söndag 4 september 2016



My previous blog post treated the workshop Elina Eriksson and I organised in conjunction with/before the 4th international ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) conference. This blog post treats the workshop that Steve Easterbrook (University of Toronto) organised in conjunction with/after the conference, "ICT4STEPCHANGE: Setting an effective strategy for sustainable intervention".

I haven't yet, but I will soon write a blog post about the conference itself. That means these blog posts will be published out of order, but I will at least link them up so that they point at each other.

There is a background text about the ICT4STEPCHANGE workshop but I will here settle for Steve's considerably shorter introduction at the workshop. Paraphrasing Steve:
- "ICT4STEPCHANGE signals a break from the ordinary incrementalism by imagining Big Changes ahead. Stepchange assumes radical rather than incremental change. After an initial brainstorming session where we will create our ideal future of 2066 (50 years from now), we will map out a timeline for how we got there starting with the current state of affairs (e.g. using the "backcasting" scenario technique). On our way from here (2016) to there (2066) and on our way from morning to late afternoon, we also formulate/capture interesting research questions that turn up in this workshop."

The workshop itself was divided into four 90-minute sessions:
- Planning for change
- Drivers of change
- Design for change
- Action for change

1) Planning for change
A major part of the first session was spent "doing the rounds" (introducing ourselves to each other). I think I knew (had at least met/talked to) about 2/3 of the 18 workshop participants. Presenting ourselves was done with a twist. I paired up with Eva Kern because we didn't know each other and I had to on her behalf present her for the rest of the group. She does software engineering research and compares the energy efficiency of different web browsers. Which is the best (uses the least electricity when browsing)? The answer turns out to be complicated since one browser can be the best for moving images while another is better for static images (etc.). We were also tasked with coming up with a research project that fit both of our interests and here's the proposed title for our upcoming(?) 2018 ICT4S paper:

We were also introduced (through the wonders of modern teleconferencing) to one of the three absent workshop organisers, Oliver Bates, who attended for a short while at a distance. I think Steve, despite being the sole organiser present, managed the process of leading the workshop with flying colours.

Steve told us we should (for once) not think about the footprint of ICT (e.g. the very topic of the paper I presented at the conference), but rather just assume that the "handprint" of ICT (what we make of it) will be larger than the footprint (the material resources used to build the ICT we will use in the future).

The rest of the first session was thus spent in guilt-free imagination of what the Beautify Society of 2066 would look like. We came up with a lot of different suggestions, here are just a few to give you a feeling for what our very long and extensive wish-list looked like:
- No wars
- No hunger (food for everyone)
- No waste
- Shelter for all
- Free choice and happiness
- No borders, no refugees (due to lack of need to migrate)
- Thriving natural ecosystems, inter-species justice
- Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) happens through "trees"
- Companies behave responsibly
- No adverts (or "responsible adverts")
- People working to better themselves and their communities
- Strong social safety net, strong sense of community
- Time for play and creativity
- "Work/life balance" has become a meaningless term
- Safe outlet for anti-social tendencies
- We will be so far beyond the Internal Combustion Engine (they only exist in museums)

2 Drivers of change

Session two started with a simple exercise. Hold a paper with a hole in the middle at arm's length and look at an object on the other side of the room. What do you see? What does it represent? For who is this (object) interesting? Then repeat the exercise by holding it half-way out and then again by holding it right in front of your eye. As more comes into view, the perspective changes and this simple exercise is meant to emphasise the partial perspective we can have when we look at the world and when we frame what we see in some particular way rather than in other equally possible ways.

This simple insight can then be reframed and adapted. Steve exemplified with a grad student's perspective; who chose the frame of your research project/thesis? You or your advisor (of a funding agency etc.)? Just like everything looks like a nail to the man with a hammer in his hand, a female workshop participant mentioned that to the woman with a paper with a round hole in the middle, the round clock on the wall at the other side of the room becomes a magnet because it is round and just the right size to fit the hole in the paper. I also looked at the clock and first thought about time as an abstract concept (of interest to factor managers of former days) and then about the clock on the wall as a piece of furniture (visible for example for the workers on the factory floor).

We then teamed up in groups of three (I teamed up with Maria Mora (UK) and Pierre-Antoine Rappe (BE)) and worked with a larger set of cards called "Drivers of Change". The box was very impressive and an excellent tool for various exercises. It's created by ARUP, a global engineering consultancy  firm who are keen on bidding on and running big bold sustainability projects all around the world.

The box itself includes five categories of "driver cards"; social, technological, economic, environmental and political. Each driver card had a title, a short explanation and a much longer explanation on the back of the card. Steve's instructions were then as follows:

1 Each person chooses two cards
2 Look at all the six cards with the goal of creating a story that connects 2-3 of the cards.
3 The emphasis is on creating interesting connections between the cards chosen.
4 Think of the problems/challenges in terms of different time scales (minutes-hours-weeks-years-centuries).
5 What research questions does the story encourage?

