torsdag 19 februari 2015

Annual CESC retreat

Last week I attended the annual CESC 24-hour workshop/retreat. CESC of course stands for the Center for Sustainable Communications and I am involved in a research project there as well as being a member of the management team so it was a given that I should attend. I missed out on last year's retreat as I was in the US on a sabbatical, but, I went to the retreat two years ago. Reading that blog post it feel like two years was a really long time ago...

The whole workshop was organised around the upcoming 4th and last phase of the centre's 10-year life span and the question of what projects the center should run during the last two years (2015-2017). The workshop was thus part of the now-running "project generation process" (PGP) as well as an opportunity for CESC researchers and company representatives to meet, discuss and schmooze. Except for KTH, representatives from the six CESC partners attended the workshop; Ericsson, Telia, City of Stockholm, Stockholm Country Council, Coop and the research institute Interactive Swedish ICT. There were around 45 people at the workshop altogether (around 25 from KTH) and the representation especially from Ericsson was strong with 8 representatives.

Most of the work activities were thus framed around the task of generating ideas for future projects, but, these new projects will at the same time represent a continuation of sorts from the four current strategic areas and the current four research projects as it doesn't make much sense to initiate totally new "wildcard" projects during CESC's shorter 4th and last phase. The four current CESC strategic areas are:

  • People - people, practices and behaviour in a sustainable ICT-society
  • Cities - sustainable solutions for ICT in cities
  • Impacts - sustainability impacts of ICT and media
  • Methods and tools - methods and ICT-tools for sustainability assessment
The workshop was organised around working in smaller groups in three sessions and generating project ideas for possible 4th-phase projects. There were around 7 groups with 5 persons in each group and we switched around and worked with new people in each session. 

Session 1 - "data and sustainable practices". Our proposed project could perhaps be called "surveillance for sustainability"

My group came up with an idea that would fit Baki Cakici well (I have appended two relevant quotes from his Ph.D. thesis at the end of this proposal). The basic idea is that we will soon be able to collect large amounts of data from the smart home. We might do this for the best of reasons (nudging or encouraging people to live more sustainable lives), but the topic is still hyper-sensitive and we thought it would be well worth defining a project that considered issues of power, control and personal integrity in relation to the large amounts of data collected. what if it would be possible to discern with great granularity what I do within my home from minute to minute based on real-time data from my home? 

Our idea was not to collect our own data, but rather to tag along and analyse already-collected data from a suitable project;
- How is such data collected, managed, processed, used?
- Who collects the data, what is supposed to be used for (intention) and does that differ from how it is actually used (turn-out)? Is it possible to discern a "feature creep" or "mission creep" at play, i.e. the system was built and data was collected for one purpose but is later used also in other ways?
- Is it possible to use collected data for sustainability purposes without it having negative consequences/side effects in terms of integrity (which can be seen as part of what constitutes social sustainability)?
- What are the risks and what are the opportunities of using big data in relation to different stakeholders? Is it possible to discern "winners" (who benefit from the project) and "losers" (who don't)? Who are the winners (and what do they win) and who are the losers (and what do they loose)?
- Is it possible to consider not only top-down but also some sorts of participatory processes in designing or deploying such systems?
- Who owns the data and who can use it for what purposes? Is it possible to opt out and say "no thank you, I don't want to participate"? Are there large differences and unequal power relationships at play? Does everybody understand the systems and the interfaces (c.f. Strengers' article "Are you designing for resource man?").

Here's a draft of a project plan:
1) Examine how it is possible to use big data for sustainability purposes (nudging or altering people's behaviours) in the home while at the same time protecting the integrity and the possibilities of inhabitants to maintain control and influence over how the collected data is used. How is it possible to secure the influence and co-determination of partipants (residents)?
2) Examine an already existing project/study/platform, for example the Royal Stockholm Seaport, some part of the Million Programme or a project already running in some other country. Document how the system was introduced, how the residents were involved (or not) and potential positive and negative effects/consequences.
3) Proposed partners for the project is KTH, Interactive Swedish ICT, City of Stockholm and Stockholm Country Council. The latter partners will provide projects, residents, own ideas and insights concerning how they want to use such data while simultaneously protecting the citizens.
4) The project will point at the tension between on the one hand environmental sustainability and on the other hand social sustainability in the use of big data. A possible result from the project could be guidelines for how to manage that tension.
5) Perhaps it would be possible to recruit new CESC partners based on this project, e.g. Stockholmshem, HSB, Telgebostäder, Fortum or some current partner in the Royal Seaport project.

Here are a few quotes from Baki Cakici's ph.d. theses "The informed gaze" that could help clarify the background of the proposed project above:

"I aim my critique at the tacit assumption that the development and usage of ICTs are always beneficial to society. ... given the impossibility of anything benefiting everyone equally, and indeed, the impossibility of even defining everyone, in my analyses I find it important to ask: who benefits from the design, development, and use of surveillance technologies, and who suffers its costs?."

