Ethan Zuckerman

Clinical Education and Public Interest Technology

Published Originally by MIT Public Interest Technologist
Source: Claudio Rousselon

By Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, MIT
Co-founder and Vice-Chair, Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

Most college-level educators and university administrators know clinical work is part of the professional training of almost all doctors and lawyers. While still enrolled in their degree programs, medical and law students are expected to assist “real” clients under the direction of a licensed physician or lawyer. The assumption is that budding professionals – once they have garnered the necessary terminology and relevant procedural norms – learn better by doing, rather than just listening to faculty members talk about the challenges students will face once they graduate. Because people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake, students in both medical and law clinics must be closely supervised.

I am going to argue that students preparing to work in careers involving public interest technology need a clinical component to their studies, too.  They require carefully constructed opportunities to experience first-hand the reactions of multiple stakeholder groups when technology change is being implemented.  Otherwise, they will not be able to grasp the responsibilities that will fall to them, including their accountability to one or more publics.  Not only must universities be accountable when they intervene in the world-at-large, but student technologists must also be accountable for the impacts they may have on people’s lives. Case studies presented in a traditional classroom format are not enough to help future practitioners internalize the ethical dilemmas they face and the impacts they are likely to cause.  By continuously interacting with the public, future public interest technologists can build a “personal theory of practice” to guide them when they make difficult decisions in the future. Indeed, unless students have a chance to interact directly with a range of publics, I do not believe they will learn how to shoulder responsibility for their actions.

I teach two Clinics at MIT – one aimed at helping cities and towns assess their cybersecurity risks, and another aimed at helping communities resolve local political battles over proposals to build renewable energy facilities. These are not what are sometimes called “Studios” in architecture and urban planning departments. In Studios, faculty members negotiate a semester-long design assignment for a public or private client that ends with a class presentation at the conclusion of the course. The students do the work required on-campus, and the client responds to what the class produces. Rarely, however, do the students in the studio product interact directly with the range of stakeholders for whom the proposed design will represent gains and losses of various kinds. By contrast, a Clinic begins with a written agreement spelling out the deliverables the students and faculty promise to produce for the public, as well as the confidentiality rules they promise to follow while they are working.  Like a law clinic, our Clinic’s services are free.

To illustrate further, I will describe the MIT Cybersecurity Clinic and the Renewable Energy Facility Siting Clinic in a bit more detail. In the first four weeks of the term, students in both Clinics complete four online modules – one a week (about 3 – 5 hours of self-paced effort) – to ensure that they understand the relevant theory and practice. They also review video case studies and participate in role-play simulations. Then, they take an exam.  If they don’t pass the exam, they must drop the course. Assuming they pass, they join an assigned student team to work with a pre-designated client community.  The client is assured the students will be ready to help because they have passed the exam. The student teams meet weekly with the client community for the rest of the semester – sometimes via Zoom and sometimes in person. The students assist in data gathering to be sure the community has the technical input it needs to meet minimum cybersecurity standards or facility siting requirements defined by prevailing governmental policy, law or “best practice.” In the renewable energy facility siting case, all the stakeholders seek to reach an agreement in a by-invitation problem-solving setting (that is not open to the press). The Clinic’s Cybersecurity Assessment is delivered in draft for preliminary reactions, and then in final form, to the chief elected official. It is a confidential document. Over the past four years, client agencies have used our confidential cybersecurity clinic reports to redirect and prioritize internal conversations about what needs to be done to help cities meet minimum cybersecurity standards.

The Renewable Energy Facility Siting Clinic ends when a facility owner – who has been part of Clinic-hosted weekly conversations with their critics – offers a revised description of how they are prepared to alter their previous proposal (that stimulated public opposition). If the developer follows through, all the stakeholders will speak at a public hearing about the negotiated revisions to the original proposal. If the developer wants community support this time around, it needs to include whatever changes and negotiated community benefits were key to reaching a consensus in the clinic-sponsored dialogue.

In this case, the clinic is the primary locus for (confidential) community negotiations. The university as a learning community provides a protected space for joint problem-solving, but it does NOT offer a preferred solution to an existing problem or conflict. Rather, the goal of the Clinic is to build institutional capacity – helping a community address its disagreements by facilitating a process of informed consensus building. In my view, clinics offer the university a chance to meet its ethical and social responsibilities while providing students with a chance to learn “by doing.”

This kind of clinical education could be offered to students in any engineering, science, humanities, management, or design field.  Schools that want their students to learn about public interest technology, should provide carefully supervised clinics. Only by figuring out how to be accountable to a public of some kind, will students learn the importance of trust building and collaborative problem-solving. By adding a clinical component to university instruction in public interest technology, I believe that such programs can train future public interest technologists who are truly equipped with the essential tools and ethical commitments they ought to have.

Lawrence Susskind