tisdag 24 maj 2016

The (Un)sustainability of Imagined Future Information Societies


Last week we submitted a paper, "The (Un)sustainability of Imagined Future Information Societies" to the Future Scenarios special track at the 9th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (NordiCHI 2016). Here's how the special track was presented:

Future Scenarios
There are countless examples on how science fiction has inspired researchers and scientists. Within interaction design, there is an increasing use of fictional narratives as inspiration for design; examples include design fictions, value fictions, and future workshops.

This track aims to explore the design of design fictions; how can they be crafted towards a particular design outcome, say sustainability, or sharing? What kinds of designs can come out of them? Which lessons have been learned by those of us who use scenarios as a design method? And, lastly, we wish to collect a set of scenarios aiming for specific outcomes, for those in need.


Papers will be evaluated on the following grounds:
– How well they serve the main aim of the track: to exemplify or explore how scenarios can be crafted towards a specific outcome.
– The quality of the scenario: Is it well-crafted in relation to its intentions, and is it well-written and inspiring enough to be reused by others?

Although different people had told me about the Future Scenarios track, it was only 14 days before the deadline that I realised that the fit between the track and the results of our research project "Scenarios and Impacts of the Information Society" was near-perfect. Here's a snippet from the e-mail to my co-authors Ulrika Gunnarsson Östling, Mattias Höjer and Luciane Aguiar Borges where I floated the idea of writing a paper:

"Should we choose one (or several) of our S&I scenarios and have a go at it? There’s not much time though, the deadline is May 5 but the heavy lifting (creating scenarios) has already been done…"

Beyond the "perfect fit" between the Future Scenarios track and our research project, two other fortunate events made the paper possible. The first was the decision to bring my colleague Elina Eriksson onboard and the second was the fact that the deadline was extended by two weeks. Elina has not been part of the research project, but she - as apart from the other three co-authors - knows the conference, the research area (HCI) and the audience, and her involvement was invaluable for getting the paper together (she's the second author).

The core of the paper are the five scenarios of future information societies that were developed in the research project, but there was only space for (partially) displaying three of these scenarios in the paper itself. The framing of the paper is primarily as follows:

  1. Futures studies concerns itself with the study of possible, probable and preferable futures.
  2. Human-Computer Interaction has relatively recently (compared to futures studies' multi-decades-long history) become interested in design fiction (and critical design and speculative design etc.). 
  3. We have conducted a Futures Studies research project and here are the resulting scenarios.
  4. Here are some differences between, and some things that Human-Computer Interaction/design fiction can learn from Futures Studies.

Another framing - also contained within the paper - is:
  1. Many have made predictions about, or studied the (future) information society.
  2. Some (others) have studied the sustainability of (imagined) future societies.
  3. Few have however studied if (the visions of) future information societies are sustainable.
  4. ...but, that's exactly what we have done in our research project, and, here are our results.
  5. [Results are presented.]
  6. Most visions of future information societies are problematic in terms of sustainability (i.e. they are unsustainable). The visions of future information societies that are not or that are less problematic in terms of sustainability would instead be regarded as undesirable by many (within HCI).

Here's the previous paper that came out of the research project ("Pluralizing the future information society"), here is my blog post about the previous NordiCHI conference (two years ago) and here's the paper abstract:

Contemporary societies are facing various predicaments that need to be addressed and one of them is the issue of sustainability. The pathway to a sustainable society is not clear, and we will need to consider different developmental possibilities. But how can we do that and how do we practically think about the future in order to weigh different options against each other and make an informed decision? This paper emanates from the academic field of futures studies and it describes the results of a research project in the intersection of “the future information society” and sustainability, answering questions such as: what could the future information society look like and what would be the impact of that society be in terms of sustainability? The main stakeholders in this research has not been system developers, but rather bureaucrats, planners and policymakers, and, the overarching goal was to influence planning processes primarily at the regional (Stockholm, Sweden) level. We here present parts of the rich body of scenario materials that were developed over a period of several years, with the aim of describing possible future information societies. We will also discuss some of lessons learned and what HCI and design fiction can learn from from Future Studies in general and from this project in particular.

söndag 22 maj 2016

Sustainable development for ICT engineering students


My previous blog post was about a paper we recently submitted to the 8th Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD), a conference that sits at the intersection of 1) engineering educations, 2) sustainability and 3) pedagogics (teaching). Well, we actually submitted a second paper to that conference, "Sustainable development for ICT engineering students - “What’s in it for me?”".

I like the title and I especially like the fact that it sort of neatly builds upon and connects to a paper that me and Elina presented at the 6th EESD conference back in 2013, "It’s not fair!” - making students engage in sustainability"

Writing this paper can partly been seen as "the next step" after teaching our course on Sustainability and ICT, after doing course evaluations and after incrementally developing the course after each cycle that it has been given. The paper authors (Elina Eriksson, Daniel Pargman, Anna Björklund, Anna Kramers and Karin Edvardsson Björnberg) are all KTH teachers and we together teach three different courses about ICT and sustainability to students in three different KTH engineering programmes (Media Technology, Computer Science and Information and Communication Technology). Writing the paper gave us the chance and a reason to get together and compare our respective courses. Writing the paper did, in a sense, constitute course development.

Something really nice was that we, at the very last meeting we had (just a few days before the deadline) got an idea for the next paper we should write together (perhaps for the next EESD conference?). While the actual contents of that paper for the most are pretty hazy, we do already have a great title for it: "Educating the unreasonable engineer". The title is a play on a quote by George Bernard Shaw and I will keep you updated on the progress of that paper (perhaps sometime during the spring of 2018... - we have long lead times in the academy...).

