Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Rubén Mancha on Teaching How New Technologies are Driving Change

Interview by Ken Freitas MBA’87, director of the IoT for Good Lab

This spring, I had the opportunity to ask Professor Rubén Mancha to share his thoughts and perspectives on bringing new technologies and innovation to Babson students.

IoT is receiving lots of attention – from the media, business, technologists, researchers, and more. In your opinion, why all the attention? Why is IoT important?

When I first discuss IoT with my students, I share some quotes from the 1920s and 1960s:

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole”

– Nikola Tesla, in an interview with Colliers Magazine, 1926

“….by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies—including cities—will be translated into information systems”

– Marshall McLuhan (media scholar at the University of Toronto) in “Understanding Media,” 1964

In other words, to unlock innovation opportunities while technology continues to evolve, we cannot isolate or understand the role of IoT in business and society apart from robotics, cloud computing, user interfaces (e.g., augmented reality), and artificial intelligence.

While the central ideas behind IoT have been around for almost a century, it has only been in the last decade that advancements in telecommunications, standards, application programming interfaces (APIs), sensors, batteries, cloud computing services, etc. have made possible the explosion of internet-connected devices we are witnessing. It is a significant development that enables a data-driven enterprise and business models around data. At the same time, we should not lose perspective on how IoT is a piece of a large number of digital engines driving the digital transformation of processes and business models.

How is your approach to teaching IoT technology at Babson different?

I have found a particular approach to teaching technology at Babson. There are several significant differences. First, I believe it’s essential that the emphasis is not just on the technology and its capabilities, but on how it drives change. Students need to understand new technologies, but it’s even more important that they understand where these technologies are going to take business, how they will drive new business processes, and how they will change existing business models and society. Also, as Babson is not a technical school, I emphasize how technology impacts business strategy and the consequences of technology for business action.  

Second, we focus on the convergence of technologies. IoT has emerged as an incredible new means for innovation, but it’s essential that students see IoT as one part of a broader landscape of technological change—one that also includes artificial intelligence, blockchain, smart contracts, robotics, and augmented reality.

Third, I teach IoT to allow students to work in agile teams (following SCRUM methodologies), conduct experiments, learn about hardware and programming, and gain confidence working at the intersection of the digital and physical worlds. In this sense, IoT offers us a set of tools for students to acquire skills that are critical for the digital economy.

What are some of the ways you help students develop the ability to create both economic and social value using technology / IoT?

A focus of my research is Responsible Digital Innovation—how organizations can innovate responsibly using digital technologies. I bring cases have written and findings of my research into the classroom to facilitate the discussion of economic vs. social value and identify strategies by which both can be pursued at the same time.

I believe my role as an instructor is to lead honest conversations in the classroom that include social and economic tradeoffs, offer students strategies to tackle those difficult questions, and help them confront them. As entrepreneurs and future business leaders, our students should be aware of their own values and feel comfortable navigating the tradeoffs between social and economic outcomes.

What about the trade-offs?  Balancing social and economic value is a challenge for managers. Does technology make finding that balance more difficult?

In my research, I have found that when not deployed with great care, technologies—particularly the emerging ones such as AI and blockchain—increase the disconnect between organizational values and the actions of the people in charge of implementing them. We have numerous recent cases of companies such as Facebook and Wells Fargo using digital innovations against their stated organizational values. My co-author David Nersessian and I have labeled this the “responsibility gap” of digital innovation.  To bridge this gap, we need to regain focus on the ultimate importance of the human experience and devise digital innovation methodologies that bring responsibility and ethics to the core of the innovation process.

How would you characterize the potential for IoT technology to create social value?

IoT can create social value by resulting in innovations that minimize potential harm or actively create social good (i.e., social innovations).

The responsible development of IoT technologies results in solutions that better anticipate negative consequences or even act to counteract them. For example, sensor-rich and networked engines can detect operational anomalies before they result in failure.

IoT also has great potential to do good, to lead to novel solutions that primarily serve a social purpose. There are already many examples. In disaster response, drones loaded with sensors are helping find and rescue earthquake victims buried in collapsed buildings. As another example, IoT has improved our ability to understand climate change’s influence on bodies of water by allowing us to better monitor their temperature and chemical composition.

How does the IoT for Good Lab help you as a faculty member?

It’s a great resource for faculty to get together and discuss technology: share perspectives on what’s emerging, how to integrate technology into our research and teaching, and share best practices to create unique hands-on learning experiences for our students.

What prompted you to develop your course, MIS 9550: Innovating with Wearable Technology?

The elective spun off an agile prototyping project I developed for the MS in Entrepreneurial Leadership (MSEL). After taking the core information technology course, our MBA students were asking for the opportunity to work with emerging technologies.

The goal of the course is to offer students hands-on experience in agile innovation. It is designed to help students gain confidence in learning new technologies. I know that after graduation, they’ll face a stream of new technologies. I can only guess what those technologies will be, but the course makes sure they’ll have the skills and confidence to learn them and manage them effectively and responsibly.

In your opinion, what has been the impact of the UN Global Goals?

The UN Global Goals offer a useful framework to think about the most critical challenges we face and what we can do to solve them. In class, we look at use cases in the context of the Global Goals and use them as a starting point for our discussions.