onsdag 29 juni 2016

Announcing our Ph.D. course on "ICT and Sustainability"

Me and my colleague Elina Eriksson will give a ph.d. course, "ICT and Sustainability", during the coming autumn term. We will meet every second week between the end of August and the end of December and have a final seminar at the end of January (2017) where course participants present and discuss their course papers. I have chosen to post the whole invitation below (it has also been distributed by mail).

Do note that there is space for a maximum of 15 participants. If more apply, we will have to select who can participate. If, at some point in August, it seems like less than 15 ph.d students will apply, we might disseminate the invitation to the master's students who took our first year master's level course last year. While this ph.d. course and our master's level course have the exact same name, the ph.d. course will of course be taught at a more advanced level and we plan to read 50-100 pages of text (primarily scientific articles and conference papers) for each seminar.

Below is the invitation to the course:


Ph.d. course autumn 2016: ICT & Sustainability

Teachers: Daniel Pargman ([my mail address]) & Elina Eriksson ([Elina's mail address])
KTH, School of Computer Science and Communication, Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design

Learning outcomes
After completion of the course, the student will be able to:
• orient oneself among different ideas of what constitutes sustainable development and sustainability
• elaborate on the role of ICT in relation to societal goals of economic, social and environmental sustainability,
• reflect on the possibilities and limitations of ICT in relation to the development of a sustainable society,
• formulate how sustainability relates to his/her own phd project.

Course form and content
• The course will be given in the form of 9 bi-weekly three-hour long Wednesday seminars (with a few exceptions) during the fall of 2016 (August to December) plus a final seminar in January 2017.
• Each seminar will treat a specific subject (for example “Definitions and delimitations”, “Planetary boundaries”, “Nearest neighbouring fields”, “First, second and third order effects of ICT”, “Environmental footprint of the Internet”, “Computing with Limits”).
• The literature for each seminar will vary between 50-100 pages.
• Each course participant is expected to read the literature before each seminar and actively contribute to the discussions.
• Each course participant will write an essay in the course.

August: 25 [NOT 24 as was erroneously written in an earlier version!]
September: 14, 28
October: 12, 19
November 9, 23
December 7, 21
January: 25 (discuss course papers, 09.00-15.00)

Note: All seminars are on Wednesdays (13:00-16:00) with the exception of the first (Thursday 13:00-16:00) and the last seminar (Wednesday 09:00-15:00).
Students should prepare for the seminars by reading the given literature and for each seminar
• one student is appointed to summarize the most important points of the literature
• one student is appointed to prepare questions to discuss in relation to the literature and
• one student is appointed to prepare criticism against the literature.

Writing a short essay and presenting it at the final seminar (in January 2017).

Course participants will read a selection of texts primarily in the form of journal or conference articles.

Active participation in seminars.
Written essay and presentation at the last seminar (January 2017).

The course is limited to a maximum of 15 course participants. You apply by sending a one page long "application" (in English) to Daniel Pargman ([my mail address]) AND Elina Eriksson ([Elina's mail address]). In your text, please specify:

•   Your contact information
•   Experience/interest in the subject (sustainability) and reason(s) for taking the course
•   How (or if) the course is connected to you research project/your interests and how you would like to contribute to the course

Do note that the applications will be distributed among the course participants so that we can know a little more about each other when the course starts!

söndag 26 juni 2016

HCI and UN's Sustainable Development Goals (workshop)


I recently (June 5) wrote a blog post about our upcoming (Aug 29) workshop at the ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) conference. This is a blog post about another upcoming (Oct 24) workshop that we are organising at the NordiCHI conference. The deadline for applying to the NordiCHI workshop is August 25!

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 (see further the invitation below and the workshop's website.

I can pinpoint the exact date when we hatched this idea. It was April 21 and I organised a closed Hoffice session in my home together with three colleagues from KTH. Me and Elina sat on my recently-glassed-in balcony and were just about to connect to Oliver Bates and Maria Normark by Skype when we threw around different ideas for a NordiCHI workshop. The SDGs came up and we immediately knew that it was a keeper and that we were on to something. We have later recruited a few other persons to help us organise the workshop and here's the full team of workshop organisers:

Elina Eriksson (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden) is a researcher at Green Leap and the KTH Centre for Sustainable Communication (CESC). Her current research projects concerns ICT for Urban Sustainability and an exploration of energy futures.

Daniel Pargman (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden) is an assistant professor at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID) at KTH. He is the team leader for the MID for Sustainability (MID4S) research team and a member of the management team at the KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications (CESC). One of his current research projects concern ICT, sustainability and food.

Oliver Bates (Lancaster University, UK) is a Research Associate at Energy Lancaster and the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University. His research focuses on using data driven mixed methodologies for understanding and intervening in socio-technical areas (e.g. energy consumption and sustainability in the home, senior citizen engagement in e-government and digital technologies).

Maria Normark (Södertörns Högskola, Sweden) is a senior lecturer in Media Technology at Södertörn University. She is currently leading a research project about urban farming, “Sustainable Communities through Digital Design”. Her research is oriented towards norm-critical design.

Jan Gulliksen (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden) is a professor in Human-Computer Interaction at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. He is also Sweden’s Digital Champion and Chairman of the Swedish Government’s Digital Commission.

Mikael Anneroth (Ericsson, Sweden) holds an Expert position at Ericsson Research, focusing on the Human and Society perspective of ICT. He is member of the management team for the Ericsson Research Area Sustainability and the driver of several external research projects in the area of User Sustainability‚ Experience design and Society impact of ICT.

Johan Berntsson (InUse, Sweden) is the co-founder of inUse, a UX & Service Design agency with offices in Sweden and the US. He is also the program-chair of the annual design conference From Business to Buttons. The 2016 conference theme was sustainability and it included speakers such as Al Gore and Patricia Moore.

HCI and UN's Sustainable Development Goals: Responsibilities, Barriers and Opportunities
Workshop in conjunction with NordiCHI'16 conference, Gothenburg, Sweden

Ever since Eli Blevis presented his seminal paper “Sustainable Interaction Design” almost a decade ago (in 2007), sustainability has been an established topic within the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Even though interest in Sustainable HCI is increasing, critique has been expressed that suggests that we do too little, and perhaps also at times the wrong things. It can be daunting for researchers to tackle global problems such as climate change, famine and biodiversity loss, to name just a few of the large issues the world is and will continue to grapple with during the remainder of the 21st century. Still, also a field like Human-Computer Interaction should aim at being part of developing a sustainable society. But how do we do that, and, what are we aiming for?

In September 2015, the UN formally adopted a new set of global goals that were ushered in just as the previous Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) were slated to “expire”. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) consist of 17 overarching goals, aiming at accomplishing sustainable development for people and the planet by 2030.

In this workshop we want engage everyone who is interested in working towards a sustainable future in terms of and with the UN SDGs as a starting point. How can Sustainable HCI be inspired by, and contribute to these 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? The benefit of arranging the workshop would be to have a common vision of how to work with the SDGs, to collaboratively explore how we could contribute to the goals and to be inspired – by each other – in our research.

For more information about the workshop, see: https://hci4s.wordpress.com
For more information about the NordiCHI conference, see: http://www.nordichi2016.org/

You can apply to the workshop by submitting a position paper or a presentation, which includes at least two of the following bullet points:

• Shortly describe your UX work/HCI research interests and/or shortly describe your sustainability work.
• Explain how your work/research relates to one or more of the SDGs
• Describe how, in your opinion, the SDGs could/should relate to UX/the field of HCI in general

Please send your position paper (500-1500 words) or presentation (6-9 slides) by email to hci4sustainability@gmail.com

Deadline 25 August 2016.

