Value-Sensitive Design of Unmanned Aerial Systems: Using Action Research to Bridge the Theory-Practice Gap

Value-Sensitive Design of Unmanned Aerial Systems: Using Action Research to Bridge the Theory-Practice Gap

Tabitha Andersen, Dylan Cawthorne
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/IJT.2021070102
(Individual Articles)
No Current Special Offers


What happens when an engineer attempts to address the value-neutral paradigm and the holistic deficits in engineering science? This paper sets out to account for the interplay between an unmanned aerial system engineer acting as a “champion” of value sensitive design (VSD) and their more objectivist research organization. Action research methods are used by the authors in an attempt to implement VSD in a real-world research organization and thereby bridge the theory-practice gap. Primary empirical data are collected which indicate the engineer has internalized and often utilizes a VSD approach. Both barriers and catalysts to wider adoption of VSD within the organization are experienced, and recommendations for overcoming paradigmatic, strategic, structural, and cultural barriers are addressed. This work demonstrates how action research can be used to shift engineering away from a value-neutral paradigm towards the value-sensitive approach advocated by the authors.
Article Preview


In this work, we use action research - conducted at the Unmanned Aerial Systems Center at the University of Southern Denmark - to bridge the theory-practice gap by implementing value sensitive design in a real-world engineering context.

Action Research

“Action research is an orientation to knowledge creation that arises in a context of practice and requires researchers to work with practitioners” (Bradbury-Huang, 2010). Unlike conventional social science, action research’s purpose is not primarily or solely to understand social arrangements, but to effect desired change as a path to generating knowledge and empower stakeholders. We may therefore say that action research represents a transformative orientation to knowledge creation in that it seeks “to take knowledge production beyond the gate-keeping of professional knowledge makers” (Bradbury-Huang, 2010). The action research approach is chosen for the study to promote the use of value sensitive design in a transparent, accountable, and contextually-aware way.

Value Sensitive Design and the Theory-Practice Gap

Value sensitive design (VSD) is a theoretically grounded, interdisciplinary approach to technological development which actively considers ethics, human values, and the social impacts of the technology during the design process (B. Friedman & Hendry, 2019; B. Friedman, Kahn, Borning, & Huldtgren, 2013). VSD's theoretical construct includes three main phases: 1. conceptual, 2. empirical, and 3. technological as shown in Figure 1. The conceptual phase focuses on human values, stakeholder engagement - of both directly and indirectly impacted stakeholders – and ethical considerations. Philosophers of technology, social scientists, applied ethicists, and technology ethicists are particularly well-suited to the work in the conceptual phase. The empirical phase is used to explore and understand the interactions of the technology with individual people and society more broadly; this phase may be conducted by social scientists. The technological phase is where the inputs from the conceptual and empirical phases are embodied within the technology - a process sometimes referred to as the translation of human values to design requirements (van de Poel, 2013). The VSD process is iterative and interactional, with each input or design change in one phase impacting the others. VSD utilizes a holistic worldview where the inputs of multiple stakeholders – even critics - are included in the design process (Cuppen, Pesch, Remmerswaal, & Taanman, 2016).

Figure 1.

The value sensitive design approach consists of three inter-related phases: 1. conceptual, 2. empirical, and 3. technological. Graphic by the authors, based on (B. Friedman et al., 2013).


Despite being developed over 20 years ago and being the subject of hundreds of academic research articles, VSD’s application within real engineering projects has been limited. In one study, 219 publications about VSD were identified, but only 17 of these utilized the approach to actually build technology (Winkler & Spiekermann, 2018). The application of VSD within the public sector is more opaque than within academia, and companies claiming to utilize a VSD approach is also limited.

In this paper we employ action research to uncover and point to theoretically and empirically founded paradigmatic, strategic, structural, and cultural reasons why uptake of VSD may be limited, as well as providing solutions to overcoming some of these barriers in an attempt to bridge this theory-practice gap.


Theoretical Grounding

We will begin by explicating relevant theoretical groundings to better contextualize the empirical work, which follows in the Methods section.

Complete Article List

Search this Journal:
Volume 15: 1 Issue (2024)
Volume 14: 1 Issue (2023)
Volume 13: 2 Issues (2022)
Volume 12: 2 Issues (2021)
Volume 11: 2 Issues (2020)
Volume 10: 2 Issues (2019)
Volume 9: 2 Issues (2018)
Volume 8: 2 Issues (2017)
Volume 7: 2 Issues (2016)
Volume 6: 2 Issues (2015)
Volume 5: 2 Issues (2014)
Volume 4: 2 Issues (2013)
Volume 3: 4 Issues (2012)
Volume 2: 4 Issues (2011)
Volume 1: 4 Issues (2010)
View Complete Journal Contents Listing