XXIII.1 January + February 2016
Page: 64
Digital Citation

Bridging communities

Birgit Penzenstadler, Ankita Rauturi, Christoph Becker, Juliet Norton, Bill Tomlinson, Six Silberman, Debra Richardson

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March 2015, California. In the room: psychologists, information scholars, HCI researchers, software engineering academics, information systems students, and others from the diverse communities of iSchools and sustainability research, coming together to establish "a community and potential research collaborations within the iSchools network to link efforts around ICT for sustainability."

back to top  Insights


Recent years have seen a spate of first-time sustainability-focused workshops at computing-related conferences, including Sustainable CHI (at the CHI conference), Green and Sustainable Software (GREENS, at ICSE), and Requirements Engineering for Sustainable Systems (RE4SuSy, at RE). Can we still learn something new? This question triggered considerable discussion at the workshop: How can we collaborate toward something with meaningful impact on our future research and its outcomes? What is the point of having a sustainability workshop at every conference? What are the roles of technology in the myriad potential futures?

Here we offer a report on the ICT4Sustainability, weaving insights from the presentations (available at into our discussion of the workshop's afternoon breakout sessions (in italics).

Emphasizing the need for sustainability research to Transfer into Practice and Integrate the Public, in this breakout session Laura Sheble described how research systems are on the precipice of large-scale cultural reorientation. She proposed community-informed research systems that would help to establish policy-enabled, socially supported socio-environmental health equity and sustainability research. Through community-based participatory research, we can develop multiple perspectives of the problem space and research intended to 1) address urgent societal issues, 2) understand the impact of research on communities, and 3) develop research partners to frame, contribute to, and implement outcomes of research.

The breakout discussion evolved around the idea that if research identifies a solutionary intervention we hope to evaluate, we ask how to integrate the public in that process. Methods and modes that came up are participatory problem development and design and community-based participatory research. Partnering up with local communities in research areas will help us to integrate the research into practice and ensure transfer and early adoption, which in turn helps scientific evaluation. Such research-development integration can again help for further education. This led to a discussion around expanding the mandate for publics, for example by integrating libraries, archives, and museums. We identified challenges for public acceptance including privacy, transparency, socioeconomic stratification, digital divide, and disconnects in social structure.

The session on Information Systems for Sustainability focused on user experience and behavior. Although there is a push to think more broadly, in the first round the breakout group narrowed in on resource consumption behavior change via mobile apps. Two presentations focused on the use of mobile technology. In the paper "Smartphone User in Informational Cities," Agnes Mainka and Sarah Hartman are motivated by the wide variety and abundance of data in cities and seek to make such data public via their citizens. Their goal is to utilize governmental, nonprofit, business, and citizen data for ecological, social, and economic "value added" initiatives like Urban Forest Map in San Francisco. They intend to utilize mobile applications to gather citizen data because mobile devices are ubiquitous in urban areas, and also because the workshop and hackathon culture in such cities focuses on the collective development of mobile applications. In "Designing Mobile Technology for Motivating Sustainable Behavior Change," Xiying Wang and Susan Fussell explain their ongoing research of designing energy-monitoring mobile applications for hotel and home environments. The design decisions for their applications are based on a formative study that identifies motivations for using energy.


Most of the conversation within the breakout group focused on the added benefit of a user's changed consumption behavior, acknowledging that in order for that benefit to be considered worthwhile, the technological platform it is built upon must also be sustainable. The group's primary takeaway is that cultural, societal, and generational differences should determine how a consumption-behavior-change app is designed. Instead of a single app created to work for everyone, designers must identify, acknowledge, and address local social and environmental contexts. Participants envisioned an ideal situation would be when members of a community worked together to understand what is needed to encourage community-wide consumption-behavior change.

Future Research Directions and the Role of iSchools explored how the many research areas and disciplines found at information schools can collaborate effectively to combine their methods and approaches in exploring the challenges around sustainability. For example, drawing on notions of collapse informatics and critical making, Gabby Resch's morning presentation introduced his proposal of "materializing collapse," asking: "What can we learn about the present when we imagine, design, and work to construct solutions for radical future transformations?" Through this proposal, Resch suggests we can better understand our present conditions through envisioning how sociotechnical systems fail, decay, and collapse. To facilitate this, he employs reflective practices that bring together physical prototyping and the creative exploration of sensory interfaces in learning environments with the construction and deconstruction of hardware and software.