If there are many prospective applicants, the workshop organizers will strive to put together a diverse set of participants from the research community as well as from industry. Submissions will be reviewed based on quality, originality, and their potential contribution to achieving workshop goals. We expect to include 15-25 participants.

Important dates
Deadline for papers: August 25, 2016
Notification of acceptance: September 3, 2016
Workshop: October 24th, 2016 (one full day)

torsdag 23 juni 2016

This spring's crop of master's theses


I have been the advisor of five master's students who have been writing their theses during the spring term (January - June).

One student of mine, Emma Lundin, presented here master's thesis last week and it's called "Designing social platforms for sharing - A study of the Hoffice coworking network". I have written about Hoffice ("Home" + "Office") now and then (for example here and here) but this is the first real study (ever?) of the Hoffice "movement". I here choose the easy way of presenting Hoffice and her work - by pasting version 0.9 of Emma's thesis abstract below (she will hand in the final version soon).

More information about Hoffice can be found at it's website (English version) although there seems to be a problem with it right now(?). If there is a problem with the website, I instead recommend the Fastco article from January 2015 which made Hoffice spread like wildfire to dozens of cities in several continents. This all happened due to Swedish journalist (and later Hoffice promoter) Agneta Lagercrantz' texts about Hoffice.

My other three master's students who also started working on their theses in January have all been delayed due to a combination of 1) living in an uncooperative world (all have hade difficulties recruiting informants) and 2) of not being 100% focused on their theses (working part time by the side or reading another course in parallell). Instead of presenting their theses before the summer (June), they will present them after the summer (in September). That will require them to work unsupervised (without support) for two months, but they have at least collected all the materials they need (conducted all the interviews etc.) so now it all depends (only) on themselves. All three could (in principle) lock themselves into a room and finish it all by writing up the thesis (text) by themselves. The three students and the preliminary titles of their theses are:

- Sam Ajami, "Designing for Sustainable food shopping"
- Isaac Rondon, "Eco-Visualization for amateur energy work"
- Robin Chanapai, "Winter is coming - Designing an ICT service for a PV net-metering scheme adapted to Swedish conditions"

Another student, Anton Lundström, started to write his master's thesis halfway through the spring term, in March, and the plan is for him to finish his thesis by the middle of the autumn term (October). The preliminary title of his thesis is "How can Sustainable ICT-projects be classified? Evaluating and applying a Taxonomy for Sustainable ICT-projects".

I am the advisor of all five students but each student also has a "principal". The principals for our master's students are most often a company that wants something done and the student will then have a company as their principal besides their academic advisor. For all five of "my" students, the principal this time around is a research project (or an individual researcher - me - who wants something done). It just so happens that I am then not just the advisor but also the principal for three of these students:

- Emma has worked in a research project that never was - we wrote a research grant application last spring but it wasn't approved and so we didn't get any money. Perhaps our chances are better next time around taking into account all that we have learned through Emma's thesis?
- Sam works in/for a research project called "Design and data for Sustainable Lifestyles – opportunities for change" where I am the project leader together with Cecilia Katzeff.
- Anton works "for me" with a task that is not part of a research project. The task instead represents an inquiry that takes a specific article and a specific model its starting point (Kentaro Toyama (2015), "Preliminary thoughts of a taxonomy of value for sustainable computing").

All five theses have to do with ICT and sustainability. They are furthermore all written in English and will all eventually be available on the web. Emma's abstract will have to do for ow though:

Designing social platforms for sharing - A study of the Hoffice coworking network

The sharing economy, or collaborative consumption, refers to peer-to-peer sharing of goods and services coordinated through a community-based online platform. Collaborative consumption platforms are used for sharing of our under-used assets, e.g. our homes, tools, and vehicles, and can bring social communities together. Through sharing we use our resources more effectively, and contribute towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Hoffice was started in 2013 in Stockholm and promotes the concept of working for free in the homes of others, and is getting a lot of attention around the world. This not-for-profit network helps people arrange home offices, where hosts share their residence with people who, through Facebook, can reserve a seat for the day. The purpose of these work events is to create free workspaces, with the possibilities for social, structured and disciplined environments, while allowing individuals to benefit from the support and intelligence of others. This research aim to study the hosts in the Hoffice network to find ways to explain the key driving values, as well as barriers and fears, and apply it to a new tailored platform in order to motivate more people to host work events. The central research question is furthermore How could well adapted social platforms increase motivation for people to engage in the collaborative consumption as exemplified by Hoffice?

Six semi-structured interviews with past host from 2014-2015 were conducted to gain qualitative answers about how an online platform can be developed in order to motivate Hoffice members to become hosts, for the first time or more often. The questions were divided into three different sections; Background, About Hoffice, and Online platform. Observations were performed with a purpose of understanding the structure of a Hoffice event, and to gain a better understanding of the users needs and behaviors. After a first version of a prototype was developed, evaluation and user testings were completed with the interviewees and the founder of Hoffice.

Results show that communication, offline and online, is important when people engage in collaborative consumption, and Facebook has a great impact on people when communicating and spreading information. Although Facebook is not a preferred platform for a sharing service due to its restrictions, its instability when planning and arranging events, and no data can be stored. All services that involve sharing should also consider and support geographical location features. Moreover, to show appreciation is important. People find motivation from feeling liked and appreciated, and want to feel that what they are doing is making a positive impact on other people's lives. Finally, it is important to have clear rules and guidelines for monitoring members behaviour, otherwise uncertainties will occur. 

söndag 19 juni 2016

Fors' ICT for sustainability: Critique and approaches

I was the designated "opponent" at Per Fors' "mid-term seminar" a few days ago. Per is a ph.d. student at the Department of Engineering SciencesDivision of Industrial Engineering and Management at Uppsala University (my own alma mater).

My role as opponent/external reviewer was to look at Per's work at a point in time when he is about half-way through his ph.d. studies and discuss his work this far as well as possible ways for him to proceed. The "mid-term seminar" is more or less the equivalent of a licentiate thesis but an alternative for those who aim directly for the ph.d. thesis instead of "wasting time" putting together a licentiate thesis (and everything that comes with that).

I had been provided with a bouquet of texts beforehand, namely:

  1. A "kappa" (the introductory chapter of a compilation thesis, i.e. the key to understanding the red thread that holds everything else together). The preliminary title of the kappa/thesis was "ICT for sustainability: Critique and approaches"
  2. A published article in a respectable journal (2015), "ICT and environmental sustainability in a changing society: The view of ecological World Systems Theory" (Lennerfors, Fors, van Rooijen)
  3. A book chapter, "Gamification for Sustainability: Beyond the Ludo-Aesthetical Approach" (Fors, Lennerfors). Accepted for inclusion and a finished text but not yet published.
  4. Another book chapter, "An intuition-based approach to sustainable ICT: Lessons from Eco-Ethica" (Fors and [some ph.d. student at another department]). Will be submitted later this summer and still possible to change.
  5. A 3-page draft, "Sustainable Entrepreneurship literature review" (Fors). It is what it says, a literature review - the results of reading up on "entrepreneurship studies".

