Executive summary

We live in an ever more complex and digital world, characterized by growing volumes of data and a rapid expansion of technologies. Canada is also addressing several current and near-future challenges and opportunities, including an aging population, reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, changes in immigration patterns, and the preservation of Canada’s economic competitiveness. Emerging technologies hold incredible potential—some of it already being realized—to help us tackle these complex issues, and to build a resilient shared future. Yet emerging technologies also present new risks and uncertainties.

This report summarizes insights from a series of knowledge synthesis reports produced by social sciences and humanities researchers across Canada, and from dialogue among multisectoral stakeholders, focused on the question “How can emerging technologies be leveraged to benefit Canadians?” This question is one of six future challenge areas identified through SSHRC’s Imagining Canada’s Future initiative, which seeks to enhance the contributions of humanities and social sciences to address the complex challenges facing Canadians over the next 20 years.

Broadly defined, emerging technologies are new tools and processes that are developing rapidly; are predicted to have significant and long-term impacts on economic, social and political life; and can create entire industries.Footnote 1 The scale, scope and pace of these new tools—including robotics, automation, wearables and 3D printing—are transforming how we work, live, interact and govern. For instance, we are seeing new assistive technologies, equipment and devices that increase or maintain the functional abilities of aging adults and people with disabilities.Footnote 2 Meanwhile, many emerging technologies are disruptive, meaning they significantly alter the way businesses and markets operate, by upsetting established networks and models.Footnote 3 Artificial intelligence is but one example.

Both the potential and uncertainty of emerging technologies call for better understanding of the economic, social, environmental, philosophical and legal implications of their development, adoption and use. These technologies provide opportunities for some, yet leave others behind. They create a source of wonder in the potential of science and innovation—and in human creativity and invention. Some, however, can also lead to anxiety, inequality, and perceived loss of control. As a result, we may wonder if we are evolving towards a technology-centred society, to the detriment of one that is human-centred and supported by technology.

Knowledge Synthesis Grants: Selected areas of knowledge strengths and gaps

The following list of emerging technologies knowledge synthesis projects is presented in alphabetical order, by principal investigator. Listings include researcher name and affiliation, and, where available, a link to the full report:

Building on the outcomes of the knowledge synthesis projects, the following five themes were identified as key areas of interest for stakeholder discussions on how emerging technologies can be leveraged to benefit Canadians.

Collectively, these themes illustrate the benefits of connecting social sciences and humanities researchers with potential users of their research, to exchange ideas and explore opportunities for future collaboration.

In what follows, we outline some of the main insights, preliminary policy and practice recommendations, knowledge strengths, and research gaps that emerged from the knowledge synthesis reports and dialogue with researchers, practitioners and policy-makers throughout 2016.

To obtain more information on the findings included in the reports, and details on both current and proposed knowledge mobilization activities, please contact the lead investigators. You may also contact SSHRC directly, or consult our awards search engine, to identify and connect with other SSHRC-funded researchers for insights on these critical issues.

  • There are significant knowledge gaps concerning the risks associated with new technologies. Researchers have noted an absence of regulatory and quality control measures to mitigate potential risks associated with the related products. For justice apps, these include significant risks to privacy, and to the reliability of the information provided. For people with disabilities, the absence of standardized quality control methods for producing prostheses using 3D printing may put them at risk of injury. This is especially true for devices produced using desktop printers at the local or community level. Research into the functional effectiveness and efficiency of these technologies is limited, resulting in a lack of knowledge about their safe and ethical use.

  • Most studies of ICT use by middle-aged and older adults tend to be access-driven instead of accessibility-driven. Much of the available research focuses on the causes of and potential solutions to the digital divide, such as cost reduction, training programs and public computers. Research on what informs a middle-aged or older adult’s choice to use ICTs is missing, but could help in developing programs and policies aimed at addressing the digital divide.

