fredag 28 oktober 2016

HCI and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (workshop)


I just came home from the 9th NordiCHI conference in Gothenburg. I will write a blog post about the conference itself, but this blog post is about the Monday October 24 pre-conference workshop that Elina Eriksson and I organised together with Oliver Bates (Lancaster University, UK), Maria Normark (Södertörn University), Jan Gulliksen (KTH), Mikael Anneroth (Ericsson Research) and Johan Berndtsson (inUse). The name of the workshop was "HCI and UN's Sustainable Development Goals: Responsibilities, Barriers and Opportunities" and all of the seven organizers attended the workshop with the exception of Johan who was replaced by his colleague Ingrid Domingues at the very last minute.

The workshop has a webpage/blog of its own and I also wrote a blog post about the workshop back in June when we wanted people to sign up for attending it. Here's the timeline and the background as to how we came to organize it:
- February/March: Oliver Bates and Maria Normark separately got in touch with Elina and me with a request/question about organizing a NordiCHI workshop on something having to do with sustainability.
- April 21: It all came to us (Elina and me) just before we were to have a Skype session with Oliver and Maria. We proposed the theme (HCI and the UN SDGs) and it was immediately accepted.
- Beginning of May: We handed in our workshop proposal to NordiCHI after having recruited three more organizers. The rest is history.

For convenience I copy this short blurb about the workshop from my previous (June) blog post:

"Our NordiCHI workshop is called "HCI and UN's Sustainable Development Goals: Responsibilities, Barriers and Opportunities" and it takes as its' starting point the 17 new global UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim at accomplishing sustainable development for people and the planet by 2030. With this workshop, we propose that HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) should start working with the SDGs, or at least explore if and how HCI could work with the SDGs"

The original questions we posed for the workshop were:

  • How can Sustainable HCI be inspired by, and contribute to the SDG goals? 
  • What should we in the field of HCI do more of, and what should we perhaps do less of? 
  • In what areas should we form partnerships in order to reach the Sustainable Development Goals? 
  • And with whom should we form these partnerships?

Beyond the seven organizers, there was also an additional dozen or so participants who attended the workshop (as well as two late cancellations) and the workshop led to several new acquaintances that might matter in some way(?) in the future. I have to say that it was especially nice to meet and get to know the brand new acquaintances Maja van der VeldenLea Schick and Hrönn Brynjarsdottir Holmer. I also have to say that their workshop submissions (applications) were very all good in the sense that I learned something new when I read them. 

Maja (University of Oslo) immediately recognized me and correctly claimed that we had met before - 12 years ago - at a small conference called Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication (CATaC) that was held in Karlstad in 2004. Lea (IT University of Copenhagen) is primarily an Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholar and this was her first HCI conference ever. We both shared a research interest in energy and had lots to talk about at the conference reception the following day. I have finally read several landmark Sustainable HCI paper by Hrönn (Cornell University) but had never met her before so that was really nice. Hrönn has worked together with NordiCHI conference workshop chair Maria Håkansson (Chalmers University of Technology) who also attended our workshop. I also have to say that I bumped into Lizette Reitsma a lot during the rest of the conference. She's from the Netherlands but is right now doing a design researcher at Energy Design Studio at the Interactive Institute Swedish ICT - so we have friends in common. Except for me and Elina, my colleagues Cecilia Katzeff and Hanna Hasselqvist (that I meet most days at KTH) also attended the workshop. For a complete list of workshop attendees, see the very end of this blog post.

--- Session 1 ---

The workshop consisted of four 1.5-hour long work sessions and we basically spent the whole first session presenting ourselves to each other through 16 pecha kucha presentations. Each persons had prepared six slides and after having started your presentation, you had 20 seconds to talk before the image automatically shifted to the next. That's a great way to present yourself and each of the 16 persons who attended the workshop did in fact come prepared with six slides each. Things just stick when you hear someone talk and see the talk being accompanied by slides with text and pictures.

