Profile of new professor: bridge-builder who serves the climate
Steffen Dalsgaard has been appointed a professor at the Department for Business IT at the IT University of Copenhagen and has, among other things, the ambition to generate and disseminate knowledge of how technological climate initiatives work.
If you ask the IT University’s recently appointed professor, Steffen Dalsgaard, about why his research is important, his answer will often begin as far away from the Western world’s glass and steel buildings that you can get, geographically as well as culturally: in Papua New Guinea. When he was a young researcher, he spent almost two years doing field studies in the Pacific state, where the upwards of seven million inhabitants speak 800 different languages. At a point he attended an election meeting where some of the political candidates presented the voters with a new idea:
"They explained that they’d come up with a great concept about financing development by selling carbon credits. We have such a big forest area, they said, and we have lots of carbon, and we’re going to sell it. They’d completely misconstrued what carbon trading was about. Some of them actually believed that they should sell carbon a material product. They didn’t understand global economics and that it was about reducing emission of carbon. Their confusion is understandable because this issue is extremely complex; I spent a lot of time myself figuring out what kind of value chains that were at play. This tells you something about how our actions – for instance our large carbon emissions that are a result of our consumption and our lifestyle – can influence an election in a completely different location in the world. I was interested in finding out what kind of values that travel from one end of the world to another and how they change their meaning on the way. How they’re misconstrued and can change into something completely different with some very unfortunate consequences,” says Steffen Dalsgaard, who is a professor of anthropology with a focus on digital technologies.
Computers without power
What he experienced in Papua New Guinea is relevant to the IT University because digital technologies play an important and often crucial role in the many global initiatives that are launched in order to curb climate change. For instance, technology in less developed countries plays a critical role in the UN’s thirteenth sustainable development goal, which revolves around the desired global climate effort. However, according to Steffen Dalsgaard, the global billions of investments definitely do not always provide the expected results:
“Many people believe that humans in the global South will be able to manage on their own as long as they’re given some good digital technology. Around the year 2000 there was this widespread idea that we should simply develop the Internet and provide those people with mobile phones. We should build telecentres so they could skip the industrial age and jump directly into the digital age. Small farmers would be able to sell their goods directly to customers without intermediaries and everything would work faster and more efficiently. Later on it was discovered that sometimes computers were sent to locations without electricity. It hadn’t been checked if the infrastructure was ready so it would be possible to create real change. A Norwegian study showed that, in some of the locations where staff employed with various authorities could access the Internet, they mainly used it for surfing porn sites,” explains Steffen Dalsgaard, and adds that his research is to a great extent about challenging the idea that technology creates the same results everywhere. And this does not only apply to Third World countries:
“We believed that technology would provide us with more freedom and democracy, but the fact is that it has also been used very much for surveillance. We can see how the Internet hasn’t brought about the decentralisation that was expected; on the contrary, it has created enormous centralisation with a few global companies that are more or less monopolies. This shows that technology is used in contexts where we hadn’t expected it to be used.”
Steffen Dalsgaard was appointed to the IT University in 2013 and initially took part in a project called Demtech, which was a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary project that examined what digitalisation of the election process means to voters’ trust in democracy.
However, Steffen Dalsgaard’s interest in digital technologies and the urgent need to find good, sustainable solutions that can serve the climate motivated him to change tack and create his own field of research at the IT University.
“IT and digitalisation can potentially make climate change worse if we don’t handle those things in the right way. But we can also turn IT and digitalisation into advantages that can reduce our carbon footprint. For instance, we can use the technology to create much better control and monitoring of emission sources and so on, but we must be sure about what we’re doing and what kind of impact that it has,” stresses Steffen Dalsgaard.
Steffen Dalsgaard was appointed as a professor at the IT University in January 2021. He hopes that he can use his professorship to focus even more strongly than is currently the case on the necessity of nurturing partnerships across academic boundaries in the climate battle. He is going to do this internally at the university, where he hopes that he can build bridges between the various disciplines, but, not least, he will do this externally where he hopes that he can create the foundation for some sustainable climate initiatives.
Steffen Dalsgaard’s research has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years, which has resulted in a range of small and large grants. At the moment he and his four PhD students are involved in three research projects. Furthermore, the Carlsberg Foundation has just granted financial support for his new project: ‘SSH and Sustainable Business: Building a database for SSH impact on sustainability in private sector companies.’ Through this project researchers from the IT University and the Faculty of Law at Copenhagen University will map Danish companies’ sustainability activities and use of societal and humanistic expertise. Among other things, the researchers will establish a database with relevant information on the companies and classify them on the basis of keywords that relate to sustainability and various kinds of professional expertise such as social science, humanistic science, natural science and technical science.
“Our aim is to find out how much support there is for green transition among Danish companies, to what extent the companies involve social science competences and humanistic science competences in this transition and what this means to their organisation. This will provide us with the opportunity to compare how different companies work and then learn what is best practice in a field,” says Steffen Dalsgaard, who is proud of his recent appointment as a professor, but also humble:
“I feel that the IT University of Copenhagen is showing me that there’s room for me as a person and for the approach I have to IT. It also shows that the work that I’ve done has value – and I guess that’ll apply to my future work as well. In addition, I’ll have the opportunity to create new things by launching new projects and establishing new partnerships. A title means something when it comes to the way in which you’re noticed by other people and the networks of which you become a part,” says Steffen Dalsgaard.
The time for Steffen Dalsgaard’s inaugural lecture has not yet been set.
Facts about Steffen Dalsgaard
Steffen Dalsgaard (born 1975) obtained his bachelor degree and Master’s degree in anthropology and ethnography at Aarhus University. Here he also obtained his PhD by means of the project ‘All the Government’s Men: State and Leadership in Papua New Guinea,’ which was based on his own field studies in the Pacific state.
In 2013 Steffen Dalsgaard was appointed to the IT University, where he has been very active in terms of research as well as teaching.
For a few years he was the head of the BSc programme in Global Business Informatics (GBI), and he has also done research into how ‘value’ is defined and discussed across various social and cultural divides. Steffen Dalsgaard is particularly interested in how climate issues and sustainability are appraised through technologies such as, for instance, carbon credits – data that express a certain value of the relation with the climate. His ambition is to contribute to a better understanding of the climate crisis by examining how data and technologies determine the way in which people involve themselves in the climate.