Here's a quote from the introduction of our paper. It states the challenge we are all dealing with in our three courses:

"the three main reasons for students to apply to our three computer-related educational programmes were: 1) the reputation of the university, 2) career opportunities and 3) an interest in technology and the natural sciences. As to “contributing to a sustainable society”, this option was chosen by a meagre 8% of the new Information and Communication Technology students, 6% of the Media Technology students and a dismal 2% of the Computer Science students. Our students imagine their future selves as busy writing code, designing apps or developing media content in their future professions, but not as working with anything related to sustainability. So, how can we get this particular group of engineering students to care about topics such as climate change, ecological crises, overpopulation, overconsumption, resource depletion, energy scarcity, global poverty, inequality etc.? From the point of view of a typical student, we as teachers need to be able to answer the question “What’s in it for me?”, as well as “Why should I care?” and “What can I do?”."

And, here's the paper abstract:


The importance of sustainable development (SD) is hardly possible to refute; however, sustainable development has been a relatively peripheral subject in computer-related engineering educations. Sustainability, with its global and potentially all-encompassing connotations, is still seen by many Information and Communication Technology (ICT) students as a topic of little relevance to their future careers. So how can teachers convince these students that sustainability is a topic that can be both relevant and interesting for them? From the point of view of the student; “What’s in it for me?”.

In this paper we describe and compare our efforts to plan and teach three introductory courses on SD in three different ICT-related educational programmes at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. The courses were planned separately, but they will be analysed together. We discuss two dimensions that we have found to be imperative in our endeavour to engage our students. The first dimension is to handle the balance between sustainability on a general level versus sustainability as specifically related to ICT. The second dimension is to handle the tension between teaching facts versus an emphasis on students’ reflections and/or practicing skills. We argue that overcoming the challenge of making sustainability relevant to the students is central for successfully teaching these courses.

onsdag 18 maj 2016

Patterns of Engagement - Playing Gasuco in the classroom


We just submitted a paper to the 8th Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD), a conference that sits at the intersection of 1) engineering educations, 2) sustainability and 3) pedagogics (teaching). Our paper treats our use of the game Gasuco in our course om Media Technology and Sustainbility. Our paper is called "Patterns of Engagement: Using a board game as a tool to address sustainability in engineering educations" and the paper is written together with my colleagues Björn Hedin and Elina Eriksson.

Me and Elina have given our course for four years and we have used Gasuco in the course during the last three years. I have written about Gasuco several times on the blog, but have up until now referred to it by it's former name, Carbonopoly.

We are really happy about the results of using Gasuco in our course and we are especially happy about the game's Discussion cards - which play a prominent role also in our paper. Here are four examples of discussion cards:

The Discussion cards are also the main stars in the paper's concluding discussion:

"While it is possible to play the game competitively (there is a scoring systems), it is much more common for students to use the game as a scaffold for discussions, often flaunting the guidelines for time use, for example discussing a topic that catches their interest for five minutes instead of the allotted one or three minutes for Opportunity cards and Discussion Cards respectively. In the spirit of not playing competitively, we have also noticed that it is unusual for students to flunk other students in their role as discussion leaders. It seems to be more common for students to admit that they didn’t know very much about a topic and that they themselves feel they are not “worth” winning the card in question. While students thus can blatantly disregard the formal rules of the game, no one is happier about it than us teachers."

I think the paper is quite good and I therefore assume it will be accepted to the conference. That would mean that would for sure attend the conference and present the paper in Bruges, Belgium in the beginning of September. I have attended two EESD conferences before; 2010 in Gothenburg and 2013 in Cambridge and they were both really nice. Below is the paper abstract:


The Global Dimension in Engineering Education (GDEE) refers to all non-technical topics that will impact the engineering profession at a global level over the next couple of decades. As teachers at a Media Technology engineering programme at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, School of Computer Science and Communication, we have definitely felt that substantial amounts of ingenuity is required to make students interested in such topics, since many of the students regard them as non- central or of little interest when compared to their (non-GDEE) “core” interests, skills and aspirations.

We here describe how we have worked to overcome students’ (potential) aversion to one particular GDEE topic, sustainability, by incorporating a board game, Gasuco, into the introductory module of a course about “Media Technology and Sustainability”. We describe and analyse our use of the game in terms of “pedagogical patterns for learning” (Laudrillard, 2012).


söndag 15 maj 2016

Limits within Policy Modeling


I usually only write a maximum of two blog posts per week, but I had to extend that to a third blog post this week so as not to have a huge backlog of stuff to write about. This, the third blog post is, very appropriately about the third paper I co-authored for the second workshop on "Computing within Limits" (and that was submitted almost two weeks ago).

I was the fourth author of a paper titled "Whose future is it anyway?: Limits within Policy Modeling" and the other authors were Somya Joshi, Teresa Cerratto Pargman and Adreas Gazis.

The paper argues that politicians and policymakers have fallen in love with Big Data, or rather, with (the "extra everything" concept) Big Open Linked Data (BOLD). Visions of the future and planning for the future assume continued economic growth (etc.) and BOLD has for some become a crystal ball or a magic wand that will assure that these things will indeed happen. "In this paper we are particularly interested in the myth of increased quality, objectivity and truth that emerges from the introduction of BOLD within policy modeling." Alternative visions (for example of economic non-growth) are not contemplated or even imagined.


In the age of Big Open Linked Data (BOLD), we inhabit a landscape where future scenarios are imagined, modeled, planned for and embedded in policy. Between the euphoric techno-utopian rhetoric of the boundless potential of BOLD innovations and the dystopian view of the dangers of such innovations (e.g. ubiquitous surveillance etc.), this paper offers a critical understanding of the boundaries that are traversed by the implementation of BOLD within policy modeling. We examine BOLD as a tool for imagining futures, for reducing uncertainties, for providing legitimacy and for concentrating power. In doing so we further develop the LIMITs community’s conceptualization of the societal limitations on computing, with specific reference to the assumptions, interpretations and trust that we place in these models when making socio-environmental policy decisions. We use an illustrative case of policy modeling, which provides a much-needed critical discussion of the inherent limitations and risks as well as the promises that are offered by BOLD.

torsdag 12 maj 2016

Refactoring Society


My previous blog post was about a paper we recently submitted to the second workshop on "Computing within Limits". I actually submitted another paper, this one written together with Barath Raghavan (he's the first author) and the paper is called "Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits".