I've met Per Fors only once before, in Zürich back in 2013 at the first ICT4S conference (the fourth ICT4S conference will be held at the end of August). It also just so happened that I reviewed an article that Per Fors, his advisor Thomas Taro Lennerfors and fellow ph.d. student Jolanda van Roijen submitted to the second ICT4S conference (Stockholm) two years ago. The submitted article was called "Sustainable ICT: Insights from World Systems Theory" and I liked it a lot. Despite this, I was hesitant to accept it to the conference because I thought the basic idea had much more potential than what the actual text showcased. I did in the end chose to grade it "weak accept" but my co-reviewers chose to reject it. That article was later rewritten and now lives on in the shape of a published journal article (see above). I never did understand why Per didn't show up at the ICT4S conference that year though since the distance between Uppsala and Stockholm is negligible. I did not think to ask that question when we met a few days ago, but it is actually no more clear to me now since both ICT and sustainability are central topics to him and central topics in his (future) thesis. I have however come to understand that he has moved between interests, disciplines, journals and conferences for two or three years instead of putting down his (academic) roots at a (limited) number of places (communities).

That leads to my main critique of the draft thesis - the lack of direction. I started to read the kappa and the first article and thought this would be a thesis about World-Systems Theory (WST), about Alf Hornborg and his theories, about unequal exchange and ICT, but, that was followed by an article on gamification, an article about Japanese philosopher Tomonobu Imamichi's (eco-techo-philosophical theory) Eco-Ethica, and finally a draft about European entrepreneurship studies. While all four texts somehow can be connected to sustainability, ICT and perhaps also to WST, it was hard to see exactly what knit them together and even harder to see the direction this was leading in. Had I read the articles in some other random order, I would halfway through my reading have had very different ideas about where this was all leading. The lack of focus is also evident in the choice of preliminary title for his thesis. While "ICT for sustainability: Critique and approaches" accurately describes the lowest common denominator that ties all of the texts together, that is indeed a very low denominator; it could mean and it could house just about anything. If I got a ph.d. thesis with that title in my hand, I would have little idea of the actual topic of that thesis beyond the fact that it in some way was "critical".

Reading the texts made me acutely feel that Per had tried to embrace too much and should instead look for synergies between future work and the work he has already done instead of having to read up on a new area/corpus for each new article he writes. My main suggestion for Per was for him to instead focus on something - anything! While the first two texts are "finished", the third text is still possible to change and the fourth is little more than the preliminary results of a literature review. My suggestion was to first write the themes that are explicated in the kappa into the third article, and, if I'm honest, my advice would be to skip the last article. Or perhaps to write it but to treat it as a "side project" and without having the intention of including it in the future thesis.

If I was one of Per's advisors, I would push hard for developing the ICT + WST angle. The kappa plus the first article raises and answers some (very interesting) questions, but they also raise a lot of unanswered questions that I would love for someone (Per!) to explore. Per has an advantage here as I am not aware of anyone else having asked and thought about anything even near those (very pertinent) questions. I almost wish that I had raised and explored the intersection between WST, sustainability and ICT myself, but second best is that someone else (Per!) explores them.

When asked, Per said that the topics/communities that is of most interest to him is 1) ICT for Sustainability (core), 2) critical management studies, 3) ethical ICT ("slow technology") and 4) World-System Theory (WST). He doesn't really have a "home" conference that he has attended regularly.

My suggestion was for him to clarify where he wants to go. When he presents his thesis a few years from now, what does he want it to be about? Or, if he were to do a post-doc and could choose freely, where would he want to be four years from now? What then does he need to do this year and next year to increase the chances of getting there? This (e.g. planning) is the opposite of what seems to have guided Per this far (e.g. happenstance, pure curiosity, varying interests and perhaps chance (?)). I can suggest different options for his thesis, but I can't really advice him about what he should do since I don't know much about critical management studies or ethical ICT, but I did invite him consider submitting something to next year's Computing within Limits conference as well as to consider going to the upcoming ICT4S conference - including the workshop on Limits that we will hold at that conference.

Since he was not familiar with the areas I read up in, I had also printed 25 or 30 articles that I gave him before I left (Limits, Sustainable HCI and some other related conferences/texts). I also suggested he might be interested in having a look at the work that has been done on "critical design" in the HCI community and that seemed to interest him quite a lot (Dunne & Raby, Bardzell etc.).

All in all it was very stimulating but also at times slightly confusing to read his draft. I wish him the best of luck with the "second half" of his ph.d. studies and I hope he shows up at the ph.d. course on "Sustainability and ICT" that me and Elina will give directly after the summer (a separat blog post about that course is slated to appear soon).

fredag 17 juni 2016

Computing within Limits (LIMITS 2016)


I attended the Second Workshop on Computing within Limits (LIMITS 2016) last week and it was great. Not equally great was the fact that the first (90% finished) version of this blog post disappeared in cyberspace and I had to write it all over again (which is always supremely tiring). But there is an upside for you (dear reader) because the text is better structured this time around. Do also have a look at the previous blog post about the private work-oriented meeting (workshop?) I attended the day before Limits 2016 started.

The second Limits workshop was of course preceded by the first workshop (LIMITS 2015) and most of last year's papers were later published in a special issue of the open-access online journal First Monday (thank you Bonnie Nardi!).

I can't really go through each presentations and paper but have instead sorted various reflections into four different categories; 1) workshop format, 2) workshop content, 3) own "random" reflection and 4) possible improvements for next year's workshop. Due to the structure, I will at times come back and have a second go at the same topic.


The event was live streamed and all presentations are thus available on YouTube! Do check out the program and then pick the presentation(s) you'd like to see here: Limits Day 1 and Limits Day 2. The quality is questionable though, but if you crave to hear some specific presentation you might want to make the effort and have a go at it...

We did allow remote presentations and three out of fifteen presenters had pre-recorded 12-15 minutes long presentations (Mike Hazas in the UK, Junaid Qadir in Pakistan and Somya Joshi in Sweden). These presentations were followed by two online Q-and-A sessions with remote authors and one session where the fourth author of the paper (me) tried to answered the questions that were posed. The remote pre-recorded "one-way" presentations worked really well and they were definitely much better than last year's mediated/live presentations (difficulties with timing, problems with the sound quality etc.). My favourite remote presentation was my co-author Somya Joshi's almost hypnotic fairy-tale-for-adults narration of our paper. I haven't seen an audience listen to a prerecorded presentation with that level of concentration before - we were all under the spell! The narration (style, pronunciation, cadence etc.) had the hallmarks of a new genre even if it's hard for me to say (analyse) exactly what made that so. But it was a little like when an ordinary women inside an airplane picks up the microphone and suddenly sounds like an airline hostess, or when a seemingly ordinary person talks into the microphone and suddenly sounds like a sports commentator, but in this case for the genre "academic presentations".

While remote presentations worked fine from a technical point of view, it is of course considerably more attractive to gather people for the special magic that happens only at F2F meetings, but, it's very hard to "force" everyone to come when it is an environmental conference that preaches the message of limits to our resources including limits to all of us all flying back and fro... Also, if the alternative to being there in person is a choice between a remote presentation and no presentation at all, then the choice suddenly becomes much easier. This year three out of fifteen presentations were remote although I guess that I (as fourth author) could have presented our paper live instead of having Somya pre-record her presentation (but she did a much better job at it than I would have done). We do however very much want people to attend the event in person and it is important that there is just a sprinkling of remote/pre-recorded presentations rather than a sizeable fraction. It will be difficult to get people to become part of an emerging Limits community if they don't attend the workshop in person and meet/discuss/form relationships and bonds with other persons (versus just "delivering a presentation" and adding another publication to your portfolio). I don't have a final answer here but the question is on the table. 

The choice of having a single track was good and I talked to others who also appreciated it. Since Computing within Limits is in its nascence, it's really good that everybody hears what everybody else says. The single track creates a shared emerging consensus about what Limits is all about (see also further below).

