fredag 16 maj 2014

What have we learned? A Sustainable HCI workshop

My previous blog post was about the design fiction workshop I attended at the CHI conference 2+ weeks ago. I attended a second workshop the day after (Sun April 27) and the second workshop was an important reason for why I went to the CHI conference in the first place. I've been to the CHI conference several times, but before last year's conference, there is a 10+ year long gap in my CHI attendance because it was only last year that I belatedly realised that a vibrant Sustainable HCI community met up at the conference and that I decided to "come back" to the CHI fold.

The Sunday Sustainable HCI workshop was called "What have we learned?" and it invited prospective participants to write position papers based on any/some of no less than eight different questions:

  1. What is sustainability?
  2. What do we know about how sustainability might be achieved?
  3. What crucial questions remain?
  4. How can HCI help achieve sustainability?
  5. How should HCI & Sustainability research be evaluated?
  6. How can we use critiques of past work to develop more productive approaches?
  7. How can we better integrate knowledge from outside HCI?
  8. How can we encourage work that contributes to practical sustainability efforts?
Since I was out travelling over Christmas, the Jan 17 deadline was inconvenient for me. My colleague Elina Eriksson stepped up and became the first author of the workshop position paper we wrote together with Henrik Artman, "Usability as a threat to a sustainable future: Induced disability through better HCI" (pdf).

The workshop was great. I don't know exactly what it was that happened, but something did happen at this year's workshop that didn't happen at last year's workshop... The workshop was organised by no less than eight persons, but the person who had done the most work and who led the workshop was ph.d. student (and current UC Irvine colleague of mine) Six Silberman. He had a very "relaxed" workshop leadership style. It's hard to know if the energy at the workshop came because or despite of his relaxed leadership style... Perhaps we had too much freedom/too little structure, or perhaps we had just enough? Another possible factor for the successful workshop might have been the participants and what they/we brought to the table? Yet another possible success factor might have been the connections between the participants; there was a critical mass of UC Irvine people who knew each other very well (six persons) and another critical mass of people who either organised or attended last year's workshop (eight persons). Perhaps these two overlapping groups of networked persons managed to pull the others participants in...? Could that have been "the secret sauce"...?

We started by presenting ourselves to each other and a theme I heard repeated around the table was "I came to this from hard core computer science, but I have since then come around to believe that...". Other memorable comments or topics that were brought up already in the initial round were:
- Do you have to be an activist in the area and/or have to have been touched on a personal level in order to do profound work in Sustainable HCI (sustainability and HCI)?
- What is our relationship to "the three pillars of sustainability" (ecological, social economic sustainability). Some tried to explore/align/adapt their work in relationship to the three pillars, others had problems with or rejected the three pillars model.
- What about criteria and measurements of what we do in Sustainable HCI? What do we do, what do we believe that we do, what do we measure and what could we do in this area?
- When we propose change (perhaps Change with a capital "C"), the change we propose will (might) hurt people. Who are we to propose (or "determine") who gets hurt? But, on the other hand, people get hurt already today in or because of the absence of change, so what is our responsibility...
- Sustainability is (also) a political issue, i.e. not something we can "fix" on an individual level. What are, and how can we work on/with drivers and barriers in order to change supra-individual behaviours?
- How do we get more imaginative and more utopian in our thinking? Perhaps through backcasting, through liberating our curiosity and our fantasy with the help of design fiction - re-imagining the future? This all sounds great, but how do we do it? And how do we do it?
- It was proposed that we pool and create a list of favourite sustainable HCI articles and books as an outcome of the workshop. Bran Knowles is working on it right now!