  • Some of the objectives that guide the end users of assistive technology are not explored in the literature to the same extent as those that guide the designers. The design focuses on safety, autonomy, comfort and communication. Users seek to improve, assist, compensate and stimulate singular and/or functional abilities. The development and optimization of people’s residual capacity through “improvement” and “stimulation” are rarely discussed in the scientific literature. Either many assistive technologies simply do not aim to empower aging Canadians, or existing literature about empowering elderly Canadians through assistive technologies has not yet been documented in the scientific literature.

  • A participatory design approach is crucial to ensuring that new technologies meet the needs of end users, in both private and public spaces. While there is no dearth of literature that focuses on the capacity of assistive technologies to improve the lives of older Canadians, researchers found very few studies that engaged older adults in the research, design and development of assistive devices. A clear misalignment in the stakeholders’ objectives, vocabulary, and perceptions about the identity of particular groups of end users was also noted.

    Collaborative practices can better identify and address the needs, requirements and functional goals by combining expertise and reducing the financial requirements for infrastructure.Footnote 15

Comparison of production chains using traditional and additive manufacturing

Translated by Blum from French original. Source: Lefèvre, 2016.

  • Research focusing on culture and innovation is still in its initial stages. The current discourse suggests innovation can happen in any organization or environment, as long as it has specific, innovation-friendly values, practices and orientations; but, there is no clear evidence to support this claim. Even the definition of “a culture of innovation,” a concept that is often deemed an essential component of innovative organizations, remains elusive. Future research should investigate what processes and practices contribute to a culture of innovation, particularly in the Canadian context, as well as how this culture is cultivated and nourished across time and space.

  • The positive benefits of “third places” are amply outlined in the literature, but important knowledge gaps persist. There is a need to develop precise and uniform definitions that differentiate the various types of these emerging spaces of collaborative and creative work that are neither home nor conventional workplace. Similarly, there is a need for a clear typology of these spaces that better targets each one’s role, possible results, and potential impacts on society. Finally, we are missing crucial sociological information about the users of these spaces, including their demographic profiles, motivations and expectations.

  • More research is needed on the collaborative processes that facilitate innovation development and diffusion. Researchers are beginning to recognize the importance of meaningful collaboration in innovation ecosystems, but little is known about how to translate knowledge about various actors from different backgrounds in a way that supports shared goals. In addition, most research has focused on how multiple actors contribute to early stages of innovation, but less is known about how they support the later stages of implementation and diffusion.

  • Training is needed on the social, organizational and economic dynamics that support 3D printing. This technology is at the forefront of the 21st-century knowledge-based economy and, like many other digital technologies, it favours collaborative organizational structures. Training is needed on the human, social and organizational skills necessary to better understand how to use this technology. Training is also needed on how to create an environment that helps ensure 3D printing is used so Canadian companies and citizens fully benefit from its potential.

    Techniques of 3D printing are extraordinary tools for collaboration that will accelerate innovations and disruptions in production and the materials world the same way the Internet amplifies innovation, collaboration and disruption in the digital world.Footnote 18

  • The use of big data and large data sets in immigration research poses many challenges. Large data sets often exhibit sample selection limitations and a sampling bias, because certain groups are underrepresented in the processes through which the data are collected. These biases raise questions about the credibility of claims made on the basis of these data sets, or result in certain groups of newcomers, for instance, being virtually ignored in research. Moreover, security, privacy and ethical concerns can emerge from current data storage, management and sharing practices. Rigorous security measures applied to personal administrative data, and restricted access, may disproportionately affect researchers outside of universities or government.

  • Interdisciplinary collaborations are a critical next step in information management. There is currently little awareness of the theories, principles and practices of archival science (i.e., the science of recordkeeping) in the blockchain community. Conversely, the record-keeping community is largely unaware of blockchain technology and its potential applications. Interdisciplinary research into blockchain recordkeeping—including legal, archival, forensics, economics and other researchers—will help ensure this technology is leveraged to its full potential for Canadians.

