, the latter how exactly technical artifacts are embedded in broader socio-technical networks. Both, it is claimed, are crucial for the expansion of human capabilities.

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