1.4 The importance of context
Historically there has been a strong tendency – particularly at certain stages and in some forms of technology evaluation – to treat technology as a discrete entity or project. In other words, to separate it from factors and features of the context in which it operates or is intended to operate. As Ward and Daniel (2006), amongst others, note, this has been the traditional approach in relation to information technology (IT) and information systems (IS) investments, but it is not a tendency that is limited to this field by any means. A prominent example is military technologies, where it has taken years of campaigning to get recognition of the impact that landmines and cluster bombs have on civilian populations. As we are only too aware, however, non-military technologies, such as cars, planes and power generation, also bring with them significant costs as well as benefits, although here again, the willingness of many individuals, organisations and governments to accept this has been painfully slow.
Our reluctance to recognise technologies as part of wider social systems stems, to a considerable degree, from the ideas, beliefs and theories of the relationship between technology and society that tend to dominate at a particular time and place. In Europe, Japan and some other countries, for example, there is now a growing public belief that the technologies we produce and use should be based on principles of sustainability, and therefore should use recyclable materials. As a result, the European Commission (EC) has implemented legislation to ensure the recycling of electrical goods, cars, and a range of other products. Technology manufacturers seem to embrace this approach – as well as using it as a marketing tool – by claiming that the vast majority of their products now consist of recyclable components: in the case of Japanese and European car manufacturers up to 98 per cent of components are recyclable.
There are, of course, other countries and regions where the social, economic and political pressures to re-examine their beliefs in, and use of, technology are taking a different course. Hence the governments of India and China argue that their economic development should not be impeded by measures to combat climate change when the economies of developed countries have, until recently, not had to face this burden. Indeed, it is worth noting that even within Europe different countries, and even different local governments, occupy different positions on this major issue. The German government provides high levels of subsidy to encourage its citizens to install solar heating and lighting systems. In the UK, government support is negligible.
While it might be argued that treating technology as discrete from its context may be valid for specific types of technology in particular contexts and at certain times, technologies have, through time, become increasingly complex and ever more embedded in all forms of human activity, much of the activity of any technology evaluation process should have moved away from a relatively closed ‘technical’ model to a more open, ‘social’ model. This means, for example, accepting that judgements about the merit, value or worth of a technology are often shaped more by political and economic ideology and the beliefs and values of the stakeholders involved in its design, development and use, than they are by any physical ‘law’ or scientific or engineering principle. In an attempt to address this situation to some degree, I take the following view. In the vast majority of cases, the design, operation and outcome of the evaluation of technology, and of technology-intensive programmes and policies, is strengthened considerably by learning from, and merging where appropriate, the principles and practices of both technology and programme evaluation.
Box 1 The concept of programme evaluation
If you are coming to this unit from a government or public service background, or from a commercial enterprise that has involvement with government through the provision of equipment or services, you may have been involved in programme (program in US English) evaluation. The term has traditionally been used to refer to a variety of forms of evaluation applied to the operation and outcome/impact of processes, activities and entities (collectively referred to as a programme) which result from government policy and decision making, usually in the fields of education, health and social services. Hence the emphasis on the ‘social’ features of evaluation. However, more recently this definition has evolved and taken on a broader meaning. See the discussion in Sections 3.1 and 3.2.