We had three "invited speakers" (keynotes) and one "invited discussant" this year and they were all great additions to Limits. This structure allowed us to invite people we wanted to hear without them having to write papers first and our invited speakers were:
   - Lisa Nathan (UBC), "Humility, Discomfort & Awe: Developing our capacity for longer-term thinking".
   - Tom Murphy (UCSD), "Quantifying the Energy Challenge: A physics perspective". Tom's blog "Do the Math" is the reason we invited him - read it (start here)!
   Sarah Lovell (UIUC), "Alternative Agricultural Systems for Sustainable Food Production". Sarah's blog "Multifunctional Landscape Analysis and Design"
   Tapan Parikh (UC Berkeley/Cornell Tech), Invited Discussant.


I think the quality of the papers and the presentations were really very high! There were a few papers that I hadn't read before the workshop, but there are no papers that I will not read afterwards and that is very high praise indeed. I think that every paper contributed with unique insights and perspectives - and I'm not really known for distributing praise liberally because there is almost always something that could be improved. I encourage you to check out the program and look up any papers you find interesting.

We invite participants to submit two kinds of papers in the call, "discussion papers" and "systems papers". The former "explore the nature of limits and computing [and] detail the nature of the limits of interest, describe their impact on computing, and present directions for future research" while the latter "describe the design, implementation, and evaluation of computing systems that work within or help cope with limits". It is quite clear that after having organised two workshops, the vast majority of papers are discussion papers. Don Patterson (organiser) commented that this is a well-known story also in his area (ubiquitous computing) where there on the one hand are papers that describe concrete systems that have been built and on the other hand are papers that describe how such systems are used. I don't personally object to the emphasis on discussion papers but I do know that the initial intention (or at least the wish) of my co-chair Barath Raghanvan was for a more even distribution between the categories and to get more people involved who wrote papers that described Real Systems. He didn't seem to unhappy about these development though asked about it.

Jay Chen has written two excellent papers that were presented at Limits this year and last year (here and here). He has helped me/us map where Computing within Limits is situated in comparison to its nearest academic "neighbours", ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) including Sustainable HCI (S-HCI), ICT for Development (ICT4D/ICTD) and Crisis Management/Crisis Informatics. While sustainability has been generously represented at Limits from day one, it was heartening to see a sizeable contingent of representatives from ICTD (who all knew each other) at this year's workshop. I feel that the perspectives that were represented by Jay Chen, Shaddi Hasan, Neha Kumar, Tapan Parikh and Junaid Qadir added a lot to Limits. There might be people in crisis informatics who would benefit from attending Limits, but we don't know who they are and we have a hard time reaching out to them since their interest in the intersection between Limits + Crisis Informatics might never have manifested itself in their writings (a Limits + Crisis Informatics perspective might not be acceptable at any of their current venues for publishing their results). We just don't know at this point in time.

Starting this year, all the Limits papers are available through the ACM Digital Library (Wikipedia) (thanks Barath Raghavan!) so go - no run there and read some of your favourite papers! The inclusion of the Limits 2016 papers in ACM Digital Library is not a symbolic gesture but rather has substantial ramifications for the workshop itself. Computing within Limits suddenly became a lot more respectable and interesting for people in the computer sciences because inclusion in the ACM DL makes all of this year's papers golden. Many computer science-y people (and departments) divide conferences into two categories; those that are included in the ACM DL and those that aren't. The next step is to deem only the latter to be of interest to them. This strategic move will help us get higher-caliber people and higher-quality papers at next year's Computing within Limits workshop.


I have already thrown myself at your mercy (in the previous blog post) for travelling all the way to California to attend a conference for just a few days. It does burdens my climate consciousness but it was "necessary" for me to go as I am a conference co-chair (together with Barath Raghavan, but, Bonnie Nardi ought to also be a co-chair based on work effort she has put into organising the workshop ). While the conference itself was just two days long, I did also organise a "private" pre-conference workshop (again see the previous blog post) and I also participated in the post-conference business meeting where we started to discuss and plan for next year's workshop. My wife Tessy is also an organiser and she has submitted papers to Limits both last year and this year but could not attend due to family reasons but we are now considering bringing the whole family over for next year's Limits and combine that trip with a longer vacation in the US. If you happen to work at a university in California, please do consider having us over to give a talk sometime next summer/after next year's workshop!

One theme that spanned several talks was the issue of time. It was of course a main component of Lisa Nathan's invited talk about "Multi-lifespan Information System Design" - about designing information systems that support the solution of critical problems that are unlikely or can't be solved within a singel human lifespan. This is a wonderful perspective to have in mind and/because it flies in the face of what HCI (usually) is about. Time was also very much present in the talks of the other two invited speakers. Tom Murphy discussed (our lack of realistic) responses to the end of the centuries-long fossil-fuel bubble and Sarah Lovell described her interesting research project that needs 20 years to culminate (which is the time needed for the trees she planted to grow up). Sarah is exploring multi-layered agricultural system that allows plants to simultaneously explore different niches (canopy trees, medium trees, shrubs, forage).

Continuing on the theme of time, Jay Chen also discussed different time frames by comparing Limits with neighbouring scientific communities (see above). Computing within Limits concerns itself with "slow collapse" - with a future of decaying infrastructure and of having to deal with expensive natural resources as well as the effects of climate change. Crisis informatics (crisis informatics) instead concerns itself with a sudden collapse of infrastructure in the face of (typically) natural disasters, but always assumes an "outside"from which resources can be shipped in. ICT for Development (ICTD) instead concerns itself with the ("collapsed") world as it is today in places that are characterised by conditions of poverty (emphasising low-cost, robust and resilient solutions). ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) finally concerns itself with trying to prevent collapse and concomitant futures that are characterised by scarcity and hardships. Several other papers also touched upon "the time factor" and time was a central theme in my Limits 2015 paper "On the Limits of Limits". In that paper I discuss how different views of the problems we are facing will lead us to take various measures into account, ranging from stacking up on food in your pantry (urgent) and exploring collective (ecovillage, Transition Town) solutions (pressing) to becoming involved in politics or social movements (far away).

Joshua Tanenbaum et. al. presented a paper about "The Limits of Our Imagination: Design Fiction as a Strategy for Engaging with Dystopian Futures". It took Limits to a meta-level by among other things discussing strategies for having an impact on "ordinary people's" thinking about collapse. Do we (the Limits community) accomplish our goals through the research we do or by trying to influence the general public (for example through popular culture)? The paper became somehow controversial by building its argument around the latest movie in the Mad Max franchise. Is this (Mad Max) what we want to be associated with? Probably not. The presentation was followed by a lively and very interesting discussion. Why is "fast collapse" (society failing from one day to the next) such a popular theme in pop culture while slow collapse isn't (the one exception is the first half of the movie "Interstellar"). It is of course because the apocalypse (of various kinds and with various degrees of apocalypticness) is a much better (and more visually interesting) backdrop to a movie than "rust and rot"; unemployment, electricity blackouts and potholes in the streets. But certain media formats can work better at representing slow collapse than others (e.g. books vs computer games vs movies). Don Patterson mentioned that he had had discussions with students who had used depictions from movies (of, I presume, future technologies) as arguments or even facts. Students have told him to his face that "no, that's not how it works in [movie X]" and he had to spell out that "movies are not data", i.e. how future technologies are depicted in certain science fiction movies are not valid arguments in a university course. No participant could think of an instance when someone has used a book in quite the same way, i.e. "No, that's not going to happen because that's not how it plays out in Paolo Baciagalup's "Windup girl"". I can point out that I myself took an evening course that was offered by the Workers' Educational Association (ABF, part of the Swedish labour movement) a few years back on "How to survive the zombie apocalypse", but not because I expect that particular apocalypse to hit us anytime soon...