  • Substantial knowledge gaps surround the use of data by political parties. Little is known about what technologies are used, how internal privacy policies are enforced, or the role of private sector data companies in the collection and analysis of voter data. Research should be done on legal regimes to replace the self-regulation privacy policies used by political parties in their collection and use of voter data.

    Significant research remains to be done to develop alternative legal regimes and enforcement mechanisms in light of fair information principles and the best practices for the regulation of political parties. There is also significant work to be done to assess the broader implications for democracy of big data politics.Footnote 23

  • Further research is needed to understand how news is shared and consumed in new media spaces. More than 21 million Canadians are active users of social media, and share their experiences, news and/or perspectives online. The decision to share information on social media can be shaped by normative social influences, with some users abstaining from taking part in online discussions if they feel they could be ostracized for their views. Hence, there may be an underrepresentation of people who espouse views not in line with the majority. This could, in turn, skew policy-makers and media’s interpretations of public opinion and trends.

  • Long-term case studies are needed in order to determine how digital technologies can best support the revitalization of Indigenous languages and culture. Community-grounded evaluations and impact assessments that are rooted in the experiences, cultural knowledge and goals of the Indigenous community will offer insights into the successes and shortcomings of these technologies in the revitalization processes.
  • The role and contribution of ICTs in the development, planning and construction of northern Aboriginal housing was seldom addressed in the literature reviewed. Many studies examined access to and use of ICTs by Indigenous peoples in the context of education, the economy, health, culture and infrastructure. There is, however, a significant gap in knowledge about their role in housing development, as well as about the use of participatory approaches, such as public participation geographic systems, participatory 3D modelling, and crowdsourcing applications. These technologies have the potential to play important and beneficial roles in Indigenous housing development, by encouraging collaborative, community-based decision-making.
  • A better understanding is needed about the impacts of digitization and open access, including intellectual property and ownership issues, on the value and meaning of cultural objects. A lack of comprehensive overviews of digital return projects has resulted in several knowledge gaps, including how online content is being managed, accessed and circulated. For example, what are the possible consequences of placing cultural objects and heritage knowledge into open source contexts for Arctic Indigenous communities? Who “owns” cultural content placed online, such as a video or recording of an Elder sharing local knowledge? How do we ensure that heritage assets are not used in ways that undermine traditional meanings and values?

    Different types of ‘open access’ will need to be negotiated to ensure that Indigenous communities retain some control over access, circulation, and use of heritage data that is placed online and in open source contexts.Footnote 28
  • Information about the effects trauma-based barriers have on language mobilization is all but absent from the available literature. In some Indigenous communities, language learners and teachers can have deep emotional responses to hearing, speaking and learning their language. This is largely a residual effect of the residential school system, which invoked feelings of distress and shame in Indigenous people in relation to their language.

    Why is evidence of the vibrant history of communities stewarding their language and culture unavailable outside of communities? In large part because it had to be hidden. The resilience of Canada’s Indigenous languages is despite—not because of—government policy.Footnote 29

  • Few studies examine the effects digital tools have on written expression in French, or at the primary or secondary school level. Only about five per cent of the studies analyzed focused on acquisition of writing skills in French. While most studies point to positive effects in English-language classrooms, the effects of technology on French writing skills must be examined independently to take into account the unique characteristics of each learning environment. Additional studies on the use of digital tools at the primary or secondary school level might provide more insights into writing competencies of children and youth.
  • Important aspects of the design process are underreported in the literature focused on technology-enhanced learning environments for STEM fields. Studies that position STEM teachers as codesigners in research partnerships tend to focus more on the implementation of an innovation, than on the identification of the problem that led to developing a technological innovation. It is crucial for researchers to report on the entire design process, including how evaluations and multiple design iterations inform the next. This knowledge will help enable teachers to develop the competences needed to support this paradigm shift.
  • Despite an increasing number of studies on digital literacy initiatives for K-12 Indigenous students, the studies tend to focus on funding gaps, rather than the achievements of funded projects. By highlighting the achievements of successful projects, the research, practice and policy communities can gain valuable insights into how to effectively tackle digital literacy issues that affect certain Indigenous communities.

