Professor Chabay, you started your career in academia working in the field of chemistry. Today your research focuses on the interplay between knowledge, learning, and societal change, including the role which information technology plays in this relationship. Could you tell us a bit more about the history of your academic interests and how they responded to social and political changes?
After ten exciting and productive years of research in chemical physics, I had the opportunity to become Associate Director of the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco founded and then still directed by Frank Oppenheimer. Since high school, I had been concerned with and involved in volunteer efforts on civil rights and anti-war protests, so I saw the museum experience as an opportunity to connect my societal concerns with learning about communication linking science and society.
I originally intended to return to research after a year at the museum, but soon realized that there was a critical need for practicing scientists who were interested in communicating directly with the many facets of the public and policy arenas and could help to engage people in understanding the nature of science and its relationship with society. Therefore after leaving the museum and while teaching chemistry at Stanford University, I founded and directed a small company, The New Curiosity Shop (a workshop, not a store) in Silicon Valley that designed and produced innovative “hands-on” science exhibits. Over twenty years, we developed scores of new exhibits and produced them for over 200 museums worldwide and conducted many workshops for teachers at the pre-school through college levels. We also introduced “guerrilla science” as location-based entertainment in the form of interactive exhibits to engage customers in science explorations in fast food restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls, and medical clinics. Marketing dollars were used by businesses to purchase devices that actually were a means to stimulate curiosity and learning about science in diverse communities.
As the awareness of the importance and urgency of the effects of rapid global changes grew – climate change, resource limits, population growth, biodiversity loss, etc. – I became more focused on ways I could use my experiences to contribute to the search for mitigation and adaptation strategies. I closed the New Curiosity Shop in 2001 in order to pursue interdisciplinary research in both social and natural science, because the experiences stimulated questions for me about the impacts and more importantly, about the outcomes of interactions between science and society. I wanted to understand and do more to help people in diverse communities become aware of and understand how societies shape science and technology and how science and technology functions and how they interact with culture and society. An important example of the link between science/technology and society/culture is the rapid proliferation of social media and electronic games, which have become an effective means for communicating among and engaging large segments of the public. At the same time the technology of social media and games has provided a powerful means for learning about the changes in perceptions, understanding, and interest of much of the public at a scale that was not possible before.
Information technology is often said to endanger social responsibility and privacy. People sometimes seem to be more concerned about their mobile devices than about their neighbors. However, you seem to be rather optimistic about the opportunities the digital world offers. Why?
I am concerned with how the technology of information and communication can be used in advancing along socially responsible pathways toward a more equitable and sustainable future for societies. We can see that technology is used for many purposes, some of which are nefarious or trivial, but many more are or can be harnessed in ways that allow more people from diverse backgrounds, cultures and communities to learn, to communicate their concerns, and to help each other address issues in locally relevant contexts. For example, the use of cell phones equipped with noise or air pollution sensors can provide nearly real-time mapping of local environments and lead to greater awareness and new actions to address the problems on the level of policy and practice. In remote areas with little other technological infrastructure, the cell phone has become a means of changing produce marketing and banking access for isolated communities and at the same time a way for those outside those communities to better understand the challenges and opportunities for change that is seen as desirable in the context of the local population.
In Germany a lot of people think of the emergence of a sustainable way of life in terms of a “great transformation”. Do you also see things this way? How do you as person and researcher experience this change?
I view sustainability as the challenge for society to find pathways to adequate and equitable provision for humanity for current and future generations within the constraints of planetary resources, while maintaining or restoring the viability of vital ecological and environmental systems. Finding and moving from hugely unsustainable trajectories now onto pathways toward sustainability is a process that will entail substantial transformations of society and indeed of some parts of the enterprise of science and technology, as well. As an individual member of society and as a researcher, I am acutely aware of and am constantly seeking ways to help us all to reflect on and change our beliefs, values, and practices and find approaches appropriate to and applicable in communities with very different environmental, ecological, economic, and political conditions. I am using a transdisciplinary research approach, i.e., research in which stakeholders – all those influencing or affected by issues under consideration, including the research community – become partners in framing interdisciplinary research questions, gathering data, analysis and interpretation, and communicating newly co-produced knowledge. The international research alliance, which I chair, on knowledge, learning, and societal change (KLSC) is organized to address these questions of the interplay between evolving knowledge, the processes of learning, and changes in collective behaviors (more information will be available on the new website in late March 2014 at http://www.KLSCproject.org).
Is there anything particular you expect and hope to encounter in Stuttgart?
I am looking forward very eagerly to sharing opportunities for mutual learning and collaboration with people I will meet in Stuttgart and to continuing very productive discussions and collaborations with colleagues, such as Professor Ortwin Renn, with whom I have already had the pleasure of working. I am also eager to continue experiencing and learning about the culture and history of the Stuttgart region.