Limits 2016 offered Barath Raghavan and me the chance to, for the first time ever, go mano-a-mano with Joseph Tainter's theories about complexity and collapse in our paper "Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits". I have written about Tainter several times on the blog (for example here and here and here), but haven't really worked his theories into anything I have written before - despite the influence he has had on my academic as well as my everyday thinking. Douglas Schuler who attended Limits had read our paper thoroughly and had strong objections, but he also had a hard time pinning down and formulate his objections. I think both me and Barath had separate conversations with him (more than an hour each) and his critique will come in handy since we have some loose plans about eventually extending the paper into a journal article. I recommend this article for Tainter noobs who want to know more.

It was great to meet David Franquesa from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain. His Limits is called "A Circular Commons for Digital Devices" and we apparently both attended the ICT4S conference in Copenhagen last year but without really meeting (we didn't recognise each other, but he had met my wife at that conference). He is involved in organising the upcoming OuiShare Fest in Barcelona later this year (October) and I might just travel there to meet up with him, give a talk and join the party!

One important reason for planning the first Limits workshop was that we felt that it was important to create a venue that would make it possible for graduate/ph.d.students to conduct Limits-related research and have somewhere to present it. Since ph.d. students need to rack up a certain number of publications (typically 4-6), Computing within Limits would thus make it possible to point at a respectable venue where a ph.d. student could publish, say, two of those necessary articles, thereby creating an opportunity to choose a limits-related topic for your ph.d. project. More established researchers are already established in some neighbouring/other discipline and don't really need a venue for presenting their research in the same way that younger researchers do. More established researchers also have better chances of getting their research published in the first place because they can write better, are more adept at "masquerading" their opinions to fit elsewhere, have better knowledge about alternative venues etc., so we hoped that Limits could become an important platform for graduate/ph.d. students. Looking at this year's program, it seems like only two out of the fifteen presenters were graduate students though. We really would like to increase that fraction, but it might be the case that these things just take time. I might in fact have recruited a ph.d. student for next year's Limits workshop (see my next blog post), but he was totally unaware of its existence despite a pretty good match between Limits and his research.

As to the discussion about discussion papers vs systems papers (above), I asked the other organisers what they felt the limits of Limits were. Is it ok to invite people to write discussion papers where the outcome is geared not primarily towards designers and systems builders but rather, say, planners, policy makers and politicians? If so, then know some people I could invite (convince) to write papers to next year's Limits. The consensus seemed to be that that would be ok as long as the conclusions and the discussion was relevant also for people who build systems.

1) Barath's paper from Limits 2015 started with quoting Sevareid's law: "The chief source of problems is solutions". I don't know how many times I have quoted that since last year.
2) This year Barath said that "If there is no solution, there is no problem". This got me thinking.
3) I am fond of John Michael Greer's toughts about problems and predicaments. Problems can be solved once-and-for-all (for example by engineers) while predicaments have no solutions. The fact that we are all mortal does not have a "solution" (a fix). You can develop strategies to handle that basic fact, but you can't "fix the problem". You can choose to live fast and die young or you can stop smoking and eat yoghurt every day, but, you are still mortal and will still die eventually.
4) I am also fascinated by Joseph Tainter's problem-solving (or is "predicament-handling) strategy of solving a problem by NOT solving the problem. Some problems are just too small, rare, complex or immoral (etc.) that we just shouldn't waste our (by necessity) limited resources on even attempting to solve them. Not solving a problem is however of course also a solution that can be the source of future problems.
5) Then there are also so-called "wicked problems" - "a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize."
6) ...and then there are "super wicked problems". Global warming is a super-wicked problem and "while the items that define a wicked problem relate to the problem itself, the items that define a super wicked problem relate to the agent trying to solve it".
So, where does this leave us? How is it possible to keep all these complex and intersecting thoughts in mind and make something sensible out of it? Can an academic paper be teased out of all these stimulating perspectives? Do get back to me if you have an idea...

I summed up one of the conference session by referring to science fiction author William Gibson's statement that "The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed". His thinking resonates with Alan Kay's statement that "the best way to predict the future is to invent it" (1971) as well as in the title of Stewart Brand's book "The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T." (1987). The future that "the rest of us" will experience five or ten years down the road already exists in top labs at top academic institutions and in the research labs of high-tech companies. From a Limits (collapse) perspective it however makes sense to turn that phrase inside out and state that "The collapse is already here, it is just not evenly distributed". Such a future can be illustrated by using just a few keywords/places: unemployment, energy poverty, peak oil, climate change, Detroit, Greece, failed states, Syria etc.

We had problems discussing examples of "solutions" in our paper about a Limits-compliant sharing economy because we could not discern or agree on the future form or shape of the Internet in a Limits-restrained future - something we however will discuss at our upcoming ICT4S workshop, "Computing within Limits: Visions of computing beyond Moore’s law". We did not think about the many different suggestions for low-tech low-cost Internets that Raghavan and Hasan suggest in their Limits 2016 paper "Macroscopically Sustainable Networking: On Internet Quines"; a low-tech Internet, an Internet built from salvaged hardware or how about "Internet over Avian Carrier" ... "with trained birds with tiny storage devices strapped to their legs" (see further RFC 2594). Didn't think about that...

One final reflection is not about the presence but about absence. I will explain by briefly telling a story. As a student volunteer at CHI 1997 (Atlanta), me and fellow ph.d. student Christer Garbis (nowadays "Principal User Research Manager at Amazon Kindle") packed tote bags with a dozen different leaflets as well as various promotional "goodies". While 10 student volunteers walked around the table clock-wise, there was one guy who for some inexplicable reason walked around the table counter clock-wise, bumping into everyone all the time ("oh, sorry"). I remember wondering where that guy did his ph.d....? Last year we had two attendees who were a little like that guy. When talking with them about various Limits, they would chime in a "yes" but immediately follow up with a "but..." and a line of reasoning that flaunted the whole idea of (absolute) limits. Kind of like "yes, there are limits right now, but in the future...". Looking back, I believe this was exhausting for all of us (including for them). This year we didn't have anyone like that and we were all if not on the same page, then at least reading from the same book. Part of the reason for organising a workshop like this is to exchange ideas and hopefully to grow a community. We want to negotiate and form shared understandings of how to perceive certain problems (related to Limits) and possible solutions, and I believe in hindsight that those two participants unwittingly disturbed that process. I'm also quite sure they too felt that the match wasn't great and that we weren't a crowd that were very sympathetic to the ideas they presented.

Changes and improvements for next year

It was really great to have invited speakers ("keynotes") this year. It allows us to invite people we want to listen to but who would never have attended Limits otherwise. I felt like a kid in a candy store when we, at the post-Limits business meeting, started to throw around ideas for who to invite to Limits next year!

It might very well be the case that Limits will not be held at UC Irvine next year but instead at another venue (in California). Perhaps it's time to organise Limits in Stockholm sometime after that? While Limits have had some institutional support this far (especially in terms of financing), we will have to think some more about a sustainable model for how to finance future Limits workshops.