This is the second paper that I have write with Barath (the first, "Rethinking sustainability in computing: From buzzword to non-negotiable limitations" was presented at NordiCHI two years ago), and, I think our plan is to eventually extend this short paper into a journal paper.

The paper is basically an attempt to take the theories of Joseph Tainter into the world of ICT and computing. Tainter writes about the benefits, but especially about the costs of cultural/societal complexity. How complexity is the end result of solving problems and how complexity and costs - but not benefits - accrue over time since the ratio between benefits and costs suffer from a bad case of diminishing marginal utility.

As such, the topic of the paper heavily overlaps with a seminar I just held at the Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC) this week, "Cultural complexity and the impossibility of sustainability". A short paper of Tainter's was circulated before the seminar, "Resources and Cultural Complexity: Implications for Sustainability" (available online), and people who attended the seminar were supposed to have read it (about half had). Please see below first for the paper abstract and then for the invitation to the seminar.

If you are interested in Tainter and his theories, please see this blog post about his book "The collapse of complex civilizations" (1988), this blog post about his more recent book "Drilling down" (2012) and this blog post that I wrote after I heard him talk and was the beneficiary of a private conversation with him two years ago.

Refactoring Society Abstract

Research in sociology, anthropology, and organizational theory indicates that most societies readily create increasingly complex societal systems. Over long periods of time, accumulated societal complexity bears costs in excess of benefits, and leads to a societal decline. In this paper we attempt to answer a fundamental question: what is the appropriate response to excessive sociotechnical complexity? We argue that the process of refactoring, which is commonplace in computing, is ideally suited to our circumstances today in a global industrial society replete with complex sociotechnical systems. We further consider future directions for computing research and sustainability research with the aim to understand and help decrease sociotechnical complexity.


Cultural complexity and the impossibility of sustainability

Joseph Tainter’s book ”The Collapse of Complex Societies” (1988) puts forth a theory of the process and the dynamics behind the collapse of various ancient civilizations (The Roman Empire, Mesopotamia, Minoan civilisation etc.). It was almost irresistible for these to solve all societal problems in ways that increased cultural complexity, but, the process of increasing cultural complexity always goes hand in hand with increased costs for establishing and maintaining said complexity in terms of effort, resources, time, money etc.

The problem of retooling industrial societies into sustainable societies, is in this sense no different from any other problem faced by modern (or ancient) societies. Our proposed solutions tend to gravitate towards solving that problem by increasing our efforts (resources, time, money etc.) in ways that will further increase cultural and societal complexity as well as costs. Previous unsustainable infrastructures (for transportation, heating, producing food and stuff and for ”producing” energy) tend to be replaced by new, more complex structures, for example dumb electricity grids being replaced by more complex smart grids, slow trains being replaced by significantly more complex and expensive high-speed trains, adding carbon capture and storage (CCS) to existing coal power plants etc..

tisdag 10 maj 2016

Limits to the Sharing Economy


We recently submitted the camera-ready (i.e. final) version of our paper "Limits to the Sharing Economy" to the second "Computing within Limits" workshop. The paper is written by me, Elina Eriksson and Adrian Friday (Lancaster University) and it will be presented next month.

In the paper we basically point out that everything that glitters is not gold. The Sharing Economy (Collaborative Consumption etc.) glitters. We are especially interested in to what extent and how the sharing economy can be compatible with, and can lead to (environmental) sustainability - or not.

This is the second spin-off project from the (rejected) EU application* we handed in a year ago, the first being the paper that Karin Bradley and me wrote half a year ago, "The sharing economy as the commons of the 21st century". Do also have a look at the blog post I just wrote about two seminars I recently attended on Collaborative Consumption.

The process for writing the paper has really been very smooth. It is really easy to write papers with the combo Google docs + Skype. Below is the paper abstract:


There has been much interest in the Sharing Economy in recent years, accompanied with the hope that it will change and specifically make better use of existing resources. It intuitively makes sense, from a sustainability point of view, that the sharing of resources is good. It could even be said that the Sharing Economy ought to align well with Computing within Limits and its underlying premises. In this paper however, we take a critical stance and will elaborate on the intersection between the Sharing Economy and Limits (including pinpointing potential conflicts) so as to identify and discuss a ‘Limits-compliant Sharing Economy’. We argue that even though there are limits to the Sharing Economy today, it still has potential benefits for a future of scarcity - but only if the practice of sharing is approached with a dual focus on sharing and on limits at the same time. Finally we conclude that even though we have begun to explore the future of sharing, there is still a need to further develop ideas of how the underlying infrastructure for this movement will look. 

söndag 8 maj 2016

On Collaborative Consumption

I went to no less than two seminars on The Collaborative Economy/Collaborative Consumption this past week. The first seminar was organised by KTH acquaintances of mine who work in the research project "Beyond GDP growth" and the second seminar was organised by the think tank "Global Utmaning" [Global challenge], "an independent and entrepreneurial think tank that promotes long-term solutions to crises in ecological, economic and social systems". These seminars were in fact held almost back-to-back with the first being a May 2 afternoon affair and the second being a May 3 breakfast seminar. Both events had four invited guests and one person, Åsa Minoz, had in fact been invited as a speaker to both of these events.

The first seminar had four guests:
- Åsa Minoz, working with innovation policies, social innovations and social entrepreneurship together with her partner Sara Modig in their company ModigMinoz.
Fredrik Söderkvist, economist at Unionen, Sweden's largest trade union for white collar workers in the private sector.
- Emma Öhrvall, collaborative consumption activist and co-founder of Collaborative Economy Gothenburg.
- Erik Wallin, founder of BagHitchHow it works? "We connect spare capacity in vehicles with people who need to send stuff".