--- Session 2 ---

We started the second session by mapping (with post-it notes) the connection between HCI and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These questions helped us get started:
  • How can Sustainable HCI be inspired by, and contribute to the SDGs goals? 
    • Can you list HCI projects, artifacts, papers that can be connected to SDGs?

Picture: Yellow = own projects, Orange = projects by others who self-identify as being part of Sustainable HCI, Pink = HCI in general.

We had intended we would then work with the almost-empty SDGs (Should we work with this (from an HCI point of view almost unexplored) goal? How? What could HCI contribute with?), but there was a small revolution among the participants. Why not work on the SDGs where a lot of work has been done and "straighten them out", someone suggested. After a chaotic intermission, we re-organised the session on the fly. Our schedule for the second and the third session was partly shot out of the water and we instead improvised and tried to read the mood of the congregation and it worked out for the best!

So we jumpstarted a process we had planned for later where those who wanted could suggested topics they wanted to discuss and if enough people joined, that discussion happened (in competition with other suggested topics). I suggested a discussion specifically about the (connection between) "SDGs and ecological sustainability" and with the addition that this should be seen/discussed/framed in opposition to the well-known "novelty craze" within HCI. I worked almost exclusively on this topic together with Lizette Reitsma, Hrönn Brynjarsdottir Holmer and Maja van der Velden (below) for an hour and we were so into the subject that we just took a short break to get refreshments and then went back and worked through most of the lunch break. 

Picture: From left to right: Lizette Reitsma, Hrönn Brynjarsdottir Holmer, Maja van der Velden

Here are some of our (not necessarily very structured) thoughts - they would do better in a mind-mappy format but I've given it my best:

- We criticized "mainstream" HCI as it sometimes seems to be about developing technologies in search of problems rather than the other way around. HCI as well as design can also be a little too much about the cult of genius, of believing and teaching our students that our heroes are genius designers (Steve Jobs etc.). We should replace some of the ("non-humble") design that is taught today and that emphasizes novelty! new projects! new stuff! with "humble design".

- Humble design; part design and part plain old user-centeredness. Solving real people's real problems and perhaps also including problems or challenges that animals and nature have (due to the actions of humans)? We would emphasize HCI that solves problems rather than (compulsively) desiging new technologies. Some have already worked on this, e.g. "undesign" (Pierce), "self-obviating systems" (Tomlinson et. al.) and Baumer and Silberman's "When the implication is not to design (technology)".

- Also and as an anti-dote to the emphasis on newness, more attention should be paid (lavished) on restorative HCI/design, design for repair, modularity and recylcability, on the right to repair, on obsolescence and (arguably) on the maker movement and 3-D printing.

- So what to do then? On a general level we need to widen our horizons and encourage more interdisciplinary work/cooperation. One concrete example that came up was how Maja's department "forces" (encourages?) ph.d. students to think about ethical challenges of their work by way of including a field in a template they have to fill in. I think of this as a field in the Individual Study Plans (ISPs) that all our ph.d. students at KTH have to fill out and regularly update. So could there be an equivalent (for example) for the SDGs when you submit a paper to a conference? There can be lots of instructions today about font and size, placement of pictures and tables but also about not using colloquial or sexist terms in the paper template you download. So why not then a header about ethical aspects of the research that has been conducted or about the connection between the research that is being reported upon and the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Just as all non-systems-building papers kind of have to end with a (sometimes tacked-on) "Implications for design" section/angle, why then couldn't there be an "Implications for the Sustainable Development Goals" section/angle? This would be especially pertinent in a conference with a theme that connects to sustainability - like the next (2018) NordiCHI conference which will be organized in Oslo two years from now and which has the theme/tagline "Revisiting the life cycle".