We had planned for no less than four 30-minute "breakout sessions" (group discussions) at Limits, but they were often truncated or squeezed out of the program due to the fact that we allowed for longer Q-and-A sessions than planned after paper presentations. I have a hard time stating if this for the most part was good or bad, but it was a pity that the breakout sessions for the most part didn't happen. It might, as someone suggested, be the case that two days of Limits is not enough. The longer people have to travel to attend Limits, the more paltry a mere two days will seem. So perhaps Limits should be extended by another half or full day?

Another option would be to extend Limits by organising a voluntary pre-conference workshop (or perhaps a pre-worskhop workshop as Limits is advertised as a "workshop"?). Yet another option would be to follow up the Limits workshop with a, say, four-day summer school for graduate/ph.d. students. For someone who is unfamiliar with the basic premises of Computing with Limits, a summer school would provide the opportunity to read up and immerse oneself in Limits thinking, but, we would again need to think about how to finance it. Perhaps next year's Limits could be preceded by a workshop where we discuss how to organise a summer school the following year (financing, goals, contents, readings, format etc.)?

I felt that the organisation itself at times were a little bit to impromptu and lax. Only some dozens of people attended Limits so it's still a small informal event, but there could still have been a better division of labor between us organisers with clearer responsibilities for practical issues like introducing and wrapping up sessions, keeping the time and perhaps there should also be a designated historian/ blogger/ twitterer/ photographer? Bill Tomlinson spontaneously took on the role of making sure that people who presented kept the time, but this was not something we had decided upon in advance. While the workshop had two chairs, we had spent very little time preparing what to say when we opened the event and when we closed it. As part of opening and welcoming people to the workshop, I fortunately spent a few minutes describing where Computing within Limits came from (describing it as a rebranded version of "Collapse informatics" - c.f. the CHI 2012 paper on "Collapse Informatics" by Tomlinson et. al.). This short orientation seemed to be useful for several attendees as it gave them tools to orient with, but, the opening talk could obviously have been better planned and should so be for next year's workshop. I think that us organisers think that also people who attend (also for the first time) sort of knows everything we know about what Computing within Limits is and where it comes from. I can myself hear how impossibly stupid this sounds as I write it down but I still suspect it's true. This is of course that has to be better managed next time around!

My final thought goes to the Limits 2015 post-workshop Hoffice session we organised but that we totally forgot about it this year. The event was announced like this:
"Please consider joining an informal gathering on [the day after the workshop] if you plan to be around Irvine. We will use the "Hoffice"' methodology (which you can read about here) of having 45 minute work sessions followed by short breaks with social activities. During each work session you can choose to work by yourself (for example answering e-mail) or engage others in discussions of projects, proposals, or ideas that the workshop raised or that you develop during the day."
My recollection was that it was very successful in 2015 so we might want to consider doing it again next year. It prolongs the fun for those who think two days is not enough by providing a very flexible structure for work, collaboration and socialisation.

† Well, in the LIMITS 2016 proceedings (in the ACM Digital Library) it actually says that Bonnie Nardi is General Chair and that me and Barath Raghavan are Program Chairs.

fredag 10 juni 2016

Consider Half - greatest project idea ever?

I am right now attending the Second Workshop on Computing within Limits (LIMITS 2016). I have written about it on the blog extensively during the spring due to the fact that I am one of the organiseras as well as a co-author of three separate papers that are being presented at the conference:
- An invitation to come to Limits
- Limits to the Sharing Economy (with Elina Eriksson and Adrian Friday)
- Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits (with Barath Raghavan)
- Whose future is it anyway?: Limits within Policy Modeling" (with Somya Joshi, Teresa Cerratto Pargman and Adreas Gazis)
- An invitation to our upcoming ICT4S Limits workshop (with Elina Eriksson, Lorenz Hilty, Adrian Friday, Chris Preist, Teresa Cerratto Pargman)

I should be bashed for and ashamed of going all the way to California to attend, but, it really is irresistible for me to be here in Irvine again, meeting old colleagues and acquaintances (both faculty and graduate students) from my sabbatical here back in 2014, making new acquaintances, listening to exciting and interesting talks, and just the pedestrian experience of walking in the UCI campus and re-living the weather and the smells of SoCal.

As it so happens, I did take the opportunity to come one day early to participate/lead a brainstormy project- and paper-generating workshop with a few select persons (Josh Tanenbaum, Marcel Pufal, Bonnie Nardi and Barath Raghavan). This blog post is about that day. Since we had previously talked about the Limits workshop in terms of Day 1 and Day 2 as well as Day 3 (business meeting), it made sense to call this Limits Day Zero. While we talked about many different topics (keep your eyes open for future blog posts about design fiction, survivalism and more), I will here just outline the one major undertaking we discussed; "Consider Half".

Consider Half is an idea I got on my sabbatical two years ago (the name isn't great but it's the working title for now). After an initial flurry of activities, I met some challenges in proceeding with the idea - not the least because it can easily become wildly and unwieldily ambitious - so it has been "resting in a drawer" for upwards to two years. It has however been revived and re-energized by me teaming up with Josh Tanenbaum. For me it's a "hobby project" of sorts (but that could change), but it's right up his alley when it comes to his core research interests (popular culture, design fiction etc.). While this blog post is about the Consider Half project, I don't really want to go out on a limb and spill all the beans so I will just cover the basics here. Here's the basic elevator pitch:

1) “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” (Niels Bohr)
In my Swedish-language peak oil public outreach activities (English) five years ago, I found that the most difficult and intriguing parts were not in thinking about and describing the past, the present or the near future, but in predicting the social and economical effects of peak oil. Physics is easy but social science is hard since people are unpredictable both as individuals and (ever more so) when we group together (communities, societies). Zeitgeist is a difficult topic for a physicist to perform calculations on...

2) Peak oil is now (or soon, or recently etc.)
See my blog post on "Points of departure" from 2010. I have hardly changed my opinion at all since then.

3) The consequences will be grave
...and it will affect all areas of life (and death). See this or this or this blog post of mine for examples of the consequences. Peak oil (and the subsequent peak energy) is the end of the biggest bubble of them all - the industrial society bubble.

4) But the consequences are exceedingly hard to predict since they involve billions of people and lots of moving parts:
If I kick a stone, the movement of the stone is energized by the act, but if I kick a dog, the behavior of the dog may indeed be partly conservative – he may travel along a Newtonian trajectory if kicked hard enough, but this is mere physics. What is important is that he may exhibit responses which are energized not by the kick but by his metabolism; he may turn and bite. This, I think, is what people mean by magic. The realm of phenomena in which we are interested is always characterized by the fact that “ideas” may influence events. To the physicist, this is a grossly magical hypothesis. It is one which cannot be tested by asking questions about the conservation of energy” 
Gregory Bateson (1972), "Steps to an ecology of mind", p.229

5) Despite such difficulties, it is still be prudent to try to understand the consequences of peak oil and take action now (or soon or recently or quite some time ago or a long time ago - for example in 1977 when Jimmy Carter gave this vital speech: "The President's Proposed Energy Policy").

6) This however presents us with a pedagogical problem
Again, prediction is hard, especially about the future. How do you convince people of what will (could, might, should) happen in the future? Everything about the future amounts to a whole lot of speculations - since it evidently hasn't happened yet. But still we try and we base our smallest decisions (the bus will arrive in 4 minutes) and our largest (can we afford to buy this house?) on predictions about the future.

Everything above is just "facts" and you might agree or disagree, but here comes the leap of faith into fiction and alternate reality:

7) With Consider Half we have chosen to solve the pedagogical problem of attempting to explain the effects of peak oil by placing peak oil not in the present (or the near past/future), but in the far past.
The basic premise of Consider Half is: what if there ever only was half the oil in the ground when we started to use it 150 years ago? E.g. what if there ever only was 1.5 instead of 3 trillion barrels of oil in the ground back in the 19th century? 

