Research and Reality in the 21st Century: “The time for a new academia is now.”

March 2023

What is the role of research and digital technologies in helping the world solve its most intractable problems?

By Cathy Mulligan

Cathy Mulligan Technologie
IMAGO / Westend61 Andrew Brookes

Climate change is a looming threat that has the potential to bring about significant and far-reaching changes in the world as we know it. The impacts of climate change will be felt across a wide range of systems, including economic and social systems. They will require us to rethink how we have organized our world, namely how we have structured the delivery of our most basic needs: from water to food, energy to transport, and even our education and employment systems. 

I believe that two things are critical to assist humanity in making this transition:

  • new research vehicles that address real-world problems, not just produce academic papers; and
  • digital technologies – properly applied – that can assist us with the required transformations, including the research itself.

The need for transformation

There are two main reasons to change. For one, because it enables us to reduce our environmental impact and lessen the risk of further changes. Secondly, because we will increasingly be forced to adapt. For example, the large-scale food systems we have created that crisscross the globe will falter at our current rate of change. We already see the impact as crops worldwide fail due to abnormal temperatures and climate change. In today’s world, this is dealt with by companies in global supply chains – and thus there is a lot of discussion about supply chain resilience and adaptability. However, these discussions are happening internally in large companies. It needs to happen across society.

The scale of change means that the preparations for the resilience of critical infrastructure needs to be at a societal level. Companies look at the supply chain from their perspective: they want to have resilience to continue to deliver their products and services. No one looks at resilience on a society-wide level. As the world learns to cope with climate change, humans must develop the ability to use global supply chains when available but have the local capacity to deliver critical services when global supply chains fail. At times, therefore, boroughs, cities, and even communities will need to be able to deliver services themselves while waiting for global supply chains to come back online. Governments hold this responsibility currently, but it is increasingly unlikely they can manage multiple crises simultaneously. Therefore, we need new governance mechanisms that allow for the devolved delivery of large-scale infrastructures to provide genuine flexibility and resilience to society, not just large companies.

We have to ask now rather than later: what is the best way to organize the delivery of what will become increasingly scarce resources for all people?

Our traditional modes of operation in the 20th century will not be sufficient to meet the challenges ahead. While these challenges may seem quite far from us now, humanity must prepare for a radically different future.  Ultimately, the challenges posed by climate change are complex and multifaceted. By working together to build resilience in our critical systems, however, we can help to ensure a more sustainable and secure future for all.  Moreover, building resilience will require a concerted effort from governments, businesses, civil society, and individuals.

Delivering the resilience needed to confront the challenges of climate change requires a whole-system approach that considers the interdependent nature of the systems. Rather than relying on single-point solutions or approaches, we must consider the complex interactions between social organizations, economics, and technology.

This involves making difficult choices about how we use resources, shifting towards more sustainable forms of energy and production, and adopting new approaches to planning and decision-making. The role of new technologies and research also needs profound thought to assist society in responding fast enough.

What is the purpose of research in the 21st century?

To solve 21st-century problems, we cannot use 20th, and in some cases 19th, century research methods. Research organizations must adapt and deliver work of genuine use. I believe that our approach to research needs to change quite dramatically because our current university practices are not fit for the purpose. This is particularly prevalent in how we research concepts like digital technologies.

Much attention has been placed on the future of education when discussing digital innovation and universities. How do you teach a generation that will need skills that we don’t understand ourselves yet?  But research itself, which is what universities pride themselves on and prioritize over all other things, including education, remains unexplored. This, perhaps, is because it is more difficult to transform from inside a system or because academics are very good at studying others but not at critically assessing themselves and their methods.

In many instances, “the academy,” or academia, and the notions of what it means to belong to it, are tripping up the development of beneficial and usable research to assist humanity with its challenges. Papers are produced because this is how academics are measured in today’s world and offered promotion, grants, and tenure: in other words, success. Academic papers, however, are not read by people outside the academy (and often not even within it), and results are rarely implemented because they are esoteric, often solving imagined problems that don’t exist in the real world.  Even approaches that depend on end-user interaction, such as user-centered design, often produce research that becomes performative rather than practical. As a result, business schools are full of talented individuals who create frameworks that businesses, governments, and society rarely use. Social scientists and increasingly many computer scientists have valuable insights. Still, they often mainly produce elaborate opinion pieces around the ethics of AI and emerging technologies to meet research targets. At the same time, engineering researchers produce research for papers, but the results are rarely used in real systems.

Finally, academia has an exclusion problem ranging from sexism to racism. We need to include all of the world’s minds to solve its biggest problems. In the 21st century, we must forge a renewed, inclusive academia focused on solving our biggest problems and enabling us to deliver the required resilient solutions for society rather than one that focuses on producing papers. This 21st-century research vehicle must build upon robust methods but have a different purpose and aim, namely, to develop the required and enabling capabilities that a society needs to survive, adapt to, and ultimately reverse the impacts of climate change.  

Role of digital technologies

Digital technologies and their new means and methods for creating and re-creating connections between people, places, and even things can substantially transform our organizational structures. As our organizational structures break and falter in the face of climate change, coordination mechanisms must be implemented at various levels. 

Take the food system again: let’s say that a substantial climate incident leaves parts of the world unable to receive or send foodstuffs.  In such instances, decentralized systems will need to flex to fill the gaps, connecting demand with supply at a much lower level of the supply chain. Locally grown food would need to be re-coordinated to fill supply gaps. Ultimately, such loosely coupled supply chains could dramatically reduce climate impact. It could also create a more genuine interaction between humans and their environment.  Similar examples could be replicated in the energy system, with decentralized renewable energy run at a community level connected to a larger grid.  Perhaps the most critical resource will become water – as we already see dramatically reduced levels globally across Europe and other countries.  The time to study, create, and implement these solutions is now.  The time for a new academia is now.

Digital technologies – because of the coordination mechanisms these enable – are foundational to such loosely coupled resilient systems. These systems, adaptable enough to dynamically flex when climate events impact different parts of the world, would require fundamentally different organizational structures to deliver them. They would need different economic models, innovative technology paradigms, and new theories of change.  They would need different enabling capabilities and must rebalance how technology is studied and designed; they need a new type of research.

This need is reinforced by the advent of GPT 3 and 4. Soon computers will be better than human researchers at writing papers simply because too many papers are being produced for humans to read effectively. Indeed, hiring AI rather than junior faculty will eventually become more cost-effective for writing papers.

A new research vehicle powered by a vision of delivering positive real-world solutions to climate change will be imperative to ensure digital technologies can address humanity’s problems. Translating research into capabilities and capacities requires a unique and rare set of skills that we should all develop and build.  Digital tools can help us do this.

Digitalization itself allows us to create this new research vehicle – built on robust methods -- to solve real-world problems.  It is time for research to break free of academia because the scientific method and research do not belong to academic institutions – they belong to humanity. 

Cathy Mulligan rund grau


Cathy Mulligan is an interdisciplinary researcher in sustainable digital economy and Visiting Lecturer at Imperial College London.

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