Headline: Transdisciplinary Project to Investigate the Unintended Side Effects of Digitalisation

Digitalisation is changing how we live, but not only for the better: In addition to giving rise to new products, opportunities and services, it’s also having unintended side effects. The project “Digital Data as a Subject of Transdisciplinary Processes” (DiDaT) focuses on both the opportunities and the undesired consequences of digitalisation. It aims to identify and analyse side effects and make concrete proposals for coping with them. At an event to kick-start the project at the end of March, researchers and practitioners came together in Potsdam to define the main areas the project will focus on and outline potential solutions.

Digitalisation is already making its presence felt in the farming sector. But while it holds great promise, it also harbours risks.
Digitalisation is already making its presence felt in the farming sector. But while it holds great promise, it also harbours risks. Adobe Stock/artfocus

“This project will deliver more than just research: DiDaT is a transdisciplinary project that integrates practical and scientific knowledge. The aim is to provide society with guidance for dealing with digital data in a responsible way,” explains Roland Scholz, professor at the Danube University Krems and IASS Affiliate Scholar. Scholz is leading the project together with IASS Scientific Director Ortwin Renn.

In a first step, the project participants have identified the most important opportunities of digitalisation, but also the risks, which have received too little attention to date. They intend to explore these so-called vulnerabilities in seven working groups:

Mobility: Digitalisation and networking are changing technologies for vehicles and infrastructure and giving rise to new market structures. What parameters and incentives could help to reconcile social, economic and ecological objectives in the digitalisation of the transport sector? How could a national database for digital infrastructure support digital mobility?

Health: Patients have a lot to gain from digitalisation and improved data access. But what negative effects can digitalisation have on the health system and how can they be avoided?

Small- and medium-sized businesses: Small and medium-sized businesses often have less access to data than large companies that collect, use and provide data for a fee. How can small- and medium-sized businesses hold their own against large corporations in the digital working world? What measures and innovations are advisable here and what areas should they target?

Agriculture: Digitalisation has already made considerable inroads in the farming sector, where it holds great promise, but also harbours risks, for example when digitalisation strategies are focussed exclusively on large-scale farm operators. How can negative impacts on the environment and workers be avoided?

Social media and values: In a relatively short time, social media have had a huge influence on communications, marketing, and democratic processes. They guide people’s actions and affect their well-being. As well as examining the positive and negative effects of Internet use in various areas, the working group will focus on the consequences of “personalised information” for communications, also from the point of view of the importance for democracy of keeping society’s channels for communication open.

Trustworthiness of information in the digital sphere: The wide availability of tools to falsify information and the increasing transfer of our communications into the digital sphere are calling conventional forms of social coexistence into question. What technological and behavioural innovations are conducive to a fact-based societal, scientific and political discourse?

Cybercrime/cybersecurity: The use of digital systems can facilitate criminal acts or make them possible in the first place. It therefore presents a growing threat to public safety and order. Are existing legal and organisational parameters adequate to preparing society for the challenges of digitalisation?

The project participants will prepare a white paper by the middle of next year, whose contents will be discussed with many different stakeholders. In addition to important analyses, the paper will propose innovative solutions for dealing with data in a responsible way. The aim of the extended consultation process is to embed the results in practice and encourage follow-up initiatives, projects and processes.