Short summary:
- Åsa was the most well-read and she could stand up to anyone in a discussion about collaborative consumption and related concepts. She had a whirlwind presentation where she pointed out various dichotomies, trends and contradictions.
- Fredrik started by discussing automatisation - an important issue for the 500 000 Unionen members (who, he mentioned, will be considerably fewer in the future). I don't know if he really managed to bridge automation and collaborative consumption but I did however feel that I would have been considerably more worried about current trends if I was walking in his shoes. He mentioned "creative destruction" and the "solution" was to "re-training people to professions that are well adapted to the needs of the labor market". I sounded lika a lot of hand-waving to me.
- Emma was nice and genuine. In this context she was an Åsa-in-development. She brought flavour by showing and discussing various concrete examples of collaborative consumption (Åsa was for the most part on the level "above" concrete examples).
- Erik was an entrepreneur and he talked like an entrepreneur. Big words came out of his mouth, but he had taken some shortcuts in his internal reasoning processes. He assumed that an increased market for second-hand products (Blocket/Craigslist) is always and invariably a good thing (e.g. buying someone else's old stuff instead of buying new), but, there is plenty of space for rebound effects and there are many question marks. Enlarging the marketplace (event if it's "only" the marketplace for "pre-owned" products) might be good or it might be bad from a sustainability point of view.

The moderator, Ulrika Gunnarsson Östling, asked a question about the effects of collaborative consumption on the environment. Åsa urged us to think in terms of services ("transportation") instead of products ("cars"). Emma pointed out that we have to think about how services are designed, what assumptions are designed/built in to them from the very beginning and how we manage/steer them. Erik's "contribution" was to state that it's important to encourage innovation and not steer/govern developments too much, and, that environmental concerns have to stand back at first and enter at a later stage so as not to "hinder innovation".

Erik's positon reminded me of a quote by Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!". That quote would have to be altered and a version that is customised for Erik reads like this: "It is easy for a man to argue about the benefits of something [e.g. collaborative consumption] when he so obviously benefits from the spread of that something".

I also do have to mention that Åsa's comment about the need for experimentation (instead of just talking about collaborative consumption) sounds good and is reasonable, but, could also be construed as being borderline hostile to studying (e.g. conducting research) on collaborative consumption. Why spend a lot of time studying something when the end result is just "talk" when the alternative is to do something and change the world?

The seminar was nice, but I felt that there should have been at least one person in the panel who had more qualms or was more sceptical towards collaborative consumption. The emphasis was decidedly on the (potentially) positive effects of collaborative consumption and about (unsubstantiated) hopes about the future, but, it would have been interesting to hear a more critical voice discuss problems that are present already today and some of the worries we should guard against in the future.


The second seminar asked if Collaborative Consumption was something genuinely new or yet another trend and Global Challenge had again invited four guests:
- Åsa Minoz (again), working with innovation policies, social innovations, social entrepreneurship together with her partner Sara Modig in their form ModigMinoz.
Anna Felländer, ex-chief economist, now digitisation and future economist at Swedbank
Johanna Giorgi, strategist working with sustainability aspects of economic development at Tillväxtverket [The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth]
Ulf Kristersson, member of the parliament and economic-political spokesperson for Moderaterna [The Moderate Party]

The set-up was slightly different as the moderator (Alexander Crawford) invited the speakers up to the stage in pairs. As he had prepared questions, it became more of a three-way conversation.

- Anna started off strongly with some econo-speak; unused capacities, low costs, dormant competence, decreased tax bases, perfect competition (within a platform) but a race for critical mass and quickly emerging monopolies between the platforms. Self-regulation works fine in some industries/lines of business and the sharing economy works as a catalyst, so-so in others and in yet other extern regulation is a must. Åsa followed and did her thing (see above).

Alexander asked how Sharing Economy companies that are moving towards IPOs and the stock market  (Airbnb, Über) should be regarded. Both Anna and Åsa discussed "cooperative ownership" as a possible model, e.g.g "what if every Über driver owned a small part of Über?". The gloomy alternative is that the 1% will own (also) the Sharing Economy but neither Anna nor Åsa saw that as threat and they instead put their faith in historical precedents during the process of industrialisation (factories and capital vs workers and unions).

Alexander then asked Johanna and Ulf how we can encourage positive developments and counteract the negative developments. Ulf answered that he was of three minds. As an ex-IT consultant he is enthusiastic, almost blissful about the fact that what we hoped for 10 or 15 years ago (when reading Wired and Fast Company) has or is about to happen. As an economist, he wants to cut the crap and just get all the numbers into an Excel sheet to be able to count on the effects. Finally, as a tax bureaucrat, he wants Collaborative Consumption to become a part of the legal economy. Looking at the tex needs of the state to be able to uphold promises made, you will tend to become sceptical towards new technologies and he also said (I really liked it!) that "new technologies is a lousy excuse for tax evasion".

After this point in time, I did not really take any good notes, but rather became enmeshed in my own thoughts. I did however manage to squeeze in one of the two questions that there was time for before the seminar ended. My question went something like this:
- "Many have expressed high hopes for the future. Even when some problem has been highlighted, solutions to that same problem has been emphasised in the same breath. But, I'd like to know what worries you? What keeps you awake at night?"
I don't really know that I got any great answers to that question unfortunately.