    Improving digital literacy underpins not only a nation’s capacity to provide individuals and groups with equity of access to social opportunity; it is a necessity for participation in the digital economy.Footnote 32

SSHRC Storytellers 2016 Finalist, Ron Darvin
Social class and unequal digital literacies
The University of British Columbia

View video on YouTube

The sheer pace, scale and scope of emerging technologies are uniquely shaping our world. The collective impact of these drivers is creating unprecedented disruptions and opportunities in every facet of our lives. In this rapidly evolving global and technological context, the Imagining Canada’s Future foresight exercise identified a critical need to better understand how to leverage the benefits of emerging technologies for Canada.

While the knowledge syntheses and related discussions highlighted in this report address only a fraction of these technologies and their potential impacts, they bring to light several critical, emerging issues—from human, cultural and social perspectives—that may guide practices, policies and research agendas going forward.

The researchers illuminated the diversity of people designing, using and benefiting from emerging technologies, as well as those being left behind because of inequalities in access and skills. The reports showed how emerging and digital technologies are changing how we learn, communicate, consume news, and empower marginalized populations. These technologies are also changing the nature of work and increasing the need for collaborative innovation processes. Evident are both a need for new technical skills and knowledge, and a reaffirmation of human skills, including teamwork, storytelling and creativity.

Attention was drawn to gaps in what we know about the uses and users of the technologies examined through the synthesis projects, the needs and preferences of designers versus users, and how to build a culture of innovation. Moreover, these projects highlighted that, with opportunities and benefits, come risks and uncertainties, such as in data storage, privacy, and accuracy of information.

Concerns were also raised about insufficiency in society’s preparedness to handle ethical implications of certain new technologies, especially for vulnerable populations or when working across disciplines. More attention and research are needed on these issues which have implications for us all as our lives become ever more represented by the bits of data that feed the digital age.

As a whole, these knowledge synthesis projects seek to help meet the critical need to understand the human dimensions of the development, adoption and integration of technologies. These insights into human dimensions are critical to informing the design of technologies and the development of digital literacy skills that Canadians need so they can navigate through the transformational changes of the digital era. This understanding is also essential to sustaining an inclusive innovation agenda that supports social well-being and economic prosperity for all Canadians.

The nature of the knowledge synthesized in these projects and highlighted in this report serves to further reinforce the importance of social sciences and humanities research to building deeper understanding of the human condition, and of the driving forces shaping the world around us, now and in the future.

SSHRC invites all stakeholders and researchers to participate in our national dialogue on all six of the future challenge areas identified through the Imagining Canada’s Future initiative. Through partnerships and innovative collaborative efforts, we can leverage new and promising opportunities for research, training and knowledge mobilization. Together, we can build a better tomorrow for all Canadians.

Footnote 1

Harper, Tim. The Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, “The Long Journey From Nanotechnology To Emerging Technologies,” Cientifica.com (2010).

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Footnote 2

Davies, Theresa Claire, et al. “The impact of emerging technology on developing and accessing assistive technology,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 1.

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Footnote 3

Dawson, Peter. “The design and development of digital return platforms for Northern Indigenous heritage,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 10.

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Footnote 4

Anonymous researcher comment from evaluation of first Knowledge Synthesis Grants workshop, May 2015, www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/society-societe/community-communite/ksg_workshop_may_2015-atelier_ssc_mai_2015-eng.aspx.

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Footnote 5

Canadian Association of Graduate Studies. Imagining Canada’s Future: Summary of Roundtable Discussions with Graduate Student Researchers, Western/Windsor Panel, p. 15, www.cags.ca/documents/publications/icf/FINAL ICF Oct 9(010616).pdf

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Footnote 6

Lemieux, Victoria. “Blockchain technology for record-keeping: Help or hype?” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 36; and “Blockchain Technology Explained,” BlockchainTechnologies.com.