My group chose these six cards and the lilac card in the middle is supposed to be "encircled" by the other five cards:

In-between instruction 1 and 2, we looked for "themes" in our cards and found: "awareness", "losing hope", "uncertainty" and "self-deception". The "Too good to be true?" card in the middle was renamed "Are we fooling ourselves?" and we managed to integrate all our cards into a single story that hinged on the one card in the middle. Clockwise from the top:

1) "There is a new showerhead that reduced water consumption by 50% when you take a shower!" (...but do you know how long your shower lasted and how much water you used?)
2) "The third world is leapfrogging and catching up!" (...or are developing countries instead falling further behind and losing their future?)
3) "We are decoupling and dematerialising and our footprint is decreasing!" (... but how big is your footprint in the first place and is it anywhere near manageable?)
4) "The ozone hole is slowly healing and closing" (...but is the roof over your head robust?) OR "...the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing (is the roof over your head robust?)
5) "Can we switch off burning coal and using fossil fuels?"  (can you switch off?)
6) So, are we in fact only fooling ourselves? Is this all just an exercise in self-deception? (too good to be true?)

Our first attempt at a research question was "Is ICT4S too good to be true?", but that's more of an open question rather than a research question. Our second attempt at a research question resulted in the slightly more specific question "(How do we formulate) Which are the appropriate visions of what ICT can do for sustainability?"

We then rinsed and repeated the process, choosing two new cards each. My two cards were "is there prozac in your water?" and "what will you fight for?" (subtly implying that I would be willing to fight for having prozac in my water...?). But we ended up primarily discussing the most controversial card of all, "should illegal immigrants be protected or deported?".

We then imagined a dark rather than a utopian society. Let's assume that a right-wing populist party got into power in a Western European country; Front National in France, UKIP in the UK or the Swedish Democrats in Sweden. Let us further imagine that they make a deal with a green party (hard as it is to imagine) and that they are willing to work for a transition to a sustainable society but at the cost of turning inwards and vigorously guarding the national borders (e.g. deporting illegal immigrants etc.). What could such a "sustainable" future look like? What would ICT be used for in the quest for guarding borders and deporting illegal immigrants? At this point I looked up a scenario that I and Baki Cakici contributed to Penzenstadler's ICT4S 2014 paper "ICT4S 2029: What will be the Systems Supporting Sustainability in 15 Years?". The relevant and ominous part of the scenario we created back then reads like this:

"In this age of great hardship, there is a great need for 1) protecting the integrity of national borders in the face of mounting immigration pressure from “flipped” climate zones and failed states (c.f. Garrett Hardin’s (1974) Lifeboat ethics) [That] challenge has essentially been met through the development of third-gen drone-mounted search & purge technologies (e.g. OctoSurv)."

It was tough discussing this, but such a future is much easier to imagine today (Trump, Brexit, AfD etc.) than when mine and Baki's scenario was formulated two and a half years ago...

One utterance from another group stayed with me: "what is a refugee from Facebook?" (relating to displaced online communities). That's a great sound bite and something to think about.

3 Design for change
The next exercise (me, Chantal Beaudoin (UK), Beat Koch (CH)) involved a new set of cards where each card stood for a "design pattern". It turns out Steve Easterbrook was given this hefty deck of cards by Doug Schuler before the summer (at the Computing within Limits conference which I co-organised) on the condition that promised to use them and this was the first time he did.

This time Steve referred to some work by a Midgley on "boundary critique". Our task was to search for and discover boundaries, and then to discuss and critique them (rather than just accept them). We were also encouraged to think about issues of power; whose interests are privileged and whose are marginalised by framing a problem in one particular way rather than another?

We each picked a card (pattern) as well as a research challenge that the larger group had identified during the day (these research challenged had been pasted to the 2016-2066 timescale on the wall). These were our choices (my choice was Techno-Criticism):

We were then to choose one of the three design patterns and use it to address the research challenge we had picked: "How to use storytelling for education students on sustainability around the world and share that knowledge?" . We chose to explore the action research "Activist road trip" card, i.e. can we inspire ourselves and others to go on activist road trips? How can we design a nifty research(?) project that would inspire people to go beyond tourism and take on activist road trips? I was personally inspired by recently having learned that the researcher-activist Francois Schneider undertook a year-long tour on a donkey in 2004 to disseminate the ideas of "degrowth" throughout France.

We had a long discussion and in the end decided to work with the following key concepts: activism, storytelling, travelling and sustainability. Since acting (and activism) is more inspiring than education and knowledge share (which will anyway be an outcome of acting/activism), we pruned those concepts from our list of key concepts. A personal source of inspiration for me was the short paper "Global Engineering – a design and build challenge" about an undergraduate course where engineering students from Newcastle incorporated ethics, sustainability and human demands and impacts into a "theme" that ended with them working practically (in place!) to "provide a cleaner, safer and more secure water supply to a rural community in a developing country". The paper was presented at the EESD 2013 conference and is available here (pdf). I don't however think we really managed to specify a great research question as we eventually ran out of time.

I in fact have a hard time remembering if we every got around to the fourth workshop theme ("Action for change") but I might be mistaken. Some days have now passed and both the workshops and the whole conference was very intensive. I very much look forward to the next conference in 2018.

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