If peak oil happens when you have extracted half of it all, then peak oil would have happened decades ago in this fictive parallell world. So how would this have played out? What would (could) an alternate 2016 look like if peak oil had happened decades ago? For example, what would have been the implications for all the five Really Important factors that are discussed in Limits to Growth (1972)? The five Really Important factors (variables) that were modeled in that prescient study were: 
- World population
- Industrialisation
- Pollution
- Food production
- Resources depletion.

In the Consider Half project we can choose to look at these five factors or look at other factors as we see fit (transportation, computing, politics, city planning, life quality or whatnot). A lot more thinking has been done both back in 2014 and now, but this is enough of a teaser (promotion?) of the Consider Half project for now.

söndag 5 juni 2016

Join our Computing within Limits workshop at ICT4S!


I published a blog post some time ago about the workshop proposal ("Computing within Limits: Visions of computing beyond Moore’s law") we submitted to the upcoming 4th ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) conference.

Our workshop is one of nine workshops at the conference (here's the full list) and it will be held on Monday August 29. The main conference takes place during the following two days and a new round of workshops are held on Thursday September 1. The conference itself is held in Amsterdam this time around (the previous three conferences were held in Zürich, Stockholm and Copenhagen).

Below is the full call for participation for our workshop with all the information you need if you consider participating. More information can be found at the workshop homepage.


CfP Workshop: Computing within Limits: Visions of computing beyond Moore’s law
Call for participation:
"Computing within Limits: Visions of computing beyond Moore’s law"
A workshop at the 4th International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S), Amsterdam, Monday August 29, 2016.

In ICT4S and in the field of computing, we generally assume that a transition to a sustainable society can be supported by various mitigation strategies. But, what if mitigation doesn’t work out and we instead have to think about adaptation? What if we will come up against various ecological, material, energetic, and/or societal limits that will profoundly affect the field of computing? These questions have lately started to be explored under the term “Computing within Limits”.

This workshop introduces Computing within Limits to an ICT4S audience and invites workshop participants to collaboratively explore scenarios that go beyond usually assumed predictions (Moore’s law etc.) within the field of computing. At the workshop we will develop a limited number (2-4) of scenarios, and work through various implications; what research is or will be needed, what ICT will people use and need, and what are the implications for industry? How does this all differ from what we focus on today? The goal of the workshop is to develop an agenda by proposing research questions that would be relevant to explore if we take various biophysical limits and Computing with Limits seriously.

For more information about the workshop, see: https://computingwithinlimits.wordpress.com
For more information about the ICT4S conference, see: http://2016.ict4s.org

Prospective participants should apply to the workshop by handing in a 1 page long letter of interest, which should outline the background and the reasons for why he/she would like to attend the workshop. If there are many prospective applicants, the workshop organizers will strive to put together a diverse set of participants from the research community as well as from industry. Priority will be given to applicants who are, or would be highly interested in doing research/work on the topic of the workshop. Submissions should be sent to hci4sustainability@gmail.com

Important dates:
Deadline for letter of interest: August 7th, 2016
Notification of acceptance: August 12th, 2016
Workshop: August 29th, 2016

Elina Eriksson (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden)
Daniel Pargman (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden)
Lorenz Hilty (University of Zürich, Switzerland)
Adrian Friday (Lancaster University, UK)
Chris Preist (University of Bristol, UK)
Teresa Cerratto Pargman (Stockholm University, Sweden)

fredag 3 juni 2016

MID department retreat and reflections of organisation


My department (Media Technology and Interaction Design) left for a 24-hour lunch-to-lunch retreat earlier this week and we went to Waxholm to discuss current developments and challenges at our department. Around 20 persons were at the retreat, with a larger representation of senior faculty (almost all of us were there) and a smaller representation of ph.d. students.

Me and Elina were part of the program and we had a 90 minutes to present and discuss "sustainability" and how it relates to our engineering programme against the backdrop of an increased KTH emphasis on integrating sustainability at all levels of our eduction (undergraduate, graduate, ph.d.). We used the list of 10 learning outcomes that KTH has specified for sustainability/sustainable development education and also introduced the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to our colleagues before initiating a discussion on how we could use these resources to think about and develop our teaching activities. To be continued...

We also discussed several other things but I will here write about only one as it was both the most comprehensive as well as the most interesting activity at the retreat. It started already on day one when we were asked to make liberal use of post-it notes to answer the two questions "what gives you energy at work?" and "what makes you (morally) upset at work?". That really got people going, not the least since it was preceded by looking at and discussion the results of latest KTH employee survey. I don't really see it myself, but it seems a majority of my colleagues (or is it primarily the ph.d. students?) are stressed, have problems sleeping etc. While I periodically work a lot (e.g. this past month), I usually don't have somatic problems of any kind, but, it seems many others do. To solve these serious problems I "humorously" suggested that the department should rethink its policy and be more liberal with providing employees with sleeping pills and anti-depressants.

As usual, I am however sceptical about surveys and other (over-)simplifications. One noteworthy result of the survey was for example the fact that a surprisingly large proportion of the respondents have little confidence in KTH central management (dean level and up). Many respondents also failed to "see a clear link between department and overall KTH objectives". But how should this be interpreted? It could mean that KTH central management does a good job but us peons are un- or misinformed about the great job they do (easily fixed by "better communication" or an "information campaign"). But an alternative way of interpreting the results is that the low confidence is in fact justified and that the problem has to be fixed at the KTH central management level. Before we know which interpretation is most suitable, it is hard to take even the next step (whatever it is). Most other questions in the survey could also be problematised in this way and the answer would always become "we need to know more before we can act".

The questions "what gives you energy?" and "what makes you upset?" were easier to answer and the results (a copious number of post-it notes) were forwarded to two organisational consultants (Ann-Sofie Westelius - organisational development, and Tomas Brytting - organisational ethics) who came by the second day to help us discuss these issues. My own answers were that cooperation with colleagues, exploring a world of ideas and (successfully) writing (successful) papers gives me energy while things that make me upset are for example getting stuck in "admin hell" (going in circles, not knowing who to turn to etc.) and the fact that an ever-increasing number of rules makes doing what needs to be done at a university more difficult and cumbersome every year. It turned out my answers were very much in line with those of my colleagues.

The consultants were in fact pretty great. They didn't shy away from the massive critique that was expressed by way of our post-it notes, but rather structured it all and threw it back at us (in a constructive way). I guess they are used to it and they must in fact have heard much worse many times over. They had a model that discusses the inner life of organisations in terms of Meaning, Authority, Rationality and Care, but I won't go into the deeper stuff beyond this short elaboration:
  • Human beings want to act rationally and need certain things in order to be healthy and productive.
  • Meaning - relating to sense of meaning and identity, a common (shared) goal that is in line with my basic values (e.g. "the good society"). But at what level do we share this sense of meaning (in my project, with my closest colleagues, in my team, my department, my school (computer science and communication) or the whole of KTH)? Here's an attempt to create meaning for us all from KTH's "Vision 2027" document:
    • "KTH works for a brighter tomorrow. KTH wishes to enhance society and identity smart solutions to the grand challenges of today, and of tomorrow. KTH works in the service of humankind for the society of tomorrow. One common denominator for all KTH efforts is a better society for individuals, enterprises and society at large"
  • Authority - based on competence and relating to legitimate power (to act), decisions processes and compliance, ability to implement, clearly defined responsibilities that matches the power to act, coordination, rules, norms (organisational cultures) 
    • ...as well as space for interpretation, double standards, learning to discern and navigate the space between "important rules" and "bullshit rules" (that no-one cares about).
  • Rationality - relating to knowledge, objective measurements (how are we doing?), open and fact-based dialogue (double-loop learning), effectiveness, procedures, routines, "supporting" computer systems, structured workflows (dependencies, peripheral awareness), predictability
  • Care - the human angle, relating to laughter, encouragement, recognition, togetherness, generosity, benevolence, respect