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Footnote 7

Sixsmith, Andrew, et al. “Middle-aged and older adults’ information and communicative technology access: A realist review,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. iii.

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Footnote 8

Davies, Theresa Claire, et al., The impact of emerging technology, p. iii.

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Footnote 9

Davies, Theresa Claire, et al., The impact of emerging technology, p. iii.

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Footnote 10


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Footnote 11

Wu, Y., et al. “Acceptance of an Assistive Robot in Older Adults: A Mixed-method Study of Human-robot Interaction over a 1-month Period in the Living Lab Setting,” Clinical Interventions in Aging (2014). Cited by Arlene Astell, The preservation of self-image, p. 12.

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Footnote 12

Neven, L. “‘But Obviously not for Me:’ Robots, Laboratories and the Defiant Identity of Elder Test Users,” Sociology of Health & Illness (2010). Cited by Arlene Astell, “The preservation of self-image: Understanding the technology adoption patterns of older adults,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 12.

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Footnote 13

World Café participant in Sixsmith, Andrew, et al. “Middle-aged and older adults’ information and communicative technology access: A realist review,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 16.

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Footnote 14

McGill, Jena, et al. “Emerging Technological Solutions to Access to Justice Problems: Opportunities and Risks of Mobile and Web-based Apps,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 19.

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Footnote 15

Davies, Theresa Claire, et al., The impact of emerging technology, p. iii.

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Footnote 16

Nardon, Luciara, et al. “Socio-cognitive influences on innovation,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 3.

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Footnote 17

Nardon, Luciara, et al., Socio-cognitive influences on innovation, p. 4.

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Footnote 18

Bouffaron, Pierrick. Impression 3D : Les prémisses d’une nouvelle (r)évolution industrielle ? (2014), p. 8. Cited by Blum, Guillaume, “3D printing: From technical marvel to economic and social issues,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 18.

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Footnote 19

Lemieux, Victoria. “Blockchain technology for record-keeping: Help or hype?” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 13.

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Footnote 20

Duarte, Fabio, and Carlo Ratti. “Smart cities, big data, and the internet of things,” IEEE Standards Education eZine, 6, 4 (November 10, 2016).

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Footnote 21

Judge, Elizabeth, et al. “Privacy and the electorate: Big data and the personalization of politics,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 15.

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Footnote 22

Hermida, Alfred. “The new information power-brokers: Gatekeeping in hybrid digital media,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 6.

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Footnote 23

Judge, Elizabeth, et al., Privacy and the electorate, p. 29.

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Footnote 24

Perley, David, et al. “Supporting Indigenous Language and Cultural Resurgence with Digital Technologies,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 23.

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Footnote 25

Dawson, Peter. “The design and development of digital return platforms for Northern Indigenous heritage,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016).

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Footnote 26

Perley, David, et al., Supporting Indigenous language and cultural resurgence, p. 10.

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Footnote 27

Perley, David, et al., Supporting Indigenous language and cultural resurgence, p. 10.

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Footnote 28

Dawson, Peter, The design and development of digital return platforms, p. 32.

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Footnote 29

Turin, Mark, et al. “Digital heritage access for language and culture in First Nations communities,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 2.

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Footnote 30

Wiebe, Sean, et al. “Dominant Technological Paradigms: Impacts for Education Systems and Policy,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 6.

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Footnote 31

Wiebe, Sean, et al. Dominant Technological Paradigms, p. 30, citing Mark Pegrum, From blogs to bombs: The future of digital technologies in education. Crawley, Australia: UWA Publishing (2009).

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Footnote 32

DeCoito, Isha. “The digital gap: Access, innovation, and impact in Aboriginal communities,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report (October 2016), p. 3.

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