Due to the book I'm currently reading, some of my thoughts went like this:
- Many express high hopes for the future when thinking about Collaborative Consumption. It might be natural to focus on what we hope for and on potential positive effects when talking about something new.
- But imagine that this debate had been held during the first tentative steps of industrialisation (200 years ago), sometime when the battle between the old order (water power) and the new order (steam engine) was fought.
- Many would have expressed high hopes for the future (of coal and steam) also at that time.
- It is then up to each and everyone of us to discern whether industrialisation has had primarily positive or negative consequences, and, to what extent the potential for positive change has been realised.
- ...but it's not so easy, in hindsight, to say that the best solution won (water power vs steam steam).
- Same thing with the car. There were electric cars 100 years ago but the internal combustion engine won out. So, did the best solution win?
- Industrialisation as it indeed did happen was very much in line with Åsa's call for "experimentation", but, it is also possible to in hindsight see the disadvantages of to little advance thinking, steering and regulation. Stuff happens. You end up somewhere, but not necessarily where you wanted to be.

I'll finish the blog post with the unanswered question that Alexander asked at the beginning of the seminar: "Does Collaborative Consumption represent something genuinely new or not?"

onsdag 4 maj 2016

Fly or die


I went to a workshop last week, "Fly or die?". It also had a subtitle, "The future of the travelling scientist and the exchange of academic knowledge". The workshop is part of a ongoing project, "Traveling without borders", at "KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory" (I honestly didn't know we had one). From the workshop invitation:

KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory welcomes you to an exciting and somewhat different workshop. Together we seek to imagine a future where longdistance travels are scarce and airplane tickets are no longer cheap. How do we exchange ideas and scientific discoveries in that future? What can we do today, on a practical level, to develop and reevaluate the travelling scientist and the exchange of academic knowledge?
Let’s ask ourselves: What is necessary travelling? What is an essential conference? What can be discussed and decided on video chats or voice calls? To explore these questions we will collaborate in group discussions about the practice, rationale and morality of travelling.

The title "Fly or die?" relates to the expression "publish or perish" as well as to "carbon scholarship". Academics (researchers) have large CO2 footprints because we fly all over the place to work in (pan-European) research projects and attend conferences. So how can we decrease flying "without hindering the free exchange of ideas in the future"?

After a short introduction to the project, we were divided into smaller groups and discussed the question "How do we exchange ideas and scientific discoveries in the future?" for about 30 or 40 minutes before we met up again. We were also provided with a few questions to help us on our way:
- How do we travel?
- Where do we meet to work?
- How do we communicate?
- Who are part of academic in 2030-2040?

My group consisted of both people I knew (Elina Ericsson, Vlad Coroama, Jacob von Oelreich) as well as a newcomer (don't remember her name). Since our discussion was pretty much all over the place, I have tried to prune it a little. We basically started with the main question and let it carry us hither and dither.

One person in our group started by stating that "little" or "nothing" will change in the next 15 years. The exchange of ideas and the exchange of goods (through trade) has "always" been with us and "always" will. We academics "need" to travel in order to continue to exchange ideas, and, some of the current work practices would not be possible without air flight and computer-mediated communication. I found this to be limited perspective for two different reasons. The first is that I can imagine not just one but several reasons for why this could change in the next 20 or so years, e.g. peak oil, economic decline, environmental concerns etc. The second reason is that this is an exceedingly boring and unproductive position to take at a workshop where we are encouraged and tasked to think "outside the box".

The most fruitful idea in our conversation then centered around the slow movement and a recently published book (March 2016), "The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy". Here's an early (2013) draft I just found - it's perhaps a conference paper about the concept "the slow professor".

If we can't fly, then we need to rethink the frantic speed with which things happen today and make a virtue out of slowness. So what could "slow academia" imply? What would it look like? What would be the upside compared to the current situation?

We first established that there are some people who for various reasons try to avoid "excessive" (air) travel already today. Perhaps they have young children at home or an ailing parent, a large environmental consciousness, little access to funds for travelling, or, perhaps they suffer from fear of flying (or pretend to be!)? These persons could be seen as the forerunners of norms and habits that will be widespread 20 years from now. We could imagine a diverging academy where some people, or even some universities will continue to fly a lot and hang on to current criteria about what constitutes quality in the academy, while others will go for a totally different model. We speculated about the reappearance of slow travel and the equivalent of young intellectuals' "Grand Tour" which was popular from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century:

"The Grand Tour was the traditional trip of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class European young men of means, or those of more humble origin who could find a sponsor. ... It served as an educational rite of passage." (Wikipedia)


"Three hundred years ago, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-Oxbridge trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization. With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent." (The New York Times, 2008)

Perhaps there could be a special academic position, say "travelling journeyman" (the bringer of knowledge, "pollinating" the universities he passes by on his trip) - the retro-future equivalent of today's post-doctoral researchers? During that special period of your life, you are perhaps not allowed to publish (a taboo?) so as to concentrate on your personal development as an academic and on your important task of transferring knowledge between (relatively) isolated academic communities.

We could still travel to conferences, but not as often and obviously not as fast. We would then travel less frequently but for longer durations. If I go to a far-away conference in, say, the US, my hosts would be expected to help me set up a lecture tour after the conference. Conferences that are currently held every year would shift to every second or even less often. More local (national, regional) conferences would on the other hand thrive, but much of what is implied in "slow academy" would counteract young academics forming families at a young age. Travelling over land or sea to attend distant conferences would be hard on partners and on children. Slow academia would once again force people to make "irreversible" life choice at a youngish age and the academic ladder would once again be more aligned with biological age. It would be hard to start your ph.d. studies at the mature age of 30 or 40 as most people have settled down at that age (partner, children) and might also have certain life expectations that might be at odds with slow academia. The slow academic would tend to postponed children until having been established as a slow professor (e.g. until holding a permanent position).

Up until now, I have written about relatively direct effects, but we also traced out some "second-order effects". If every action has a consequence, then each consequence has another consequence and these are the second-order effects. Some car-related (unintended, unplanned-for) second-order effects are smogurban gridlockdrive-in theatres and changes in dating and courtship culture, drag racingextreme communitysuburbia etc.

