Today, the user experience is a key consideration in the development of digital technologies. But this was not always the case. COST has played a significant role in shaping research into social aspects of digital technologies, consolidating and broadening the academic community working in this area.
Italian sociologist Professor Leopoldina Fortunati of the University of Udine has conducted extensive research in gender studies, cultural processes and digital technologies and has been involved for more than 20 years in COST.
COST50: How did you first get involved with COST?
Prof. Fortunati: My involvement with COST began around 1996. I first participated in COST Action 248 that looked at possible future European telecommunications users. This Action took a very innovative perspective for the time and opened the topic to the social sciences. This was the first time that the concept of a user and their role and requirements were brought into telecommunications. It was a highly formative experience. I met a lot of new colleagues, very many of whom I am still in contact with.
This is a significant characteristic of COST: the formation of persistent networks that continue beyond the end of any single Action. The nature of COST is to enable and amplify the cross-fertilisation of ideas through international networks of scholars. It enables the construction of very stable and meaningful relationships.
COST50: How did your involvement with COST evolve?
Prof. Fortunati: I then followed up with another Action – COST Action 269 on User aspects of ICTs – essentially a follow-up on the first initiative. Again, this was a very productive experience, which also opened relations with colleagues in China and Australia. The Action organised workshops, PhD training schools and other initiatives for early career academics in Europe.
In 2001 I joined a third Action – COST Action A20 on The Impact of the Internet on the Mass Media in Europe. This Action I discovered via the COST newsletter and thought that it would be interesting. The Action was, again, a very future-orientated project.
Further Actions followed looking at the increasing influence of technologies on society including COST Action 298 on participation in the ‘Broadband Society’ and COST Action IS1202 on the nature and dynamics of working in a virtual environment. My last COST Action was FP1104 on new possibilities for print media and packaging looking at hybridisation between traditional sectors and new digital initiatives.
This is a significant characteristic of COST: the formation of persistent networks that continue beyond the end of any single Action”Professor Leopoldina Fortunati, Senior Professor of Sociology of Communication and Culture
COST50: You also took on managerial roles in the COST structure?
Prof. Fortunati: Yes, from 2002 I was appointed as the Italian representative on COST’s Technical Committee on Social Sciences and helped to incorporate the Humanities into the area too. Then in 2006 I was appointed to the Domain Committee on Individuals, Societies, Cultures and Health (ISCH). I did a lot of work for COST! I would say that it was my main academic engagement outside the university. My life in COST has been very meaningful and very satisfactory. I could see how the community of scholars evolved, developed and stayed connected. COST is especially important to the scientific community in Europe inspiring a spirit of cooperation in a very sustainable and productive way.
COST50: What is the secret of COST’s success?
Prof. Fortunati: COST has always been highly interdisciplinary compared to other programmes. Interdisciplinarity is in its DNA. This is a distinct advantage for COST and is also key to explaining why its initiatives have succeeded at both intellectual and scientific levels. For example, my area has benefited enormously from bringing together technical engineers and sociologists, which in turn has had a tremendous impact on how the technologies we use today have evolved.
An example is the COST strategic workshop on social robotics that I helped organise in 2013. This was the first time such an event had been held at the European level and brought together the technology community and the social sciences. The event helped to better understand what was needed in this area and established collaborations between truly diverse research communities.
COST50: How do you see the impact of COST across academia in Europe?
Prof. Fortunati: I think that COST can have a tremendous impact on personal careers. It can be greatly beneficial for younger generations of scholars, as it enables them to rapidly build their own international networks. A new generation of academics now see themselves as more European, embracing connections within Europe, recognising the worth of European unity and a common purpose across the continent. These networks are particularly important, especially when there is a global problem, like COVID19, as it allows scientific forces to be put together very quickly and solutions achieved in a short time.
This is good for Europe and the world – but also good for the individuals as it enables them to acquire a new autonomy and to create new structures within and between their institutions that allow younger people with new ideas to be recognised outside traditional structures.
In this context COST has been especially important for women and diversity. It has given the possibility to women working across a wide variety of topics to build new platforms and to receive significant recognition for their work. It has helped to raise women’s voices and build scientific networks at the European level.