After the initial round of presentations, we divided ourselves into four smaller groups for further discussions. There was a "metrics" group ("how do we measure sustainability?"), a "cultural and social aspects of sustainability" group and the "future scenarios" groups. I suggested the self-proclaimed "radicals" should form a fourth group and we did indeed form the "free radicals" group. I believe the free radicals group consisted of six persons (me, Elina Eriksson, Bonnie Nardi, Samuel Mann, Bran Knowles, Adrian Clear and Roy Bendor - did I miss anyone?). The free radicals stated that we believed that "radical solutions" were necessary compared to status quo. We naturally discussed a whole bunch of different questions over the following hours. I don't claim that the list below is something as ambitious as a "protocol", rather than just a semi-structured list of things I jotted down because I thought they were worth thinking about. I sometimes write in first person even though it's actually someone else who is the "I" in the text:

- How do we change things for real - beyond the academic/career game of prestige and fame? How do we work together to change things in the world instead of wasting energy competing with each other or others? This is a tough one since we are constantly (on the verge of being) sucked (suckered?) in to must-apply-for-grants and have-to-get-my-papers-accepted games.
- "I'm not radical, but my research is going in that direction". People with a computer science background (including an earlier self of me) miss information and don't "get it". I am now influenced by social science and social practice, but how do I/we get them to understand? And, how do we get everybody to "get it"; engineers, midwifes as well as everybody else?
- How can we as educators change our students through what we teach them? How can we find "trigger points" and move people?
- We need to work on many levels at the same time; education, critical design, industrial design etc. Everybody changing lightbulbs is necessary but not sufficient.
- "I've always felt like a radical at my department." However, "if it's radical to point out the obvious..." I insist that everybody should understand how precarious our situation on this planet is, and (only) appealing to rationality is not going to get us there!
- We also discussed the power we/people have as consumers vs the power people have as citizens. How do we nudge/help people to become activists? "I feel like a radical because I want to rile people up, but how does that go together with my job as researcher?" Are we (can we be) half activists and combine that with our role as researchers? What does it mean to be an activist, can we be "activists" in different ways? If all I do is write things up, does that add to my "activist credentials"?
- If we write a terrible (sexist, racist etc.) HCI paper, it will rightfully be rejected. How can we get sustainability onto such a shortlist, i.e. if someone designs a system with terrible implications for sustainability, the chance that the paper is rejected increases significantly? People should do (or attempt to do, or at least acknowledge that they haven't done) a Life-Cycle Analys (LCA) in Sustainable HCI papers - especially if they have build a system!
- The sustainability Special Interest Group (SIG) should have/develop a policy that would be helpful in (for example) the review process of Sustainable HCI papers. In fact, we should produce a set of Sustainable HCI guidelines that could be used as a resource both for writing papers and for reviewing papers. There are lots of technical measurements for different things, but there are no measures for assessing the positive (or not) impact of what we're doing in Sustainable HCI - but there should be! The accessibility group have developed a set of guidelines. How did they do that? We should look into that and learn from them!
- "I try to understand the global economy as well as people who have chickens in their back yard" ("why are you doing that, how did you come to do that, where does your inspiration and skills come from?"). "I'm also interested in people who want to keep the internet going even without government support" (government interference?). "I understand the economy stuff is important, but it's also hard to grasp".
- We often ask "what can we bring to HCI" (from other disciplines etc.), but we seldom ask or think about "what we can give/disseminate to other disciplines and areas - but we can do a lot!".
- When you (now and then) have a bleak outlook on challenges and (the lack of) appropriate responses, your personal energy level and motivation can go down to the point that you sometimes feel like giving up. This observation led to a discussion in the group about "emotional support" on a personal level when you felt things were tough. One person had, at another conference, been asked an interesting (but depressing) question: "Why do you bother thinking and working with sustainability issues if it might be the case that it won't work out? Why not work on a problem that is possible to solve?". What do you answer?
- Should Sustainable HCI papers be clustered or spread out over many different sessions at the CHI conference? What is in our best interest, or more importantly, what is in the best interest in terms of raising the visibility of and promoting sustainability?
- "We should have an award for "least sustainable paper/system"!" Or, would that instead be counter-productive finger-pointing? Still, where would we look for such papers/systems - which is the "least sustainable CHI sub-community"? My personal suggestion was anything that results in small incremental changes and in a lot of new gadgets.
- We as a community should be able to present a positive, empowering alternatives that are based on life quality and happiness studies; how can we sell less "stuff" but still deliver high(er) value to people?
- Another problem we don't talk much about is the fact that HCI is intimately tied up with big money and big corporations (just look at the list of sponsors for the conference). Big (and small) companies wish for big profits. This might or might not go well together with us striving to create more sustainable societies... Is there in fact a commercial double bind at play here? If so, how do we break out of it?
- Also, almost everything that is presented at the CHI conference aims for the top 1 billion richest people on Earth. What about the other 6 billion? Should this be a concern for Sustainable HCI or is this a non-issue?
- Strange thing will happen to our belief systems when the effects of climate change hit for real. We might have a lot of strange spiritual movements in the future. Perhaps ecological decline will be our equivalent of the biblical deluge (Noah and his Ark). Perhaps we'll see the emergence of new eco-belief systems?