We assumed that slow academia will mean also a slower pace of publishing academic paper, but also an increase in the quality of the average paper. Slow academia and and a slower pace of publishing would also tend to make papers longer. Instead of writing a short paper for a conference, we would increasingly write longer journal papers, book chapters, or, full-length books. We agreed that the slow academy would need to find suitable criteria for evaluating research and that these criteria would differ significantly from those used today. The slow academy would also reward teaching (as compared to research) to a much higher extent than today. Teaching is an on-campus place-bound activity that would fit well with the structure that slow academia and the slow university would be tasked with.

The perhaps most intriguing thoughts we came up with had to do with another "unintended" consequence of decreased (air) travels. In a world where travelling is slow and arduous, we would turn to the local and perhaps become more involved in local space-based projects, e.g. collaborating with local groups, attempting to steer och change the city we live in or perhaps becoming active in local or regional politics (or in political issues).

My colleague Ambjörn has commented that he can be in close contact with half a dozen European colleagues (in just as many countries) who work on exactly the same things he does, but, he doesn't have a clue about the research that his next-door neighbour does. His close contacts with researchers elsewhere function much like personal wormholes. In a travel-constrained future, we would however to a larger extent need to find intellectual gratification and our intellectual peers in our close vicinity (the next door over, in a neighbouring research group or at another department at the same university) - rather than through these "wormholes" spanning time and space. That would also mean that the possibility of founding distinct, place-based and place-bound "schools of thought"would increase significantly (e.g. "The Chicago School of architecture" or "The Frankfurt School of social theory"). "Networking" would decrease and the balance between today's ubiquitous "weak ties" and the slower but more durable "strong ties" would shift in favour of the latter.

After having reconvened and discussed our "findings" cursorily, we were given a slightly different task, namely to think about the question "What can be done now?". We discussed that question in the same group (except that Tinni Ernsjöö Rappe replaced Vlad at our table). We again had some supporting questions, namely:
- How can we travel [today]?
- Where can we meet to work [today]?
- How can we communicate [today]?
- How is responsible for these changes?

We started to discuss if we were supposed to be "reasonable" and base our discussion and our proposed measures on what is deemed "possible" right at this moment, or, if we were supped to be visionary and utopian in our thinking. It seemed the workshop leaders did not have any strong opinions (which I thought was slightly strange) so we of course went for the visionary option. 

I suggested that KTH have just decided to become the first air travel-free university by 2030. What would that mean? What policies would be necessary? What would need to happen between now and 2030 in order to accomplish that goal? This became the topic we discussed for the rest of the session.

The question about what it would mean in practice was relatively easy to figure out. From Jan 1, 2030, KTH will not reimburse any costs for air travel. If you want to travel by air, you would have to pay it out of your own pocket (with your own taxed money). You would no longer be at your own liberty to finance air travel by "siphoning off" means from your own research projects. Long before that, KTH would hava instituted a (draconian?) internal tax on CO2/air flight that would subsidise train tickets.

Taking such a decision would mean ultra overdrive super PR for KTH. But could KTH be an air travel-free university and a world-class university and one and the same time? We imagine that such a policy would tend to attract some academics but of course also repel others, and this would happen in short order rather than in the very last years leading up to 2030. Would KTH have problems hiring "top researchers" or would they instead stand in line to work at KTH? Would KTH employees continue to travel by air in their private lives? Yes, we probably would, and that could be ok (or at least "ok") as long as we are appropriately ashamed of our plane trips and as long as we don't post any status updates about trips and exotic locations in our Facebook feed. That is something that irritates me already today and I suspect that that kind of "anti pro-social environmental behaviour" might raise the bar for what what constitutes a successful lifestyle as well as encourage others to mimic or surpass our trips to exotic locations in a futile zero-sum game of vying for social status. 

Since KTH would still want to encourage an academic exchange of ideas, KTH would institute stipends for in- and out-bound slow travel and for extended visits/sabbatical (say, months or upwards to a year). KTH would naturally also have a stock of (on- or near-campus) apartments for temporary guests to make such academic exchange easier. 

A recurring topic in our discussions was alternative to flying. Trains are ok, but, they do take time and they don't have the best facilities for spending that time "productively" (working). So how about planning to go on conference trips together with your favourite colleagues and get work done during the longish trip? Better working facilities (for example group rooms or meeting rooms) should then be offered on trains. Perhaps KTH should have its own branded KTH train wagons that you could request/books for conference trips? Just as was suggested above, we should of course coordinate conference trips with other academic visits and activities. The KTH train wagons could tour through Europe, "packed with professors". We joked that the train would be complemented by the KTH stables for local travelling in style. Not so much of a joke was the suggestions that we should go by boat on those few trips that take us to other continents. And we should naturally use computer-mediated communication instead of travelling whenever possible!

How long time would it take to go someplace by boat? Some Internet "research" gives that it takes a week or so to go from Rotterdam to New York in a modern container ships that travels at speeds in excess of 20 knots (37 km/h = 750 km/day). A trip from China to the US west coast would twice as long.

What would KTH's policy for organising conferences be in a travel-constrained future? By organising a conference, KTH researchers "stay home", but we at the same time encourage others to travel so as to attend our conferences. One innovative suggestion was that conferences should be better coordinated. It's nice to visit Scandinavia in August when it can be unbearably hot in many other parts of the world. It's less nice to visit during the winter. So, the annual Scandinavian academic conference season would be the month of August (this can be compared to "hunting season"). Other parts of the world could "claim" other seasons. It would then be easier to go to two or even three coordinated conferences and to combine trips and travel arrangements with colleagues in other/related areas. I will myself attend two conferences after the summer that (by happenstance) turn out to be very well coordinated. I will first attend the 4th ICT4S conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (August 29 - September 1) and then 8th EESD conference in Bruges, Belgium (September 4-7). They are "only" 200 km apart by the "Noordzee Route" (the North Sea Cycle Route) so it would in fact be kind of viable to travel between them by bike in two days if you are in reasonably good shape!

