Being green

XVI.4 July + August 2009
Page: 6
Digital Citation

SUSTAINABLY OURSInformation system design as catalyst


Authors:
Lisa Nathan, Batya Friedman, Dave Hendry

As we enter the 21st century, no issue looms larger than how we stand in relation to the natural environment. Concern is growing over the vast amount of finite resources we consume to maintain our lives. Whether one views humanity as master, steward, or just a recalcitrant member of the Earth’s ecosystem, there is recognition that current lifestyles cannot sustain the environment that sustains us. What is needed is no less than a cultural shift in how we view and conduct ourselves in relation to the natural world.

Attending to an observation of Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, that by “designing information systems we design ways of being” [1], it is clear that information systems can be integral to bringing about this cultural shift. How, then, might we support professional designers of such systems? How might we conduct design research and educate the next generation of designers? And how might we do so in a way that engages the value tensions inherent in environmental sustainability while also revealing tensions that arise from the intersection of environmental sustainability and other important human values, such as equity and innovation?

Granted, there are many ways to talk about what it means to be sustainable. Here, we work within the framework that sustainable interactive technology “...meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [2]. One must also acknowledge that environmental sustainability is not achievable without serious consideration of social and economic sustainability [3].

This article draws attention to the unique role of information system design in catalyzing a cultural shift. So do our experiences with three projects guided by the “value sensitive design” ethos [4]: design methods that encourage creative thinking about the pervasive and systemic environmental implications of new technologies, design research that involves large-scale infrastructure around energy use, and design education that integrates environmental sustainability into a standard undergraduate capstone course. Taken together, these projects recognize shifting conditions, value tensions, and long-term systemic interactions—all crucial for engaging the challenges of environmental sustainability.

Design Method

The challenge of environmental sustainability belongs to a set of problems that require long-term, systemic thinking [5]. Yet few methods exist for engaging in problem solving for designs that can influence societies for five-, 10-, or 20-year periods. We created Envisioning Cards to assist designers in addressing challenges of this type. The cards are a physical embodiment of four critical envisioning dimensions—stakeholders, values, pervasiveness, and time—identified in previous research [6]. The four dimensions integrate concepts from long-term, successful urban-planning initiatives [7], the edgy perspective of design noir [8], and insights from value-sensitive design research [4]. Focusing on each dimension through Envisioning Cards can scaffold problem solving around complex challenges such as environmental sustainability.

The current set of Envisioning Cards is a work in progress [9]. Beta 2.1 consists of 30 3.5×5.5- inch cards. The card includes the title of a concept on one side and an evocative image on the other. The text side includes a brief description and an activity to assist a design team in considering that particular concept in relation to their design project. The design team determines when to use the cards in the design process, how much time to spend with them, which cards to use, and how to use them (e.g., stimulate initial brainstorming, develop scenarios, craft product requirements, conduct focus groups, engage in prototype evaluation).

Individuals working within a short development cycle may feel daunted when attempting to envision how the design they are working with might encourage future cultural shifts. The card set includes a two-minute sand timer that serves to alleviate this pressure, suggesting that even in a short period, the cards can go some distance in stimulating creative solutions.

The cards help designers grapple with the following questions: Might stakeholders’ other values conflict with their concern for environmental sustainability (e.g., the desire to accumulate cutting-edge technologies versus reducing consumption)? How might the environmental influence of a design shift as the tool becomes pervasive within and across societies (e.g., laptops use less energy than a desktop machine, but overtime proliferation leads to more toxic batteries in landfills)? On the previous page are examples from the Envisioning Card set, demonstrating how the cards can assist in engaging the issue of environmental sustainability.

We readily acknowledge that the Envisioning Cards do not address extremely difficult questions. For example, will the material and energy costs of creating and maintaining a “green” computing design throughout the design’s life cycle be greater than the benefits? That said, the cards can help designers and policy makers consider complex, environmentally oriented design challenges, and begin to address specifics such as functionality requirements, compatibility issues, and context of use.

Design Research

Energy use, for most of us, is hidden and poorly understood. In large organizations such as university or corporate campuses, people consume a considerable amount of energy through their technologies, buildings, and activities. But how much and to what effect?

Hundreds of universities around the world have signed declarations at major environmental conferences, promising to reduce their institutions’ carbon footprints as well as promote sustainability within their educational and social missions. At the University of Washington, we are developing the Community Energy Platform so that a wide spectrum of stakeholders can use data on energy consumption, including student designers/researchers, facilities engineers, environmental activists, and artists. We seek to enable people to engage with the concept of energy on their own terms, with their own projects.

The platform is a Web-based system, consisting of four main components: 1. A data service for storing and accessing time series data on energy consumption and other related data (campus population changes, daily temperature, and luminosity readings, among others); 2. Applications for making sense of the data, which will be deployed on Web pages, desktop computers, social networking sites; 3. Online environments for civic inquiry and deliberation, which make use of the applications; and 4. Policies for steering the platform’s evolution at the university over the long term.

