The Network Institute is the hub for interdisciplinary research on the Digital Society at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
But what is the Digital Society? There are several definitions of digital society, our favourite is the one by Paul and Aithal: “The Digital Society is an interdisciplinary research area and a kind of progressive society that has been formed as a result of adaptation as well as integration of advanced technologies into the society and culture”. The Digital Society is already happening. Indeed, nowadays we fluently use various digital technologies – from smartphones to social robots, to global social networks, virtual/augmented reality, natural language processing tools, and virtual agents. Digital technologies are not static, they are always and rapidly evolving, and society is evolving with them.
Digital technologies and societal/cultural processes thus become increasingly entwined. To study how digital technologies and society interact, it is not sufficient to look at them from a monodisciplinary approach. Instead, an interdisciplinary mindset is necessary.
As an example, to build a social robot, social scientists are needed to understand how social cues are mediated, AI researchers are needed to model the encoding, processing, and decoding of social information, and computational linguists are needed to relate the social cues to language utterances. Without any of these perspectives, social robots will never come to their full potential, thus missing a great opportunity to change/improve our today’s world.
The mission of the Network Institute is to:
Understand, challenge, and improve the Digital Society
This ambition builds on our deep belief that researchers, citizens, and organisations from different (cultural and professional) backgrounds must work together. It is only by working as a network that we are able to challenge our own ideas and working routines in order to understand the interaction between digital technologies and societal challenges, such as digital divide, opinions polarisation, privacy, fake news and disinformation, and health.
The Network Institute is primarily active in the following Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):
• Reduced inequality (SDG #10)
• Sustainable cities and communities (SDG #11)
• Peace, justice, and strong institutions (SDG #16)
Our digital society is plagued by a large digital divide. Such a divide exists at various levels and from different perspectives; for example, citizens living in developing countries, or those having lower incomes, or different cultural backgrounds than the establishment, have less access to services enabled by the most recent technologies. The Network Institute aims at reducing the digital divide and aims at making technology (and its services) more democratic and accessible by all.
The Network Institute promotes diversity. We want to make technology (and its underlying computational models) usable and accessible for tasks, communities, and languages that are economically less relevant and therefore understudied.
The Network Institute aims at improving access to information for a variety of users and to address inequality of access to information. This latter point is especially relevant for scientific knowledge. We are fully supportive of the Open Science principles. Open science is the movement to make scientific research (including publications, data, physical samples, and software) and its dissemination accessible to all levels of society, amateur or professional. As confirmed empirically, Open Science leads to greater impacts, both from a scientific and societal perspective. The Network Institute aims at making the research funds openly available and accessible.
sustainable cities and communities
The Digital Society is a complex and multifaceted endeavour, and policies / actions / technologies in one area can potentially affect other areas as well. At the core of
this SDG lies the fact that progress must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. At the Network Institute we operate towards informing trust in science, to combat disinformation and climate crisis denial.
We study and challenge fake news and disinformation, both by realising and validating algorithms/models for detecting disinformation and by providing support for fact-based decision making to companies, organisations, and citizens.
One of the main lines of activities of the Network Institute is centred around the development of AI literacy and awareness of technical, social, and ethical issues concerning technologies in general.
We stimulate citizens (and companies/organisations) to think critically about the notion of automation in our society (when and how should we automate?). Finally, and more in general, we want to give users more control over the technologies they use; for example, we study superconnected people and their behaviour and attitude with respect to ubiquitous technologies like smartphones and wearables.
peace, justice and strong institutions
SDG 16 aims to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institu-
tions at all levels”. As such, researchers of the Network Institute work towards making (digital) governance more transparent and fair, for example by protecting citizens from over-surveillance. We also aim at providing mechanisms for higher accountability, holding the companies and organisations regulating our society accountable for their (technical and non-technical) actions.
