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User theory for inclusion or exclusion? Conceptual models to address the role of users for inclusive socio-technical change

Gabriela Bortz, Hernan Thomas


Innovation Studies (IS) and Science, Technology and Society studies (STS) explored the role of users in socio-technological change: from their role as consumers, adopters or experimenters to maximize profit, to exploring the mutual shaping of users and technologies and the power relations embedded into the process of use. By the turn of the century, amidst broader claims to democratize Science and Technology, scholars and practitioners explored the ways technologies may contribute to overcome social, material, and political restrictions in structural inequality scenarios. While discursively praising user inclusion as a ‘good practice’, ‘technologies for inclusive development’ (TID) ranged from processes of distributed decision-making and empowerment to paternalistic schemes and unwanted effects that reinforce exclusion patterns. This paper aims to revisit user theories through the lens of inclusion/exclusion to explore user engagement in TID initiatives to understand the relation between user involvement and ‘inclusive’ outcomes. We argue that diverse theoretical views on user-centeredness, which we systematize in 5 types, are tied to different normative assumptions about what user-centeredness is for, with implications for technology practice and STS theory. In interaction between literature review and instrumental TID case studies (in water, health, nutrition, and recycling), we examine how these differences lead to differential outcomes in terms of inclusion (e.g., exclusion problem-solving, distribution of benefits, social learning). In turn, we analyze how bringing the inclusiveness/exclusion dimension may help to reveal user literature blind spots that need to be addressed, and how unveiling user theory may contribute to deepen our understanding of inclusion in technology making.


user theory; technologies for inclusive development; inclusive innovation; participation in science and technology; technology governance; critical studies of innovation

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