Bridging social and technical worlds 

New prof brings unique perspective to Concordia, Congress

By Russ Cooper

ENCS General Studies Unit professor Govind Gopakumar. Magnifying glass

ENCS General Studies Unit professor Govind Gopakumar.

“I really like Montreal and I’ve had some great experiences since coming to Concordia,” says one of the newest additions to the ENCS General Studies Unit, professor Govind Gopakumar.

It’s been just more than seven months since Gopakumar joined the GSU after completing his PhD at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. in the field of Science, Technology and Society, an interdisciplinary field heavily weighted towards engineering, but balanced by many aspects of the social sciences.

His position, straddling the social and the technical, has led him to his first Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Gopakumar will be presenting his research as a member of the Society of International Development, one of more than 70 academic societies attending the conference.

His research focuses on the social and technical dynamics of change in urban infrastructure. “When it comes to how infrastructures such as energy or transportation evolve over time, you often would think they’re guided purely by technical reasoning, but there are often societal and political choices,” he says, pointing to the revamp of the Turcot Interchange as a current example (see Journal, Oct. 15, 2009).

By the same token, at Congress he’s aiming to promote technology to the development studies community to help them understand its importance with regard to development of any kind.

“Often when someone in arts and science thinks about technology, it’s thought about in an institutional manner. But what’s often missed is the technical basis for some decisions,” he says.

“Why a water supply is designed a certain way is often a product of the water supply network; the nature of the valves, the pressure throughout the system… these technical decisions aren’t understood well enough by development practitioners. That’s something I hope I can help with.”

A significant portion of his research looks at a relatively new governance strategy called the public-private partnership (PPP), “a cooperative venture between the public and private sectors, built on the expertise of each partner, that best meets clearly defined public needs through the appropriate allocation of resources, risks and rewards,” as defined by the Canadian Council on Public-Private Partnerships.

By examining PPPs, he’s primarily interested in the durability of water supply systems in developing areas. For his PhD fieldwork, he closely examined that of a few cities (Bangalore, Chennai, and Kochi) in his native India where, “there is a lot of change happening very rapidly,” he says.

In addition to teaching the undergraduate class ENCS 392: Impact of Technology in Society this fall, Gopakumar is preparing to conduct research on how the infrastructure needs of Canada’s First Nations communities are being met and sustained.

He’s hoping to study past PPPs in Quebec and Ontario to adapt successes into remote First Nations communities with the goal of creating long-lasting water systems.


Concordia University