The presentation "The Karlskrona Manifesto for Sustainability Design" highlighted a number of perceptions that dominate the mindset of software systems engineering and how these perceptions contribute to unsustainability. The authors suggest these are largely misperceptions and propose a set of broadly applicable sustainability design principles founded in systems thinking. Sustainability is framed as the capacity to endure and is understood in the five dimensions of environmental, social, individual, technical, and economic sustainability. The manifesto strives to provide a common ground for the diverse scholars, including those brought together within iSchools, engaged in systems design and sustainability (

Throughout the breakout session we discussed how iSchools are home to a uniquely diverse set of disciplines, domains, constituents, and methods. Yet the connections among various disciplines vary greatly across each iSchool. Despite the interdisciplinary rhetoric found in iSchool marketing, there is still considerable siloing, as well as institutional and cultural barriers that make it hard to collaborate across these silos. Although we discussed examples of these silos breaking up and connecting in different schools, there remain substantial challenges of collaboration across disciplines, and the potential is rarely leveraged effectively.

There are also tensions between obligations of the field (information schools have had a long-standing commitment to the public good) and responsibilities of the field. What can individual researchers do within their organizational context and its infrastructure of professional networks, institutional arrangements, tenure procedures, student bodies, and funding sources? Despite these tensions, we recognize the enormous potential for fruitful cross-disciplinary connections (see examples in [1]). We are convinced that the scholarship related to the issue of sustainability has strong potential as a cross-disciplinary catalyst because of its systemic and transdisciplinary nature, its long-term orientation that aligns with the perspectives of memory institutions, and the increasing attention paid to it as a priority item on the agenda of funding agencies.

Common Understanding of Toolkits and Their Evaluation explored items of such a research agenda. Two presentations revolved around the topic of modeling environmental issues to help people transition to more sustainable lifestyles. The authors' goals included finding ways to improve our capacity to both model and communicate the human-environment interactions. In "Modeling the Environmental Impact of Agricultural Systems," Raturi et al. describe difficulties faced in creating and comparing life cycle assessment models of agricultural systems, as they are complex, highly interconnected, and constantly changing over time. They present opportunities for design in the intersection of software engineering, environmental assessment, and agriculture. Their next steps involve the development of a modeling language and software tools to build maintainable and connectible environmental models. In "FloodRISE: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Leverage Technology for Resilience," Beth Karlin describes the last four years of the FloodRise project, which involves the development and testing of hydrodynamic models for flood prediction and behavior. While the engineering team looks at developing better parcel-level flood models, Karlin's social ecology team looks at how to leverage social science theories to improve the communication of potential flooding information.

Many newcomers weren't tuned into existent literature, and technology was often considered speculatively without an effort to understand the problem in its larger context.

This breakout session's discussion initially focused on specific toolkits in the context of ICT for sustainability but quickly acknowledged an urgent need for a variety of technological interventions to support sustainable practices and systems. These range in specificity from domain-specific (energy-monitoring systems, permaculture design tools) to generic tools (GIS tools, statistical packages). Should we be designing more domain-agnostic technologies used to answer sustainability-related questions or building more domain-specific collections of tools? Understanding the values of the different stakeholders also influences the types of toolkits to construct. From scientists to regulators, vendors to consumers, each group has a variety of goals requiring different tools that would demand varying levels of evaluation. Regardless of these considerations, the discussants agreed that essential attributes of good toolkits include: modularity, reusability, and usability, in addition to being constructed in open, accessible, and transparent ways. This requires an analysis of stakeholders and a weighing of design options, and sheds light on alternatives for evaluation.

back to top  Reflections on the Workshop

Reading through the discussion of breakout sessions and related papers above, we reflected on the question of whether this workshop developed something new. The well-recognized tensions of building a community from a free-standing workshop were apparent throughout the day. For example, many newcomers weren't tuned into existent literature, and technology was often considered speculatively without an effort to understand the problem in its larger context. These points in the conversation disheartened more experienced attendees. For some, the wheels of community building seemed to be spinning in an effort to reach a foundation commonly agreed upon by a fluctuating participant base. Seasoned participants come from different subfields with varying perspectives, and mentoring newcomers is perhaps the most difficult task the greater community faces. We need mechanisms to ensure common ground through common readings. The Sustainable CHI workshop in 2014 tried to address this in several ways [2]. At our workshop, it was apparent that those participants who had a strong understanding of the emerging field were able to frame and discuss the relevance of their research projects effectively.