At the University of Washington, a network of electricity meters was installed in the 1990s, with meters connected to more than 200 main campus buildings. The problem is the data has remained largely sequestered within the facilities department. With the Community Energy Platform, the data will become a public resource for creating presentations that allow the exploration and scrutiny of electricity consumption.

However, even when readily available in the public sphere, graphic presentations of energy use, such as real-time readings, daily and weekly time series, and yearly demand-curve summaries, are not likely to improve the community’s knowledge of energy use, much less support desired changes in human values and actions. Such presentations tend to be abstract, technical and large scale, useful to specialists but mysterious to lay people.

In fact, energy projects that clarify and inform through public dialog and activities could have a far greater impact than the presentations themselves. Yet without public and timely presentations of energy-use data, civic inquiry into the purposes and functions of buildings and our energy-related activities are not easily pursuable. Therein lies the need for an open architecture that supports accessible social and technological conditions.

In one illustrative example of collective action, undergraduate students used metering data to examine the energy consumption of a “LAN party.” Late in the evening, approximately 20 students entered a computer lab, installed a computer game, and played into early the next day. Students were able to compare the energy consumption of this five-hour period against a baseline measurement, collected in previous days at the same time. They found that they could discern a small impact from their LAN party on the building’s aggregate energy consumption. While quirky and rudimentary, this student-directed exploration does suggest how electricity data, when publically accessible, can be used to investigate the effects of our actions on energy use.

As we conduct design research on how best to represent electricity data for public awareness, inquiry, and discussion, we have come to recognize three fundamental issues that must be addressed in the design of the Community Energy Platform:

Design for the long term. We assume that the current electricity data will become more valuable in time—10, 20, and 50 years into the future. If so, what is the best way to represent the data, and what metadata should be preserved so that its meaning is readily carried forward?

Shifting conditions. Metering technology and data-collection systems are subject to the typical forces of IT obsolescence. A key requirement, therefore, is to construct a platform that can unify access to data in systems with varied data schemas and methods of access. In a separate vein, the university campus is dynamic, and is bound to undergo expansions and renovations. The platform must be able to accommodate future building configurations, purposes, and activities. How do we now envision requirements that enable design for future evolution?

Granularity and precision. The platform must accommodate various levels of granularity. Disaggregated data will be crucial in many applications, yet metering at the floor or workspace level might benefit groups of people, if at the cost of individual privacy. How, therefore, can the infrastructure be designed so that the level of granularity of information collection, display, and disposition can be adjusted for different contexts?

These issues mark a design stance. Rather than innovating for the immediate marketplace of products and ideas, this project has prompted us to orient our analysis well into the future. It illustrates, in summary, how the insights of the Envisioning Cards can help establish a discipline for attending to systemic and long-lived elements of information systems—elements that are essential for addressing the problem of environmental sustainability.

Design Education

Cultural shifts take hold when new practices and ways of thinking are appropriated by the next generation. Thus, we are concerned not only with methods for engaging environmental sustainability in design practice and research, but also with cultivating information system designers who will take up these concerns when they leave the university. As a field, we are beginning to explore meaningful ways to introduce students to the issues, design practice, and the technical expertise needed to meet the challenges of environmental sustainability. One form that may be particularly well suited to the pervasive and interdisciplinary challenges of environmental sustainability is the capstone experience. Part of design education is our experience with introducing an environmental sustainability theme into an undergraduate capstone course, taught from January to March 2008 at the Information School, University of Washington. Because the idea of themes was new to the Information School capstone, we encouraged but did not require that student projects address the sustainability theme. In so doing, we were poised to explore how supporting such a theme would influence not only theme-oriented projects but non-theme projects as well.

In the Information School, undergraduate capstones are student-directed projects in which students find and formulate their own problems in the fall quarter and design, implement, and evaluate solutions in the winter. Prompted (though not required) to consider environmental sustainability, roughly one-third of the students (29 percent) chose to engage the theme. These students developed projects around questions such as: What are people’s understandings for hardware recycling? How can the display of bus schedules be improved to increase ridership in public transportation? How can online maps and social computing be used to encourage people to ride their bicycles more? And how can printing from a Web browser be improved to increase readability and decrease the use of paper and ink?


Acting upon the knowledge that our daily activities have serious repercussions on our natural environment means more than recycling soda cans and toting our own bags to the grocery store.

 


To support students’ thinking on environmental sustainability, while not privileging the environmental sustainability projects, we seeded the class with targeted ideas related to the theme. We expected that all teams would use these ideas, at least to some degree, and that the themes would strengthen classroom discourse. To do so in a meaningful but even-handed way, we developed several new approaches; among them was “environmental ripples.”

Environmental ripples bring to mind different ways in which information systems intersect with the natural world. At a minimum, most information systems make use of natural resources, whether ink on paper or electricity to power hardware. At the other end of the spectrum, some information systems, such as the Community Energy Platform described earlier, set out explicitly to address environmental sustainability. In between these two endpoints exists a vast territory in which information systems designed for other primary goals can be applied or extended to further sustainability (or at least not unduly erode it). The environmental-ripples activity asks students to consider their own and their classmates’ capstone projects in light of these possibilities.

