Ongoing projects

Mobile Support Systems for Behavior Change (2017-2021, NWO-MVI)

The rapid development of mobile devices and social media opens up tremendous opportunities for support systems that promote a healthier lifestyle by helping to change the user’s behavior. These systems have an enormous potential for preventing chronic illnesses and reducing healthcare costs. They are also becoming increasingly personalized. As data gathered on individual behavior patterns increase in depth and breadth, opportunities arise for more personally tailored solutions for behavior change – including solutions tailored to personal habits, social, and physical contexts, time variant events, and physiological patterns. However, widespread adoption of apps for health self-management remains low. In this study we address three key issues that are crucial for the success of mobile support systems for health behavior: trust, consent, and intrinsic motivation. Mobile technologies are “nebulous” in the sense that they involve both a “cloud” of data and a set of physical devices, their effects are often unpredictable, and the underlying decision mechanisms by which they achieve their effects are opaque to users. This makes it difficult to trust them and to consent to their use. We aim to develop new ways in which users can trust nebulous mobile systems and a new model to consent to their use. We also address an important concern with these systems: that they may change the intrinsic motivation for healthy behavior to a less powerful extrinsic motivation based on external rewards. These topics are studied in an interdisciplinary way, using expertise from ethics, psychology and artificial intelligence/cognitive science.

Project coordinator: A.W.M. Meijers (P&E)

Project team members: Dr L.E. Frank (P&E), dr. P.J. Nickel (P&E), prof. dr. W.A. IJsselsteijn (HTI)

Fearful Technologies: Historical and ethical perspectives on the role of fear in pro-technology discourses (2017-2021, IE&IS strategic area funding)

Fears of technologies are a prominent research topic in Science and Technology Studies and Risk Research. Industry, academia, and policy makers have been eager to develop strategies to overcome such fears. An area that has, however, been neglected so far is the question how the promotion of new technologies has itself appealed to fears. To name only a few examples: The fear that ‘the lights could go out’ has been addressed continuously in the promotion of nuclear energy; the fear that one could miss out on the meaning of life is stressed in the promotion of in-vitro-fertilization; and the fear that the world’s knowledge could get lost is emphasized in the calls for digital archives.

The project will therefore investigate the argumentative role of fear in pro-technology discourses and the effects of these appeals to fear. It will bring together research from history and ethics of technology. The main research question will be: Which role did and do emotions, and especially fear play (historically) in the pro-technology discourse of emerging technologies and how should these appeals to fear be evaluated from an ethical perspective? We will investigate this question on the basis of empirical case studies and in relation to the ethical debate on the role of emotions and fear in technology acceptance.

Project team members: Dr. A. Spahn  (P&E), dr. K. Kalmbach (TIS), prof. dr. ir E.B.A. van der Vleuten (TIS)

Technologies for health-related behavior change in vulnerable people: values & design (2016-2021, IE&IS strategic area funding)

Lifestyle diseases, chronic illness, and an aging population pose significant societal burdens. Symptoms and severity of chronic illness, often common in old age, can be reduced through greater adherence to medications and lifestyle changes. In addition, intervening in the health-related behaviors of children has the potential to reduce the long-term burden of disease, increase life quality, and reduce healthcare costs. Technologies for behavior change (TBCs) are already being developed for prevention and lifestyle change, such as smartphone apps to analyze and quantify sleep patterns, diet, exercise, stress, and disease management. However, research on the psychological and ethical implications of these technologies for vulnerable populations, e.g. children or the elderly, is limited. There is a need to identify and counter the unintended psychological effects of constant tracking, privacy-risks, social pressures, and misleading data visualizations. Values are embedded in designs, e.g. a paternalistic stance that “forces” people into certain behaviors. To protect and respect users, there is a need for an assessment of ethical dilemmas related to paternalism and autonomy and ethical guidelines tailored to different persuasive strategies. After a philosophical analysis and empirical study of TBCs, the final goal is to develop an ethical design framework based on the results of the preceding analyses adapting Value Sensitive Design (Friedman et al., 2013) specifically to TBC.

Project team members: drs. N. Jacobs, dr. L.E Frank (P&E), prof. dr. ir. A.W.M Meijers (P&E), dr. A. Huldtgren (HTI), prof. dr. W.A. IJsselsteijn (HTI)

Value trade-offs of interoperable big data in public safety contexts (2017-2021, IE&IS strategic area funding)

The goal of this project is to develop a framework for analyzing the value trade-offs associated with rendering cloud-based big data sets interoperable for the sake of public safety. This framework will help stakeholders identify the specific technical and ethical (particularly privacy and security) challenges and constraints to anticipate during system design and implementation, and will help identify different types of value and the variety of adverse social and ethical consequences (especially related to fairness and justice) that may result from implementing interoperability in public safety contexts. The framework produced will provide input for interoperable information system design and specification.

Project team members: Dr. E.R.H. O'Neill (P&E), prof. dr. ir. A.W.M. Meijers (P&E), dr. C.M. Chituc (Information Systems)

Developing and implementing smart grids in India (2014-2019, NWO-MVI)

India faces two major challenges in the field of electricity generation and use. Its electricity demand is growing while its central grid suffers from severe performance deficits. Meanwhile, a significant part of India’s population does not even have access to the central grid. The Indian government aims to address these challenges in part by using smart grids, energy networks that use ICT to match supply and demand from multiple sources. However, successful smart grid development is not simply a matter of getting the technology right: social embedding, ethical acceptability and institutional support are at least as important. This project therefore sets out to answer the question: How can smart grids be successfully developed and implemented in rural India?

The project’s work is divided into five work packages (WPs). WP1 investigates technical specifications and develops a smart grid prototype. WP2 investigates how smart grids can be embedded and commercialized in the rural Indian energy market, using the Hidden Design method. WP3 investigates how societal and institutional factors affect the viability of smart grid implementation and use in India, using an ethnographic approach in combination with insights from transition studies. WP4 addresses ethical challenges, especially the question to what degree hidden design can replace deliberative processes as a fair and just method of stakeholder involvement. WP5 investigates which key factors affect the potential for upscaling smart grids throughout India. Goal of the project is to answer the research question by the actual responsible development and implementation of a smart grid prototype.

Project coordinator: prof. dr. G.P.J. Verbong (TIS)

Project team members: dr. J.I. Höffken (TIS), dr. A.J.K. Pols (P&E), dr. A. Spahn (P&E)

The project’s official website can be found at You can also follow the project on Twitter at @smartgridsindia.

See also here.

Darwinizing culture: the status of cultural evolutionary theory as a science (2014-2019, NWO-Vidi)

The last couple of decades has witnessed a surge of attempts to Darwinize the cultural sciences. By applying biological theories and tools to cultural phenomena (e.g., cultural diversity, cultural revolutions), cultural evolutionists purport to make the study of culture a more progressive and more rigorous enterprise. Although their work has caught on astonishingly rapidly, and although it has faced several in principle objections, it hasn’t yet been subjected to thorough methodological criticism. In that light, exploiting the tools provided by the philosophy of science, the VIDI programme aims to answer the following question: To what extent can we trust methods devised for understanding biological phenomena, if these are applied to the realm of culture?

Project coordinator: Dr. ir. K. Vaesen (P&E)

Project team leaders: Dr. A. Acerbi (P&E), dr. E. Boon (P&E)

See also here.