Meet the Head of Department
As the Head of the Business IT Department at the IT University of Copenhagen, Lene Pries-Heje manages 40 researchers working in the intersection between digital technologies, businesses and organizations, and people. She finds that developments within AI, among other areas, raise important issues that require researchers to contribute even more directly to development.
Artificial Intelligence, blockchain and Internet of Things are technologies that are rapidly changing our society – and the consequences are difficult to predict.
Should we let IT systems make decisions about how job centers should help job-seekers? How does the constant collection of personal data affect us as citizens of a democratic society? And how can a company involve its stakeholders in digital development?
ITU's Business IT Department counts just over 40 researchers who work with these kinds of questions. And these are important issues, because the changes that come with digital development are of fundamental importance to our society, says Head of Department Lene Pries-Heje.
“New technologies are challenging countries across the globe, but especially democratic societies like ours. There is a risk that technology will run ahead of us and end up controlling things we had not imagined, before we realize it. So as a department, we should help get Denmark on par with the development and help figure out what we actually want as a society,” she says.
Business and privacy blend together
Some of the department’s researchers focus on how technology can support companies and organizations, and are also interested in how IT can generate new business models and products. Others investigate the societal implications of technology - for instance the issue of ethics in relation to the design of IoT products.
According to Lene Pries-Heje, however, the two perspectives will increasingly merge, as IT sneaks into all parts of our professional and private lives.
"Previously, we thought of IT systems as something we had in the workplace, but today business and our private lives are increasingly blending together. For example, when companies want to make automatic shopping lists by looking at what is in our refrigerators. There we have the business perspective on the one hand and the private sphere on the other. So when we help a company, there are also some citizens on the other side whose privacy needs to be taken into account,” she says.
Technology cannot be seen as isolated, but must be understood in its interaction with the individual and society – including the public sector.
"When researching how new technology is introduced into businesses and society, it is also necessary to understand the legislation and governance structures around digitization. Since we are entering new territory at the moment, we may not even know how to regulate in order to achieve societal benefits from the new digital products,” says Lene Pries-Heje.
Researchers should influence development
Uncertainty about the consequences of new technology calls for researchers to engage even more in – and perhaps even try to influence – the development, says Lene Pries-Heje.
“Digitization brings a lot of new opportunities and challenges, and we do not yet know how to ensure a positive development. Here, we need researchers to contribute,” she says.
For example, researchers can make their influence felt through research collaborations with various stakeholders.
"This could be research collaborations with public authorities in terms of looking at the effects of digitization and possibly recommending changes – of course without making the decisions. The interaction with the authority will itself lead to a more direct influence,” she says.
The Head of Department recognizes that a more active role challenges the ideal of the neutral, observing researcher.
"The big challenge is how we can get involved without abandoning the ideal of being independent researchers. However, the situation requires that we consider how much we can do. That is one of the things that the department will focus on in the future,” she says.
Lene Pries-Heje points out that the department’s researchers are already doing projects with a good balance.
“For example, we have researchers in the European Blockchain Center who are currently exploring what the blockchain techniques can do, and what opportunities and challenges they present for Danish society. Technologies can be useful and give value, but they can also be the opposite,” she says.
In addition, the department contributes to the public debate and to the development of new digitization strategies, for instance through Professor Brit Ross Winthereik's role as digital advisor (‘vismand’), she says.
Furthermore, researchers have an influence on the future generation of IT specialists.
“Our programmes prepare students to lead digital transformation. At the same time, giving them an understanding of ethics and morals, and the consequences of digital solutions in general, is a key element. We give the students an understanding of the responsibility you have when helping to create new digital solutions. This is also an important way of engaging in society,” says Lene Pries-Heje.
Technology is not a ‘black box’
Lene Pries-Heje believes that one of the department’s greatest strengths is its location at the IT University – close to digital designers and computer scientists who know the technologies from within.
"Technology is not a ‘black box’ to us. The vast majority of researchers in this department understand the underlying technologies. But at the same time, we understand the societal and organizational consequences of technology,” she says.
In addition, she believes that the department’s versatile composition of research profiles is an advantage.
“We have very competent researchers with very different profiles – anthropologists, economists, computer scientists – so even within the department there is great interdisciplinarity. I think this is a strength, also research-wise. The change that society is undergoing means that we have to work together,” she says.
Lene Pries-Heje is Associate Professor and Head of the Business IT Department at the IT University of Copenhagen. She has an MSc in Computer Science and Business Administration (1991) from Copenhagen Business School and a PhD in Information Systems (2009) from ITU. From 1991-2005 she worked as an IT project manager, Chief Consultant and Executive Manager. After her PhD, she worked as an Assistant Professor at Copenhagen Business School before returning to ITU in 2011.