We structured the environmental-ripples class activity as follows: First, prior to class we prepared poster-size charts that listed each project by name and provided three columns, one for each type of environmental ripple: connection (“How does this capstone project ‘touch’ or ‘make contact’ with the natural environment?”), opportunity (“How could this capstone project be applied or extended to address an environmental problem?”), and impact (“How does this capstone project contribute to environmental sustainability?”). We hung the charts on the classroom walls before class began. During class we introduced students to the concept of an environmental ripple in general and to the three types—connection, opportunity, and impact. Each student received two 4×6-inch Post-it notes and was asked to identify an environmental ripple for his or her own capstone project and one for another team’s project (for the second project, students were asked to choose one that did not explicitly pursue an environmental theme). For each Post-it note, students were instructed to write: the project name; type of environmental ripple (connection, opportunity, or impact); the idea (be specific and detailed here…); and his or her name. Then students placed the Post-it notes in the appropriate column for the chosen capstone project.

Few projects came up empty-handed. Given the minimal requirements to qualify as a connection, that result is perhaps not surprising; however, for students it does drive home the idea that even technical projects, which seem far afield from environmental issues, have bearing on the natural environment. More surprising, for those capstone projects that were not pursuing environmental sustainability themes, students identified one or more opportunities for two-thirds (66 percent) and one or more impacts for one-third (33 percent) of the projects. For example, for a capstone project that involved providing real-time information for local concerts and other events, students identified an environmental opportunity to support efficient route finding, carpooling, and public transportation as part of the application; for another project that developed a preliminary framework for using hand gestures as an input device, students recognized that the use of hands for input would minimize the need for hardware peripherals (e.g., mice, trackballs).

Environmental ripples, simple as they are, do lead students to this kind of creative thinking. It’s not that we showed students the environmental implications and opportunities for their work; rather, with appropriate scaffolding, students discovered some of these implications for themselves. More generally, by seeking to make environmental sustainability the central focus of an undergraduate capstone experience through well-chosen activities, we and our students found that concepts related to sustainability pervaded a range of information system designs—in effect, we began a cultural shift in our own thinking about information system design.

Acting upon the knowledge that our daily activities have serious repercussions on our natural environment means more than recycling soda cans and toting our own bags to the grocery store. We need a cultural shift. That shift involves reconsidering what tools we “need,” how we design those tools, how we use them, and how we deal with the tools when they are no longer necessary. Information systems—tools for creating, storing, and sharing knowledge—can play a powerful role in achieving and maintaining this shift. In particular, interactive computing tools are well poised to make the connections between our actions and energy consumption visible, connect local communities to geographically distant ones impacted by local choices, and keep a record for future generations so they can better understand our current knowledge and choices and thereby learn from our successes and failures. To achieve these kinds of ends, we need to do no less than reconsider how we think about the design of these technologies, for the long term.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank those who contributed in various ways to the ideas presented here: Alan Borning, Micah Huff, Barry Jones, Marilyn Ostergren, Jeremy Parks, Braden Pellett—undergraduates in the Informatics 2008 Capstone Class at the University of Washington and University of Washington Campus Engineering. This material is based, in part, upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0325035. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

References

1. Winograd, T., and F. Flores. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1986.

2. “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future,” World Commission on Environment and Development, Published as Annex to General Assembly document A/42/427, Development and International Co-operation: Environment, Aug. 1987; <http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm>.

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Authors

Batya Friedman is a professor in The Information School at the University of Washington. She pioneered value sensitive design (VSD), an approach to account for human values in the design of information systems. First developed in human-computer interaction, VSD has since been used in information management, human-robotic interaction, urban planning, and, most recently, the life sciences. Friedman’s work has focused on the values of privacy in public, trust, freedom from bias, moral agency, environmental sustainability, and human dignity; and engaged such technologies as Web browsers, urban simulation, robotics, open source tools, and ubiquitous computing. She is currently working on a method for envisioning and multi-lifespan information system design—new ideas for leveraging information systems to shape our future. She received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1988.

David G. Hendry is associate professor at The Information School, University of Washington, where he teaches courses in human-computer interaction, information system design, foundations of information science, among others. He is currently investigating tools, practices, and systems that create the conditions for sustainable, inclusive participation in the design of information systems. He is conducting studies with museum curators, counselors in drop-in centers for homeless young people, and facilities engineers at the University of Washington. Hendry has published work focused on information management in design, design education, search, and end-user programming. In 1998, before joining the iSchool in 2002, he created the User Experience Group at Lycos—one of the first Internet search engines—where he conducted user research on a variety of Internet search and communication products.

Lisa Nathan will join the faculty of the School of Library, Archives, and Information Science at the University of British Columbia in July 2009. Currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington’s Information School, her research interests include information system interaction theory and methods, sustainable interaction design, and value sensitive design. In 2008 Nathan’s multi-year ethnographic investigation on the use of information technology in sustainability-oriented communities won second prize in the CHI student research competition. Through field work in Tanzania, Rwanda, and the U.S. she continues to develop methods for envisioning and improving the long-term influence of information system interaction on the human condition.

Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1551986.1551988

Figures

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