Netta Iivari: We need technology design that empowers people

Professor and leader of the INTERACT research unit, Netta Iivari, shares her journey into academia and her insights into technology design, empowerment and more.
Netta Iivari is a professor of Information Systems and leader of the INTERACT research unit.

Growing fond of critical and qualitative research

Professor Netta Iivari first entered the university to study cultural anthropology, and she visioned herself to be working as a journalist one day. As a part of her master's degree, she also studied information processing science as a minor subject.

Around the time of Iivari’s graduation, Nokia was living in its golden age and information processing science was a lucrative industry. Having studied it as a minor, Iivari was hired to work in a project which inspired her to get another master’s degree – at this time in information processing science.

Iivari says that initially, she was not that interested in the IT industry. However, once she was a PhD student in Information Systems, she noticed that the circulating themes were quite humanistic and familiar to her. The co-creative, human-centric starting point to technology-design was remarkably interesting for Iivari. Her humanistic background helped to enhance her understanding of this starting point.

“When I was studying cultural anthropology, I completed my BA and MA theses on the topic of young women’s relationships with TV. This is when I also gained an interest in the co-evolution between humans and technology and discovered qualitative research as my true passion,” Iivari says.

While studying cultural anthropology, Iivari also took courses on political science and women’s studies. She was particularly intrigued by Foucault’s philosophy and thinking. Iivari grew fond of the critical research tradition and realised a research career was more inspiring for her than journalism.

The critical, qualitative, and multidisciplinary approaches have been brought through in Iivari’s research ever since the beginning.

Empowering children

Iivari’s current research focus is on empowering children through technology-design and making practices, and she oversees the INTERACT research unit, which focuses on information systems and human-centric technology design. The INTERACT research unit consists of 30 people who are collaborating on different projects, one which is the Make-A-Difference Project, funded by the Academy of Finland.

In this project, Iivari and her colleagues have been able to dive deep into the prevailing questions about children’s technology education and empowerment – for example, how to strengthen children’s agencies and voice in relation to technology design.

The Make-A-Difference project has led Iivari and her colleagues to formulate guidelines for teachers regarding STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics).

As requested by the city of Oulu, Iivari and her colleagues have also explored the problematics of bullying in their design sessions with children. To conceptualise the issue, Iivari and her colleagues have used methods such as “design fiction” and “theatre of the oppressed.” These methods encouraged children to imagine and conceptualise digital futures free of bullying while involving the whole school community to brainstorm together the ways in which bullying could be tackled using digital solutions.

“Aside from this project, we also conducted a thorough review of literature on the recent developments in child-computer interaction research, which has also enabled us to tremendously grow our expertise during the past few years,” Iivari explains.

Empowering children regarding technology design and making practices is just one of the contexts of Iivari’s team's research. In another, recent project, Iivari and her colleagues are seeking out the ways in which co-creation between different actors in the university could be supported to promote gender equality.

These projects highlight the critical tradition that is present in Iivari’s research, as they aim to challenge the prevailing structures while also striving to empower marginalised groups, such as women and children.

Iivari also values the INTERACT unit’s emphasis on the transdisciplinary approach to research. In addition to Iivari having a multidisciplinary background herself, people working in INTERACT often come from different backgrounds as well.

Future directions

Iivari thinks that the GenZ profiling theme has managed to clarify the contributions that the field of Information systems and Human-computer interaction (HCI) can bring to the study of digitalisation. In particular, through the co-creation theme, the GenZ project has supported the profiling of these fields as the builders of bridges between human sciences and IT.

In the future, Iivari wants to continue working on empowering people and emphasising their agencies in relation to technology use. She is hoping to be able to work with different groups of people and advance the critical tradition in technology design.

Iivari also notes that it is becoming more and more evident how technologies mediate all human lifespan and different development stages.

“I think that adapting the critical mindset towards technologies will become more common among people. As a society, we will become more active in relation to technologies and learn not to take them as given. People will also learn to request solutions that are truly more ethical and better for them,” Iivari says.

“Digitalisation is developing rapidly, and in the midst of it all, the core GenZ themes – co-evolution, co-creation and resilience – will remain topical even though the project itself is ending soon,” she adds.

Last updated: 7.2.2023