It turned out that "what gives us energy" happens primarily around Meaning ("my research can make the world a better place") and Care ("my colleagues are great"). It also turned out that "what upsets us" is closely related to (the lack of) Rationality, e.g. many of my colleagues feel that the rules and regulations we have to follow don't really help us, but rather hinders us from doing our jobs. The rest of the exercise focused on what we can do and suggestions ranged from resisting and protesting against stupidity ("voice") to hunkering down and concentrating on the good stuff our jobs provide us with ("loyalty"). I am personally very interested in the "voice" option. If some rules are stupid enough, perhaps it is our duty to protest or subvert them? What would for example GandhiKing or Parkinson say? 

But what forms should protest then take? Protest can range from the mostly harmless non-violent resistance of "flying under the radar", initiating skunkworks projects or "withdrawal" (concentrating only on the stuff you consider to be of importance to you and not partaking i 24-hour retreats etc.) to more overt or perhaps even destructive strategies such as activism, explicit protests, subversion or of answering stupidity by the same coin (e.g. "working by the book" and other strategies that can have the effect of making things unworkable for others). Far be it from me to suggest that it might be cleaver, sage, sane, prudent, judicious, shrewd, sagacious, advisable or that it sometimes could make eminent sense to try to make things unworkable for others (central functions, administration), because that would be the same as arguing for the misuse of resources. However, it is fascinating to look at CIA's timeless tips for wartime organisational resistance (sabotage) and realise that many of the things we do at work could hardly have been better designed if the purpose had been to make sure we get as little work done as possible. Do for example read this article about "the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: A Timeless, Kafkaesque Guide to Subverting Any Organization with “Purposeful Stupidity” (1944)". These are some of the tips on how to subvert the effectiveness of the organisation you work in as a way of resisting an enemy power that occupies your country:
  • Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  • Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.
  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.
We then worked in smaller groups (5-6 persons), one person in my group stated that "during the last 10 years, administrative functions has ceased to support our work. Now we do everything ourselves and we are slaves under the administration". I suggested this was perhaps a little too pointed and that a more accurate (milder) formulation instead would emphasise that "we feel that we are slaves under the administration". That however did not go far enough to satisfy the person in question who really did feel that we nowadays in fact are slaves under the administrationQuite a few of our woes seem to be related to the fact that our local administrator ("secretary") was taken away from us and that the school nowadays instead is organised around co-located and centralised administrative functions. Even though there are good arguments in favour of this (it did for sure solve someone's problem somewhere and I'm sure the dean always get first-class help whenever he has a problem), the discontent among the faculty is massive and palpable. One suggestion was that we should "kidnap" our old administrator as she was crucial for getting things done with a minimun of fuzz and for helping us navigate "the ever-increasing set of rules that is enslaving us". 

My personal analysis is as follows. There can unfortunately exist a "natural" antagonistic relationship between faculty and administrators. From the faculty point of view, the admins and all the rules they represent (and guard) force us to jump through various hoops. We find this exceedingly frustrating - not the least because it's almost impossible to argue with (or indeed at times even too understand) the sometimes "nonsensical" rules that apparently still are oh-so-important. For faculty, administrators (and their rules they represent) are roadblocks to getting things done. To the admins, I suppose we will seem like a bunch of anarchists who are ready to break any rules, but worse is the fact that whenever we get in touch with them, we create work for them. If we disagree or want reasons or motivations, well then we create more work for them. It happens that they themselves can not convincingly justify the rules they are set to enforce. They might (covertly) agree that certain things are cumbersome or unreasonable, but it's still their job to make sure that things get done according to the rules. By pointing out things that are stupid or unreasonable, faculty probably makes them feel bad about their jobs (e.g. cognitive dissonance). 

Even more important though is the fact that when our administrator, Marianne, was at our department and she was one of us. We knew her and she knew us. We ate lunch with her and had coffee breaks together. She self-identified as being part of our department and did her best to support us. Now she eats lunch with all the other administrators at the School of Computer Science and Communication and she self-identifies with another set of people - a set of people whose job it is to make sure the faculty follows all the rules (and there are always sooo many). I don't know about the admins, but this creates massive discontent among the faculty. It sometimes wells up and I would say that it's a major factor of discontent for people at my department. I have now gained a new appreciation for the fact that the research center that I am affiliated with (CESC) has forcefully argued for having the administrative person it pays for be located at the research center rather than join the centralised administrative pool. That person helps us solve so very many of our day-to-day problems. I would wish for everyone to have someone like him nearby.

Our task at the retreat was however not just to complain and dwell on the stuff that makes us discontent, but to discuss and find ways of going forward (while taking into account that much is outside of our control). We were therefore told to focus on the things we can do. Some suggested "exit" strategies, e.g. creating more autonomous organisational entities (research centers, research institutions) that had greater self-control and was further away from the black hole of central administration, oversight and control. One group suggested some kind of design fiction exercise involving a 2030 fictional course catalogue from our department. I can't really do the proposal justice and I didn't hear/understand it all but it had something to do with collecting ideas and curating them, having workshops and of perhaps also using the outcomes for thinking about new courses as well as about new research. 

My group's suggestion was to create a video booth for venting your frustration (kind of like a confessional booth). Like on reality TV, you have a minute or two to tell the camera about your latest bout with whatever frustrates you at work. An attractive function of such a confessional booth is that you can vent your frustration and then to a certain extent let go and leave your problems behind when you exit the booth! I'll refer to these rants in terms of "testimonies" here (or perhaps "testimoanies"?). The testimonies will be saved and would at first be used only for internal (department) consumption (e.g. for discussions). Perhaps we could use them to make a list (or a video compilation) of our chief complaints? They might also be used for other purposes later, but of course only with the permission of the persons who have left the testimonies (there might also be a companion Google form for anonymous submissions). Perhaps we could put together a short movie that we could show the dean and the chief of staff at our school (or more controversially, post it on YouTube)? 

It's unclear for what exact purpose we'll use the testimonies, but, we still felt this was a really good idea, so my colleague Helena Tobiasson and me took on the responsibility of trying to make this proposal happen for real. Helena will be advising master's theses students this coming autumn and she took on the responsibility of putting together a thesis proposal (I'll help her), and, of trying to recruit a student. A master's thesis student would then a) build the physical booth, b) test it (faculty has to help out by plenty of testimoaning) and c) evaluate and (perhaps) redesign the video booth. I will then take on the responsibility of writing a massively multi-authored paper about [something] that comes out of this project. The technology itself won't be very advanced and I'm sure it has been done many times before, but we are rather more interested in the content and in the process of using the testimonies as a way to discuss how to improve things our department. This project now needs a catchy name, but it could be really fun, functional, interesting and useful.

Addendum (June 17, 2016). Just to show that I don't only complain, this is what a truly excellent administrator does:
"Hi, we are investigating a train trip to [the ICT4S conference] and are therefore wondering who is going there. If you would like help with finding a train rout to the conference and/or like to travel together please let me know latest on Tuesday 21/6. I can also help out if anyone wants help with registration to the conference and somewhere to sleep."