"Surveillance practices have been shown to negatively affect those who are already underprivileged, whether they are ICT-based or not.

"a commonly cited definition of surveillance is "the focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for the purposes of influence, management, protection or direction" (Lyon 2007). ... Following the definition, it is not difficult to classify the vast majority of ICTs as surveillance systems ... and correspondingly, contemporary surveillance is commonly performed using ICTs as they are especially suited to performing routine tasks systematically."

The second session resulted in an idea I thought was interesting but that probably wasn't developed and polished enough. I would summarise it briefly as a combination of two different ideas; reducing food waste and reducing social alienation among (especially) young unemployed people. We chose on regarding unemployed or underemployed people as innovators and early adopters. The idea was to activate them and get them out of their dwellings, pair them up in teams and challenge them to buy soon-to-be-expired food, prepare it together and then eat it together. We wanted to design meaningful practices for the unemployed so that they adopt a pioneering role in exploring sustainable food practices.

Right after lunch we had the opportunity to listen to a guest lecture by professor John Robinson who just happened to pass Sweden by (he's ordinarily in Canada). He gave a lecture called "Regenerative sustainability, emergent dialogue, and imaginary worlds: Exploring engagement processes at the community scale". I won't cover all the contents of the lecture, but, we were inspired by his ideas and attempted to formulate a project in the third and last session that drew upon those. The basic idea in his talk is that we as researchers do research and try to affect then world when we communicate our research results. We aren't very successful though. It's hard to reach people and to affect the world by communicating facts. Moreover, we assume that we, as experts, know something important that "they" (other people) don't and see it as our mission to "transfer" information from us to them according to this simple formula:

We provide information which leads to (--->) values change which leads to (--->) attitude change which leads to (--->) behaviour change.

But people don't work that way and that model just doesn't work. People are not "empty vessels" waiting to be filled with knowledge that they then act upon. Also, the public doesn't need to understand, say, climate change in order to insulate their roofs. Furthermore, research is hardly ever very successful in affecting policy, affecting the public or affecting markets. So how do you get a culture to change if not through providing more information of higher fidelity?

The alternative Robinson proposed was to involve the public in a participatory process of interpreting and creating meaning out of our research (instead of passively assimilating it) - an emergent dialogue. The end goal of such a process would be social mobilisation rather than enlightened individuals. He then presented a project where he had worked together with artists to create an "installation" as an alternative to "communicating research results". We took Robinson's lecture as a challenge and tried to formulate a project (or an "anti-project") around these ideas, moving towards alternative forms of communication; playing, creating, joining, expressing, experiencing, contributing, learning through workshops, mobile applications, tabletop games, social media and performance art.

The challenge we set ourselves was to change society to explore and avoid (harness) the rebound effects of ICT. How can we use resources we "liberate" through ICT efficiency gains (people's time, money etc.) to further save resources (and the world) instead of "spending our savings" on resource-hungry and nature-destroying activities? How can we enact such processes by way of artistic explorations and emergent dialogues? How can we enable social mobilisation for collective decision-making instead of writing one more research article and sticking to traditional one-way channels of communicating scientific results?

We decided that CESC should team up with the Stockholm Improvisation theatre. They have a core message in their performances, but every performance is different and depends on input and reactions from the audience. Together with them, we would enact emergent dialogues through artistic and other means in an iterative process where scientists and the general public learn from each other in shaping desirable futures. The goal would then not be to "communicate research results" but to engage people in collective decision-making for shaping desirable futures though social mobilisation (or with social mobilisation as an outcome). Also, after we put up a performance, the general public will pay us good money to take part in learning more about insights from our research. Please tell me if that isn't pure genius!

We're still a litte bit hazy on many details, but it would probably be a good idea to have some actors from the Stockholm Improvisation theatre hang around CESC, and, it would also be good to have some CESC researchers learn improvisation theatre. There should preferably be some CESC researchers on the stage when our research results are not-presented-but-enacted.

A few final worlds about the retreat is that it was a good, fun way for CESC researchers to meet partners (and for partners to meet other partners). It is on the other hand hard to know what impact the 20 or so proposed research projects from the three sessions will be (of which I have written about three in this blog post). Will the outcome of these sessions result in useful input that will help shape some of the projects that will start up later this year? I personally have my doubts. It must be difficult to go from session outputs to project input, not the least since some of the ideas might be good, but they would still need a champion who could flesh out, communicate and explain them in greater detail in later phases of the project generation phase. Despite having written up the proposals above, I suspect it would be hard for someone else to understand why they are awesome unless I stand right then and right there supporting the notes by conveying, defending, modifying or developing the proposal. But who "owns" the proposals and will be their champion right now? I guess that I, by writing about the three proposals above to some extent "own" them. Of these three proposals, I fell I could only champion two. But will I get the opportunity? And, who will be the champion of the other 17 (or so) proposals? So, how useful will the workshop have been in the end? That we don't know but this comment points at what I believe are some of the limitations in using the CESC workshop to generate ideas for new research projects.

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