But perhaps trips and travelling are overrated in the first place (see the reasoning about slow academia above)? Perhaps we can avoid many trips by encouraging and rewarding journal articles rather then conference publications? We also had a heated discussion at our table about whether changed travel habits today was primarily the responsibility of the individual researcher (or the research group), or, if such changes should come "from above" and "afflict" everyone equally (i.e. bottom-up vs top down change). Is it the responsibility of those individuals, research groups or departments that do research on sustainability to lead the way and refrain from air travel already today? Or, do we put our faith in changed travel policies? The Australian researcher Yolande Strengers wrote a great text two years ago, "Fly or die: air travel and the internationalisation of academic careers" which treated the contradictions and paradoxes that she herself struggled with at a personal level:

"My short-term position as a Visiting Researcher from Australia in the DEMAND Centre (UK) is a case in point. In responding to a call for international visitors I found myself on a 25+ hour plane trip from one side of the planet to the other. The intention? To work with DEMAND researchers and contribute to the Centre’s ambition of developing new ways to think about reducing energy demand, including that associated with travel."

An interesting effect of attending this workshop was that one of the participants in our group (Jacob von Oelreich) sent an e-mail to the KTH environmental manager with the header "Tightening of KTH's travel policy and sustainability goals for traveling". This resulted in an invitation to a meeting with her in the beginning of June. He forwarded the invitation me and to Elina se we too are welcome to tag along to that meeting. I will of course also direct him to this blog post! We'll see what comes out of such a meeting - of what is deemed "possible" and "realistic" and what is deemed "utopian" of perhaps "weird" or even "foolish".

One final goofy and distasteful comment went to the heart of the dilemma between on the one hand KTH striving to be a world-leading university and on the other hand decreasing our air travel/CO2 emissions. A "shortcut" to becoming a world-leading university could be to not give a damn about all the doomish climate change "hyperbole", continue to live and travel exactly the way we do today, lean back and then let the competition burn away or sink under the waves. 

The final round-up discussion discussed various loose ends, for example:
- The current pan-European system for booking train trips sucks!
- Should we to a higher extent discuss the reasons for why we travel? If those reasons and incentives change, there would be less need for air travel.
- What would the implications for fund-raising be?
- Should there be more public shaming of (for example) egregious air travellers or examples of double standards or double morals?
- How can we challenge academic myths that you have to travel in order to excel? My personal favourite example is the totally brilliant but elusive Swedish social psychologist Johan Asplund who lives in the countryside and who never attends conferences. He has written 20 books but "It is said that he thinks that the essence of a text gets lost if you translate it, and therefore refuses being published in other languages". His language is im-pecc-a-ble and he guess he has more important things to do than to "waste time" trying to convince others of the brilliance of his writings or to argue with people who have misunderstood his writings).
- Travelling does not equal academic excellence, travelling is academic networking. It's a little like making a career out of writing and sending scholarly letters back and forth in the 16th century - but not yourself doing any of the science you write about. It is also unfair because it increases the risk that it's not the best ideas that spread, but rather those ideas that are proposed and hammered in by those with the most money (to travel and attend conferences). It's a winner-takes-it-all game ("power laws" are at play rather than the normal distribution).
- ...But is there a risk for parochial, national academic communities in a travel-constrained world and how do we avoid that?
- Today you can be well-known or even famous through the Internet (e.g. TED talks), rather than by travelling to conferences and holding keynotes. We need to further develop ideas about how to communicate our ideas in other ways that those based on propelling our physical bodies around the planet!

A final, boring comment was: "if the duration of our trips increase, what do we do with our partners, our pets, our children and our ageing mother?". To that I say "if the planet burns, what do we do with our partners, our pets, our children and our grandchildren?".

söndag 1 maj 2016

The Internet at the eco-village


It's been a long time coming but our article "The Internet at the eco-village: Performing sustainability in the twenty-first century" has finally been published. The good news is that it is published in "First Monday" (a monthly peer-reviewed open access academic journal covering research about the Internet) and it is available for anyone anywhere to read. The article abstract can be found below. Our article was in fact published in their 20th anniversary issue:

"First Monday is one of the first openly accessible, peer–reviewed journals solely devoted to research about the Internet. First Monday has published 1,561 papers in 240 issues, written by 2,171 different authors. The May 2016 issue marks the 20th anniversary of First Monday. The first issue appeared two decades ago on the first Monday of May 1996 on a server in Copenhagen, coinciding with the opening of the International World Wide Web Conference in Paris."

I'm the second author of the paper and the first author is my wife, Teresa Cerratto-Pargman. We have also worked with Bonnie Nardi who is the third author of the paper. We met and got to know Bonnie during our sabbatical at UCI two years ago. We have, on and off, worked with the paper during the last two years but it is in fact Tessy, the first author, who has done the major part of the work.

One thing that is interesting - a strength as well as a complication - is the fact that two of the authors (me and my wife) have been involved in the establishment of the ecovillage in question. From the methods section of the paper, one of the four methods for data collection has been (some variety of) "participant observation".

"Two of the authors have been involved in the development of the eco-village since it was founded in 2009. One of the authors is currently a member of the economic association. While they have not been the most active of members, their observations and personal experiences underpin our understanding of the eco-villages’ vision, organization, principles and practices."

The other methods were 1) a survey, 2) analysis of key policy documents and 3) analysis of the 850 messages that were sent on a distribution list during 11 months. The paper is most clearly related to Lisa Nathan's "Ecovillages, values, and interactive technology: Balancing sustainability with daily life in 21st century America" (2008) and perhaps also Maria Håkansson and Phoebe Senger's "Beyond being green: Simple living families and ICT" (2013, pdf).