The sustainability-specific challenge for the workshop is that the (quality) expectations for research results are different from "I improved x by 1.3 percent." The mindset of solutionism [3] leads to a tempting cycle of "find a gap—do something—test your solution—if it works, publish and move on." Sustainability brings out the fact that this is just not good enough: More of the same or small efficiency improvements are not the contribution we need for sustainability. For example, some app designers seemed unaware of criticism of the kind expressed in Yolande Strengers' "Resource Man" [4] or the notion of wicked problems [5]. This is a learning process for new (CS) students in particular. They need to "unlearn" small-increment research to contribute meaningfully to this dialogue.


Back in our day-to-day schedules of short-term deadlines and project-based grant funding, how much of that is really going to happen, and how will we make a difference? As pointed out by Elizabeth Popp Berman in her article "The Grant Economy as Tragedy of the Commons," the current way of research financing—via grants that propose ideas that must already be halfway implemented to prove feasibility—is neither sustainable nor conducive to good research. The grant economy reinforces solutionism. It's hard to foment sustainable rebellion when there's a culture of indebtedness to keep one in check.

A general sustainability conference ends up including many different application domains and helps sustainability researchers get better connected, but to educate the domain-specific disciplines about sustainability concerns we recognize the need for workshops at different domain-grounded events. Connecting these two might mean that an ambassador from the general conference comes and keynotes each workshop to bring community members who didn't attend the general conference up to speed with the broader movement.

The main message of our article is that, in sustainability workshops, we need move from "This is what sustainability is about, we should all be aware of it" to "We agree on what sustainability is about, let's get an overview of what the state of the art in this community is that relates to sustainability." Sustainability workshops should not be about figuring out what sustainability means. Instead, they are, or should be, about critically analyzing the conference's congruence with sustainability issues.

back to top  References

1. Erickson, I., Nathan, L., Jafarinaimi, N., Knobel, C., and Ratto, M. Meta-making: Crafting the conversation of values and design. Interactions 19, 4 (2012), 54–59. DOI:10.1145/2212877.2212891;

2. Silberman, M.S., Nathan, L., Knowles, B., Bendor, R., Clear, A., Hakansson, M., Dillahunt, T., and Mankoff, J. Next steps for sustainable HCI. Interactions 21, 5 (2014), 66–69. DOI:10.1145/2651820;

3. Morozov, E. To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. PublicAffairs, 2014.

4. Strengers, Y. Smart energy in everyday life: Are you designing for resource man? Interactions 21, 4 (2014), 24–31. DOI:10.1145/2621931;

5. Buchanan, R. Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues 8, 2 (Spring, 1992) 5–21;

back to top  Authors

Birgit Penzenstadler ( is an assistant professor at the California State University, Long Beach. Her research focuses on software engineering for sustainability.

Ankita Raturi is a Ph.D. student in software engineering at UC Irvine. Her research focuses on involving sustainability considerations in software development, software standards, and metrics.

Christoph Becker is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at the Vienna University of Technology.

Juliet Norton is a Ph.D. student in informatics at UC Irvine. She researches sustainability social movements and the presence of and implications for information technology.

Bill Tomlinson is a professor of informatics at UC Irvine. His research interests include environmental informatics, human-computer interaction, multi-agent systems, and computer-supported learning. He received a Ph.D. in media arts and sciences from MIT.

M. Six Silberman works with IG Metall in Germany. He received a Ph.D. in informatics from UC Irvine.

Debra Richardson is a professor of informatics at UC Irvine. Her research interests include exploring how software engineering can be made to address socially relevant problems such as sustainability. She received a Ph.D. in computer and information science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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