- We also discussed the obsession to "solve problems" in mainstream HCI, even if that process is proceeded by "creating problems" where there does not really exist any, or where there only exist small problems before. You first have to argue that we have Important Problems (of some kind) in our homes before you can start to market robot vacuum cleaners (and so on). So I was reminded of Raghavan's paper "Abstraction, indirection, and Sevareid's Law". Sevareid's law states that "The chief source of problems is solutions", e.g. solutions (or "solutions") are the origin of new problems. Ex: the combustion was the solution to several problems of which one was an excess of manure on the city streets, but now the combustion engine constitutes a problem in itself (CO2 emissions, climate change as well as a number of other problems). This whole complex of problems - solutions - new problems - new solutions (etc.) is thus a problem in itself - and I'm gonna solve it! That's kind of a joke, but, the way to solve this problem might in fact be not to solve it (if you get my drift - having read Tainter on complexity being a bitch or Greer on problems and predicaments is an advantage here).

- Doctors have the Hippocratic oath so we should perhaps have an oath of our own. It was suggested that we should look at "The Karlskrona Manifesto for Sustainability Design" and adapt it to HCI. I'm game if someone wants to lead that effort! My suggestion was to also have a look at the work that is being done on Slow technology, e.g. on technology that is "good", "clean" and "fair".

- It was suggested that HCI should be responsible for how the things we design are used (e.g. "responsible design"). This is a tough requirement as it would not just mean a responsibility for design and development but would also encompass deployment and end-of-life responsibilities. It would most certainly lead to a slowing down of the speed at which technologies are being designed and deployed today. Some references that were being thrown around at this point was Dourish (and Bell) on Ubicomp messes, Nardi on HCI mostly designing objects and services for the global affluent (upper) middle class (us! ourselves!) and "Phoebe Senger stuff" as well as (again) work on "Undesign". 

- Despite the term "slow" (as in slow tech) turning up here, we agreed that it is a term that would be tainted in HCI and another term has to be used (or invented). Also there is a need to operationalize "slow"; slow tech, slow research, slow-what-exactly? Also; how slow, slow at what level, slow as assuming reflection or slow (also) as something else? And "slowness" is of course also on a collision course with current reward systems in HCI, in computing and indeed in much of science in general...

- We also compared "mainstreaming of sustainability" with "having sustainability at the core". Mainstreaming would make systems Greener (here pronounced "Green-err") using today as a baseline, but the more hardcore version/vision of sustainability would not "spread out" (a thin veneer of?) sustainability everywhere, but would rather put it at the core and assume (e.g. implicitly prescribe) sustainability as a way of life. Like Asimov's three laws of robotics, but for sustainability?

- Lastly we discussed the relation between "us" and "them". But how can we define what we and what Sustainable HCI does without creating an "us" and a "them"? How can we instead define an ideal, utopian future that everybody can dig?

- Ah, we did discuss one more thing throughout our session. We drew different Venn diagrams and our final diagram had three overlapping circles with a bull's eye representing the overlap between 1) the SDGs, 2) ecological sustainability and 3) technology/computing. That's where we want to be and that's where we think everybody else should be too! The work to carve out what that bull's eye actually means remains to be done at a later point in time.

So this was one group with four persons talking for perhaps 90 or 120 minutes or so. While I have notes from the other groups I here settle for enumerating the topics that other groups worked with in parallell:
- Empowered decision making
- Human rights/Human Factors standardization
- Sustainable lifestyles

The results from session 2 spilled over inte the after-lunch session where we reported and discussed the results from the before-lunch group sessions.

--- Session 3 ---

We later mixed the groups up and started off again by reading a quote from Brynjarsdottir Holmer och Håkansson’s position paper for the workshop (“Abstract goals, complex life”):

As we stated above, it was quite humbling to read the ambitious SDGs and realize that there is not a very significant overlap overall between research in HCI and the SDGs. As far as sustainability research in HCI, there has been a significant awakening in the last few years acknowledging that sustainability is indeed a topic worthy of HCI focus but as far as we can tell, it has been a struggle to bring it forward in a cohesive fashion that does not peter out. That is, to us it feels like there is interest and a lot of good work but it is disperse, incremental and piecemeal. Is there something about the way we conduct work in HCI that prevents it from reaching the real world?

This led to a number of questions we asked the workshop participants to discuss in their groups for a short period (10 or 15 minutes):

  • How can the SDGs help us to mobilize and reach further?
  • Can we use SDGs as a battering ram?
  • Are there problems with the SDGs and/or with using the SDGs?

