SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Rethinking Society for the 21st Century: Where do we go from here?

Rethinking Society for the 21st Century, a major research-based report from with the International Panel for Social Progress (IPSP), publishes this summer from Cambridge University Press. Professor Johan Schot, Professor Andy Stirling and Dr Cian O'Donovan from SPRU have contributed to a cross-cutting theme of the report which examines the relationship between technology and social progress. Following this, a special IPSP edition of Technology's Stories has been launched (published by the Society for the History of Technology - SHOT), featuring new essays linked to the report's findings. These articles also consider how stories can help us to imagine a new society for the 21st century.

These new publications put forward various considerations for how to think differently about society for the 21st century. New thinking on social progress is seen to be hampered by 'enlightenment baggage' and the 'ghosts of modernisation'. Such outdated ideas place limits on the imagination. For example, Professor Stirling writes that modernity's assertion of progress as a one-way street, with which we either keep up or fall behind, prohibits a more sophisticated, working understanding of the multiple ways progress unfolds in practice. Professor Suzanne Moon (University of Oklahoma) argues that the lingering view from the enlightenment that states religion should no longer be a concern in society, restricts us from finding progressive ways of working with religious groups to advance social progress in the 21st century.

New thinking on social progress, argues Professor Judith Sutz (Universidad de la Republica), must account for the realities of social and economic inequalities, particularly in the global south. The question, in this case, becomes not simply 'what innovations do we need?', but 'how do we work with what we already have?' Thinking differently in this context can lead to new 'frugal innovations' that could level out access to vital provisions, improving social prospects globally.

In a world where disparities in wellbeing, resources and power are widening, the IPSP explores how we can make a better society for the 21st century and proposes action-driven change for the most pressing challenges of our time. These new publications make a clear case for the importance of the social sciences for rethinking society for the 21st century. Social scientists, it is argued, have a crucial role to play in conceptualising, designing and redefining the key aspects of society needed for advancing social progress, in keeping with the normative belief that 'it can be otherwise'.

'What follows?'

IPSP panel May 15L-R: Andy Stirling, Suzanne Moon, Judith Sutz, Johan Schot and Helga Nowotny (Photo: Becky Ayre)

SPRU hosted a special event at the University of Sussex that brought together these authors to remark on their contributions to the IPSP and to ask 'what follows?' The international panel convened for the discussion included SPRU's Professor Schot and Professor Stirling, Professor Helga Nowotny (ETH Zurich and SPRU Advisory Group), Professor Judith Sutz and Professor Suzanne Moon. The panel addressed a diverse audience from around the university campus, including the 42 participants from the 2018 STEPS Summer School.

This event was an opportunity to champion the successes of the report but also to discuss how its findings might now be used in society more broadly to establish meaningful change. For Professor Nowotny, the report acts as a 'normative compass', oriented towards human dignity and social justice, and this should attract a broad range of stakeholders, but for it to do so it must be shared widely. Subsequently, many events like this one are happening around the world to share the knowledge and expertise garnered by the IPSP. 

Further Information

To find out more about what was discussed at the Rethinking Society for the 21st Century event on 15 May, read the report here.

Watch the video of the event.