Social science is critical to unlocking the potential of digitalisation

28th April 2020

The social sciences have a crucial role to play in enabling us to adapt and thrive in the era of digitalisation.

Alex Riley, Aspect Broker at the University of Manchester, provides an overview of the Triangulum smart city technologies project – one of the many innovative projects on digital futures that are currently underway at the University.

It is readily apparent that we live in a moment of great transformational change, where we as a society find ourselves faced with many novel challenges and opportunities. Among these is the emergence of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ of digitalisation and new technologies including big data, automation and robotics. This technological revolution seems set to totally change the conditions of our collective existence, offering solutions to problems like climate change and creating new issues of their own such as data protection and unemployment.

The social sciences have a crucial role to play in enabling us to adapt and thrive in this new digital landscape. Raising awareness of this relevance and promoting the application of social science expertise to real world issues such as these, through research commercialisation and engagement between industry and academic practitioners, is a key aim of Aspect.

As an Aspect partner, the University of Manchester is at the forefront of these efforts, driving pioneering research in this area through initiatives such as the Digital Futures network, which brings together the University’s research on digital transformation and encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, and the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre which in partnership with other universities provides a platform to advance the understanding of how new technologies are reshaping the world of work.

In order to showcase the University of Manchester’s work on digital futures, we have selected just one of the many innovative projects that are currently underway at the University that apply social science expertise to getting the best out of the opportunities created by new technologies.


Triangulum is a €25 million Horizon 2020 project funded by the European Commission to demonstrate cutting-edge smart city technologies and roll them out across the world.

The University is working with the cities of Eindhoven in the Netherlands and Stavanger in Norway to demonstrate ‘smart green growth’ – reducing carbon emissions while boosting the economy. A total of 23 European partners from urban municipalities, research and industry are involved. The project will transform designated urban districts into smart quarters in the three forerunner cities and then transfer the concepts to the follower cities of Leipzig, Prague and Sabadell. The University is working with Manchester City Council, Manchester Metropolitan University, Siemens and digital technology company Clicks and Links to deploy and test renewable energy and storage technologies, smart ICT management systems and electric vehicles.

The actions are focused on the Oxford Road Corridor innovation district, including the University campus, and the project is unique in working closely with the Estates Division to use the campus as a living laboratory to study urban sustainability. Emma Gardner, Head of Environmental Sustainability, and Tony Small, Principal Mechanical and Energy Engineer, are leading Estates’ involvement with Energy and ICT, while Andrew Hough, the Sustainable Travel Manager, and Gabriele Schliwa, a doctoral student in the School of Environment Education and Development (SEED), are assisting with the mobility work. Professor Ian Cotton, Director of Manchester Energy, is leading the ICT work.

James Evans and Andrew Karvonen from SEED and Krassi Paskaleva from Manchester Institute of Innovation Research at Alliance Manchester Business School are leading the monitoring and evaluation work across the Triangulum consortium, coordinating teams in Eindhoven and Stavanger to assess the economic, environmental and social impacts of different smart city technologies. Part of this work involves developing frameworks for open source and interoperable data sharing platforms that will enable cities to learn from each other and develop smart city management technologies and smart apps. The project will run from the 1st February 2015 for five years.

Unlocking the potential of digital through social sciences

Digitalisation provides significant opportunities and through innovative projects such as Triangulum the social sciences are very well placed to help society take advantage of them. The key will be how we support the research community to drive their ideas forward and engage with industry, where appropriate, to do so.

This article is part of a series showcasing the role of social sciences in thinking through the challenges and opportunities provided by digitalisation and new technologies, with the University of Manchester playing a key role as a member of the Aspect network.

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Photo Credit: Peng LIU from Pexels

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