Interdisciplinary Approach: Illinois Tech Joins Alliance With Aim to Explore Public Interest Technology



In the early 2000s Institute of Design Associate Professor Laura Forlano researched community wireless networks, the early, hyperlocal “Wi-Fi networks” created by cities and other municipalities. That was her introduction to the think tank New America, which was founded as the New America Foundation in 1999. New America focuses on public interest technology, or using technology for the public good. 

So when New America, along with the Ford Foundation and Hewlett Foundation, created the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) in 2019 to bring positive impact to communities around the globe, Forlano was moved to action. PIT-UN seeks to advance the field of public interest technology by focusing on the university ecosystem—where, it says, “talent, skills, and ideas are born.”

“One of the interesting things about PIT-UN is that it’s not only for research, or it may not even primarily be about research,” Forlano says. “It’s that there should be many ways for students to become more aware of the fact that technologies have politics, but also that their own careers might have different trajectories than they might imagine and that there is a huge opportunity for them to work with nonprofits or with government.”

Forlano found other Illinois Tech faculty members to help shepherd the university into PIT-UN.

Fellow ID faculty members, Associate Professor Weslynne Ashton and Associate Professor Ruth Schmidt, joined Forlano in the venture, along with other Illinois Tech faculty members—including Associate Professor of History Mar Hicks, Professor of Philosophy Elisabeth Hildt, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Cindy Hood, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities and Media Studies Carly Kocurek, and Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics Sonja Petrovic—to submit an application that highlighted how the university’s faculty, research, centers, curriculum, and programs fit within PIT-UN’s mission.

In February 2022 the university was among five new members to join PIT-UN.

PIT-UN will provide Illinois Tech with a range of opportunities, including funding for faculty projects, creating professional networks with faculty members at the 47 other member universities, and career-related activities for students. The common thread is an emphasis on using technology for good, which aligns with Illinois Tech’s mission and vision to advance technology and progress for all.

“[PIT-UN members have] gotten funding for a research project or funding for an educational, pedagogical project, or funding to do a campus event or career-related events,” Forlano says. “One of the big reasons for us to want to join is to find ways to fund interdisciplinary research across the different departments and to help us to jumpstart some initiatives at Illinois Tech that link different faculty. That’s one clear motivator.”

So far, Forlano has taken part in two PIT-UN orientation sessions. She and the other seven lead faculty members are meeting soon to determine how the university can chart its path forward as a member of PIT-UN. 

Photo: [First row, from left] Laura Forlano, Weslynne Ashton, Mar Hicks, and Elisabeth Hildt; [second row, from left] Cindy Hood, Carly Kocurek, Sonja Petrovic, and Ruth Schmidt