I unfortunately don't have good notes from the other three groups, but here are a select few comments based on what they talked presented (again, sorry for the partialness of my notes):
- We should be better at referring to the work of others both within and outside of the Sustainable HCI community.
- We (the official SIGCHI Sustainability Community) should be better at many things, but for the moment there really isn't anyone in charge of making sure that what is supposed to happen will happen. The community needs fresh blood - who will volunteer?
- There is a Sustainable HCI Google group - but when I tried to join, it said I "don't have authority" to join the group...? Since/because of this blog post, I got a personal invitation. That's great for me personally, but have other people been turned away from that group?
- Everybody should sign up to be a reviewer for next year's CHI conference and I took a break from writing this blog post and did just that - and so should you!
- Add one or two lines about which metrics are important for your paper, on what scale you would like to measure these metrics and who your stakeholders are? Ex: "I'm interesting in CO2 emissions on the city level from the perspective of city officials."
- If you come to the conclusion that you actually shouldn't build a computer system, what do you then do? How do you write a CHI paper and how do you get funding? Answer: publish elsewhere! One suggestion was the BECC conference.
- There are "sustainability people" who also do CHI (that would be me) and then there are "CHI people" who also do sustainability (Jen Mankoff). I personally noticed that these two groups are partly invested in different (life, identity) projects and might have (very) different opinions about a variety of things.
- How do you evaluate the impact of your system? Ex. "People felt that intervention X was successful because they felt empowered". We might work within or together with communities and what we're doing represents a success story for them, but it might be hard to "translate" these results into a "CHI format" and an accepted paper to CHI.
- Annual conferences like CHI exert a huge gravitational pull, but that publishing cycle also creates gaps and holes; you only have once chance per year and what happens if you blow it? HCI studies run for only a short time, but sustainability is a long-term project. The time scales can clash and/or won't necessarily make a lot of sense. It's hard wanting to contribute and being interested in sustainability, but working in a technology-driven field. The things you do can create "problems" for yourself and others.

- There was an interesting discussion about HCI, sustainability and social movements. Social movements are where the energy is, so how can technology be used to support social movements? Should we (only) study social movements, or should we (also) take stands and support social movements?
- I furthermore learned that "Significant Life Events" (SLE) was a research topic in the 90's(?). SLE's and "Transformative learning" is something that me and Elina should look up since that is what we do (strive to do) with our teaching. HCI is on the other hand more into hedonistic motivation, e.g. making people feel good.
- A private thought of mine (not really discussed at the workshop) is if it would be possible to write a contribution to CHI that brings a number of very political topics and theories to the CHI conference. I was thinking primarily of the precariat and precariatization, of Gorz, of Wallerstein's World-Systems Theory and Hornborg's groundbreaking work to adaptat WST to an ecological/social arena. I have since actually had discussions with Bonnie Nardi about this, but the conclusion for now is that this is really hard (and that WST would be a much much harder nut to crack than the the future of work and the precariat).
- Another thought of mine was if it would be possible to work together with Miriam (and Elina?) to write a Sustainable HCI paper about absolute limitations, efficiency and rebound effects? This is definitely something worth thinking about. Or perhaps me and Elina should a paper together with Staffan Laestadius where we present this theory and adapt it/spell out the implications for CHI?

