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Rethinking ICT

In order to understand how and why modern ICT emerged, why it has had such a tremendous and rapid impact, and what shapes it may take in the future, we think it is desirable to broaden the conception of ICT. Our most important move will be to change the locus of ICT from “artifact space” to “agent-artifact space”. To do this, we started from ICT’s primary functional roles – the storage, communication and processing of information and the facilitation of its interpretation – and asked which artifacts and organizations support these roles, and through which processes do they carry them out. We are particularly interested in analyzing ICT that is not (completely) designed a priori and only partly technological in the standard sense of the term. The implications of generalized ICT for ICT innovation policy is a principal focus of INSITE activities.

What is ICT?

For us, ICT is not exhausted by the categories of “hardware” and “software” – or even systems that combine them. From the point of view of its role in the innovation society, the appropriate concept of ICT also includes the uses to which it is put, which includes the patterns of interaction in which physical, information and performative ICT artifacts are embedded. In our concept of ICT, we start with its primary functionality, which is to augment human learning, individually and collectively. Human learning is a positive feedback loop that creates order out of our experience by isolating patterns, defining them in a limited number of dimensions, and storing the latter as knowledge. The more dimensions are cognized, the more problems can be tackled, and the more quickly knowledge is accumulated. This continued accumulation of knowledge and information-processing capacity enables a concomitant increase in matter, energy and information flows through societies, and thus enables them to grow.

Emergence and Generalized ICT

ICT consists of the modalities through which knowledge structuring, processing, storage and communication take place. Human beings and their organizations invent ICT artifacts, but ICT also emerges in the context of interactions among agents and artifacts. This has become increasingly obvious with the most recent wave of ICT: internet consists of invented artifacts, both hardware and software, and emergent networks of artifacts, addresses and users; WWW integrates protocols with emergent networks of pages and links.

The City as Generalized ICT

But ICT as a collection of structures and processes in agent-artifact space predates the recent shocking and exciting discovery of technological systems that combine design with emergence. From this point of view, a perhaps surprising contender for the prize for greatest ICT breakthrough of all time may be an ancient “invention”: the city; and the cascade of things that has emerged in urban contexts to satisfy urban needs — including markets, writing, coinage, and administrative hierarchies. With its concentration and mix of knowledge, skills and institutions, the city has always served an ICT role and has had an unparalleled impact on the evolution of society.

INSITE researchers take a hard look at the city and urban systems as ICT – and draw conclusions about what this concept implies for the future of ICT and its role in building a sustainable society. Also other examples of such “generalized ICT” are considered, to explore how this concept might change the ways in agents committed to encouraging innovations like ICT go about their work – agents like FET and the EC.