The second question was perhaps not the best. Many didn't know what a battering ram was and it was also an unpopular and combative trope and the verdict was that it wasn't appropriate (...but, battering rams are probably underappreciated when fighting against entrenched positions...). Here's a selection of the many thoughtful reflections that this exercise resulted in:
  • The SDGs are normative but not moralistic.
  • We should always adhere to the principle of not doing stuff unless they lead to a more sustainable society, and, a sustainable society is “defined” by it adhering to and/or working towards the SDGs
  • We need to think about the function of using the SDGs. Who are we talking to and why are we using them? Do we use them to understand each other? To talk to and convince others? To justify our research (and increase the chances of it being accepted to CHI)?
  • There is a tension between Big Policy as encapsulated by the SDGs and small-scale HCI projects.
  • Is the goal of us using the SDGs to affect HCI or for S-HCI/HCI to have an impact on the world outside of HCI (for example on energy companies etc.)?
  • There might be reasons to use the SDGs. Are there also reasons to avoid using the SDGs? Is there an impeding risk of SDG-washing (c.f. green-washing and we-washing for the sharing economy)?
  • The SDGs are mostly about social sustainability and and they engage less with ecological sustainability (e.g. "planetary boundaries").
  • The SDGs constitute a nice framework but how do we measure and evaluate them? Some the goals (and the act of measuring progress) are just very complex.
  • While there is a lot of activity around the SDGs, it is still the case that they are not widely know by the larger public (or the larger research community). Everyone has heard about "sustainability" but how many has heard about the SDGs?

--- Session 4 ---

The fourth and last session was spent looking at the larger picture.

  • Where do "we" meet up next? What conferences or workshops are of interest to us? 
  • Where is there, or, how could we form a forum where the academy and the industry could meet? 
  • How do we continue this particular discussion of ours (online)? 
  • How can we sum up and disseminate the work that went into the workshop and the work that came out of the workshop (primarily but not exclusively by and for the workshop participants)? This blog post is a start. 
  • What have you learnt in this workshop that is useful for you and/or that you would like to tell others?
  • We also discussed what "the next" follow-up workshop should be about.
  • Reflection from the organizers when comparing the thinking that went into the workshop with the outcome of the workshop.
  • On publication strategies for how to disseminate the results of the workshop (there's a lot more than this blog post!). Still, it can for now be boiled down to two proposed venues; a column in the professional magazine Interactions and a special issue of the IxD&A journal (see below).
The very last point we discussed was an invitation to put together a special issue of the journal Interaction Design and Architecture(s) (IxD&A). We originally received this invitation in the end of June, but at that time when we didn't even know if there would be enough participants to hold the workshop. So we dithered and the matter receded into the background for months. I took hold of it a month or so ago and had a chat with the editor in chief, Carlo Giovannella. We came to an agreement and I will be responsible for a special issue (or, technically, for a "focus session") that will be published a year or so from now. Several of the workshop participants were interested in writing towards such a special issue but we will of course also put together an open invitation so as to get the best possible submissions for that special issue (focus session) on HCI and the SDGs. More information will be published in a blog - probably at the end of the year.

Here's a full list of the workshop participants (the organisers are listed here):
  • Kaveh Bazargan (Shahid Beheshti (National) University, Iran)
  • Hanna Hasselqvist (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden)
  • Hrönn Brynjarsdóttir Holmer (Cornell University, USA)
  • Maria Håkansson (Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden)
  • Cecilia Katzeff (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden)
  • Reuben Kirkham (Newcastle University, UK)
  • Pär Lannerö (The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority, Sweden)
  • Lizette Reitsma (Interactive Institute Swedish ICT, Sweden)
  • Lea Schick (IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Maja van der Velden (University of Oslo, Norway)
  • Stina Wessman (Interactive Institute Swedish ICT, Sweden

Picture: From left to right: Maria Håkansson, Stina Wessman, Ingrid Domingues and Hanna Hasselqvist

Picture: From left to right: Maria Normark, Oliver Bates and Lea Schick

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