I am especially happy with my late-in-the-game contribution to the analysis which was written in response to reviewers' comments:

"For Ekoby, [many] topics that potentially could be framed in terms of “sustainability” lie in the shadows. They are not thought about or discussed. ICT is one. We have referred to it as an “ideological blind spot” elsewhere in this text. There are other blind spots that are not problematized or discussed at Ekoby as well ... Ekoby constructs a normality of its own, where some areas and topics are intensely discussed, while others go unnoticed or are ignored. We have shown that digital technologies play an important role for producing cohesion, coordination and strategizing at Ekoby. ICT technologies and the Internet can be represented as the “pinnacle” of industrial civilization and thus vulnerable to exactly those changes that Ekoby members worry about and prepare for. Despite this, Ekoby members apparently do not notice, or they discount or deny the impact of their communication and information practices on the environment and the implications of their reliance on these tools. As a consequence, alternative ways of using ICTs in the eco-village did not seem to be on the list of changes deemed necessary to construct a more resilient community and a more sustainable way of living.

It is possible to analyze this stance in terms of “oversight” or “denial”. In her book Living in denial, Norgaard (2011) discusses the reactions of residents in a rural Norwegian community after the unusually warm winter of 2000–2001. While residents were highly educated, they perceived the phenomenon of global warning as both undeniable and at the same time unimaginable. Norgaard analyses their behavior in terms of “socially organized denial” — global warming is accepted, but it is still disconnected from residents’ everyday practices and everyday lives, despite having large effects on the local economy. We imagine that Ekoby members either are unaware of the connection between their use of ICT and sustainability, or alternatively, that ICT is so very useful in their everyday lives — including in their roles as Ekoby members — that they consciously or unconsciously have chosen not to think about it and “live in denial”."



Is the digital infrastructure and its footprint an ideological blind spot for recently emerging ecological communities, including eco-villages? This paper examines how a group of people who are concerned with environmental issues such as peak oil and climate change are orchestrating a transition toward a more sustainable and resilient way of living. We studied a Swedish eco-village, considering how computing in this community contributes to defining what alternative ways of living might look like in the twenty-first century. Drawing on a social-ecological perspective, the analysis illustrates, on the one hand, that the Internet, along with the digital devices we use to access it, capitalizes and mobilizes values, knowledge and social relationships that in turn enhance resilience in the eco-village. On the other hand, the analysis shows that an explicit focus on ecological values is not sufficient for a community of individuals to significantly transform Internet use to conform to ecological ideals. This work contributes to a deeper understanding of the imbrication of social technologies with practices that are oriented to perform sustainable and resilient ways of living.

tisdag 26 april 2016

Next generation screens: Breakthrough or suboptimisation?

I recently wrote a blog post about the workshop proposal, "Computing within Limits: Visions of computing beyond Moore’s law" we submitted to the 4th International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S). The papers deadline for the conference was extended by two weeks but has now passed, but not before I (yesterday) submitted a paper to the conference, "Next generation screens: Breakthrough or suboptimisation?".

The paper has quite a history, it was submitted to the ICT4S conference two years ago, but was at that time rejected. The title back then was "Green websites for next generation screens: Energy savings and agency" and I of course wrote a blog post about it. That paper, in its turn, builds on a bachelor's thesis of two then-students of mine (now co-authors), Edward Ahlsén and Cecilia Engelbart. The paper back then tried to (apparently not too successfully) reframe their thesis but when I reread the paper, I definitely have some sympathy for why it was rejected. That paper showed promise but was a little confusing and didn't really know what conclusions it wanted to draw.

The new-and-improved paper has used the ICT4S 2014 paper as a starting point but has substantially developed and reframed it. I estimate that about half of the new paper consists of recently written text and the point of the new paper is actually quite different from the 2014 paper. To sum it up, I feel that the argument that is made in the new paper is better written, more well-crafted and is significantly more forceful and interesting too. I hope the reviewers will agree. Below is the paper abstract, but first a quote from the paper's discussion:

"we can unequivocally conclude that a switch from one screen technology to another would have a truly insignificant impact in the larger whole. This conclusion is supported by juxtapositioning MacKay (2009), who states that the average European consumes 125 kWh of energy per day (ibid., p.104), with the trivially small energy requirements of a modern smartphone. Fully charging an iPhone 5 or a Samsung Galaxy SIII consumes 9.5 Wh and 12.3 Wh respectively (Fisher 2012). Doing so once per day for a year adds up to 3.5 kWh and 4.5 kWh respectively. These figures are also comparable with the corresponding figures of the more recent iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus (Fisher 2014), despite the latter having significantly larger screens. As mentioned above, the possible energy savings are dwarfed by the massive amounts of energy that is used in the process of manufacturing the smartphone. It has been estimated that the embodied energy of a smartphone is in the order of 1 gigajoule (GJ), or, 278 kWh (Raghavan & Ma 2011). That means that the energy that has been used to manufacture the phone corresponds to charging the phone once per day for upwards to 70 years!"


Here is the paper abstract:

Next generation screens: Breakthrough or suboptimisation?

Technological developments in screen technologies pitches the thinner, brighter and energy-stingy OLED screen as a possible replacement for today’s television, computer and smartphone LCD screens. An OLED screen does not consume any energy at all when it displays the color black, but the potentially large energy savings can unfortunately evaporate and instead turn to losses when white is displayed. There is thus a mismatch between on the one hand the energy profiles of OLED screens and on the other hand user habits and current webpage design practices. This example thus raises important questions about system boundaries and about how to evaluate sustainable (or “sustainable”) technologies.

We conducted a pilot study of user acceptance of alternative, OLED-adapted color schemes for webpages. We briefly discuss the results of the study, but primarily use it as a starting point for discussing the underlying questions of where, or indeed even if it makes sense to work towards realising the OLED screens’ potential for energy savings. Moving from LED to OLED screens is not only a matter of choosing between competing screen technologies, but would rather have implications for hardware and software design as well as for the practices of web designers, end users and content providers.