Finally, the Network Institute combats power imbalance, and encourages democratic decision-making by, for example, studying how technology can facilitate citizens’
democratic participation, as well as support unbiased and fact-based information flows.
Our vision is built on the observation that our mission can be achieved successfully only if researchers coming from different disciplines put their brains, knowledge, and skills in service to the Digital Society. This is where the Network institute plays its major role. The principles that guide our mission are shown in the figure below.
Specifically, we want to be:
- The spark igniting new and fruitful connections among researchers coming from different disciplines;
- The mental gym acting as a safe and stimulating environment for young talents doing research on the Digital Society;
- The bridge enabling new collaborations between companies, organisations, and researchers for a direct impact on the Digital So
The Network Institute is designed to be the ideal place to put in place our vision. These are the most relevant advantage points of our institute:
- We have a privileged perspective over a wide pool of researchers who are experts within the various disciplines related to the Digital Society (such as, AI, ICT, social sciences, communication, law, etc.)
- We have access to young talents (aka, Bachelor, Master, and PhD students) and the skills to train them towards academic excellence.
- We have a proven and long-lasting expertise to attract national and international funding, ranging from NWO/RVO national funds to European and other international funds.
- We have a proven and long-lasting expertise in organising (academic) events.
- We have the technical expertise (and equipment) on the most recent technologies, such as VR, AR, Cloud, AI. These can be used either for:
- designing and conducting experiments on the Digital Society (via the Tech Labs);
- providing advice on better understanding how such technologies impact commercial products, policies, and our society in general.
What we offer
The Network Institute implements its mission by providing a number of contributions and services to three main types of stakeholders:
- Researchers interested in carrying out interdisciplinary research on the Digital Society;
- Young talents interested in taking their first steps into the world of interdisciplinary research on the Digital Society;
- Companies and organisations seeking support for amplifying their societal impact.
The focus on the Digital Society aligns the work of the Network Institute with the Connected World research theme, one of the four main profile themes of VU. This theme focuses on fostering participation and mitigating the divides within society, researching the influence of digitalisation and globalisation on people, cultures, the economy and politics.
The Network Institute has developed and consolidated a series of initiatives and services directed to researchers and academic staff within the VU dealing with the Digital Society, regardless of the faculty of belonging. The support offered by the Network Institute to VU’s researchers is vast, and revolves around four main areas:
- Outreach & promotion of research
- Strengthening of research skills
- Technical support and equipment
- Funding possibilities
To young talents
The Digital Society brings to the surface complex relationships, tensions and trade-offs. This complexity requires future professionals and researchers to understand society, their role in it, and carry out their jobs with awareness, knowledge, and skills. The Network Institute has an entire team dedicated to students’ development: because today’s students are tomorrows’
experts, and it is our responsibility to equip them with the tools necessary for them to thrive and carry forward VU’s core values of responsibility and openness. The Network Institute cultivates talented students, offering them:
- Trainings on how to conduct high-quality scientific research up to the most rigorous standards;
- Access to laboratories with high-end equipment and customised technological solutions to test their research and ideas;
- Hands-on experience in research projects under the guidance of experienced researchers or within one of the projects in collaboration with the Institute’s external partners;
- Participating and organising themed events on interdisciplinary research;
- Attending and delivering specialised laboratories and seminars;
- Expanding and consolidating their professional and academic network, connecting with the top researchers and organisations working on the Digital Society.
To companies and organisations
The mission of the Network Institute goes beyond the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. We liaison with municipalities, NGOs, companies, research institutes, and other universities, to amplify our societal impact. Our researchers participate in multi-stakeholder projects and develop multilateral initiatives, to raise awareness, empower users and companies, and develop new tools for the Digital Society.
When working with external stakeholders, the Network Institute can take a diverse set of roles, providing a wide range of contributions and services, such as:
- Customised research and tools
- Partnerships & consortia
- Finding the right expert
Click here to access an extended description of our mission, values, vision, provided services, governance, and success stories.