I don't know exactly why, but something did happened at the workshop and after the workshop (over the course of the following days at the conference):

1) Workshop organiser Six sat down and wrote a draft of a collaborative Sustainable HCI paper.

2) Some other people sat down during a break and started to write a Sustainable HCI "manifesto" that perhaps should be presented as a poster (perhaps with inspiration from the great "Done Manifesto"?). Here are a couple of notes for what might make it onto such a manifesto/poster or elsewhere (conference activities):
- We should formulate and promote aspirational alternatives to Business As Usual (BAU)
- We should shift from "weak sustainability" to "strong sustainability".
- We should admit that sustainability is a not a problem that has to do with simple causality, but a "wicked problem" (this will unfortunately make it harder to fit it into the flow of the mainstream CHI conference).
- We should write a set of statements/guidelines that can support people who write and who review Sustainable HCI papers.
- Gender, race, accessibility and sustainability should be on equal footing as meta-criteria with which to evaluate (all) CHI papers.
- We should practice activism at the conference: let's ask difficult (sustainability) questions at different CHI sessions over the following days. (I personally did but not everybody agreed this was a productive position to take.)
- We should find the one paper that should get the "most unsustainable paper award" (we didn't do this).
- We should formulate guidelines for how to answer "the crazies" - but call these guidelines "tools for engagement". We should help each other frame our research in such a way we don't get those questions.
- We should organise not just workshops but also panels for CHI. Perhaps (following this workshop) we should organise a panel on "grand challenges for Sustainable HCI" for next year's conference?

3) I believe we furthermore managed to establish which the next two conferences to go to were for (especially) European Sustainable HCI researchers. These two conferences are the ICT4S conference in Stockholm in August and the NordiCHI conference in Helsinki in October. Between me, Elina and Cecilia Katzeff, I think we managed to convince quite a few persons (mainly people who are based in Europe) to come to one or both of these conferences. That's so cool and I look forward to meet and continue the good work we have started to do together with old and new friends! If you have in fact read this far, you too should consider going to Stockholm and/or Helsinki later this year!

4) Me and Elina submitted a Sustainable HCI workshop proposal to the the NordiCHI conference only a week ago. There are six organisers all in all and no less that four attended the workshop I write about in this blog post and five attended the CHI conference (the sixth persons did both of these things last year). 

5) Me, Elina and Cecilia are also involved in organising/hosting the ICT4S conference. ICT4S is of course much wider than "only" dealing with Human-Computer Interaction, but we are right this moment discussing how to gather the Sustainable HCI people who will come to Stockholm for an informal workshop either right before or right after the main conference (or both). Do get in touch with me if you are interested in attending that workshop! 

Finally and in regards to the 8 workshop questions that brought us together, most were not "answered" (some might be unanswerable). Physicist Niels Bohr supposedly said something to the effect that it is "better to discuss a problem without solving it than to solve a problem without discussing it". That is a good summary of the workshop outcomes and if it's good enough for Niels Bohr, it's good enough for us! I finish this long blog post with some sustainable humor:

This great figure got some attention later, during the conference. "Sustainability" is apparently a "trending" topic - perhaps "sustainability" is all we will talk about in the future (as implied by the figure)? My colleague Jorge Zapico thinks not since (slightly cleaned up):

"Everyone in the sustainability field knows that infinite linear growth is not sustainable. Thus the use of the word "sustainable" is going to peak and achieve a sustainable steady state of usage, or alternatively become unsustainable and collapse after having passed the semantic carrying capacity".

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