Design, HCI, and the planet

XVII.4 July + August 2010
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Navigating the terrain of sustainable HCI

Carl DiSalvo, Phoebe Sengers, Hrönn Brynjarsdóttir

The scholarship of sustainable HCI has recently exploded. We have been struck by two things: first, the tremendous heterogeneity of methods, orientations, and approaches; and second, the remarkable lack of discussion about the relative merits of those different methods, orientations, and approaches—a debate that, we believe, would further the development of the field. This article, which is rooted in our presentation at CHI’10 [1], presents a map of the current landscape of sustainable HCI that differentiates and organizes the approaches that have emerged in the field and describes emerging topics of dissension. Initiated in August 2009 with 58 peer-reviewed, sustainability-related papers intended for the HCI community, our goal has been to provide a reflective lens for researchers in sustainable HCI allowing for principled discussion of how we have defined sustainable HCI—and how we should going forward.


A first glance reveals a variety of research genres for sustainable HCI, i.e., frameworks that structure how researchers define the problem of and the solution for sustainability.

A dominant genre in sustainable HCI is persuasive technology: systems that attempt to convince users to behave in a more sustainable way. The design strategies employed include strong persuasion—in which user behavior is judged as sustainable or not—and passive persuasion, in which information about consumption, waste, or other broad impacts are presented to users. Within this approach, designers usually determine what constitutes “sustainable behavior,” often generally defining it around resource usage and conservation. What counts as success is behavior change or decision making that aligns with the predetermined desired behaviors, although many papers in this genre do not evaluate sustainability.

Ambient awareness systems are intended to make users aware of some aspects of the sustainability of their behavior, or qualities of the environment associated with sustainability. The forms of these systems range from devices and physical artifacts to visualizations to instrumented environments and intelligent agents. Two primary design tactics employed in this genre are to make consumption visible in order to prompt awareness of use or to make desirable consumption patterns visible (and aesthetically rewarding). Ambient awareness and persuasive technology overlap, based on the idea that ambiently provided information will persuade users to behave in a sustainable manner.

Sustainable interaction design (SID) uses sustainability as a lens to rethink the role and outcomes of design. These works reference design research and are frequently philosophically and critically oriented. While the previous two genres take known approaches in HCI and apply them to sustainability, SID identifies a need to fundamentally rethink the methods of HCI in order to address sustainability. Some research portrays designers as complicit in the unsustainability of current interactive products, aiming to change design to encourage more sustainable effects. The work is often focused on material effects, such as reducing resource waste and pollution, especially due to the rapid obsolescence of current technologies.

Formative user studies aim to understand users’ attitudes to the environment or to (un)sustainable design. In contrast to the prior genres, which tend to focus on the designer’s stance, this work analyzes how users approach sustainability as a first step to new design. Methodologies vary from large-scale quantitative studies to qualitative interviews and ethnography. While persuasive and ambient works tend to be based on a priori notions of right and wrong behavior, these works tend to legitimize differences in attitude toward sustainability and to show how individuals are embedded in social and cultural systems, which constrain their potential sustainability. Most of these works focus on users as consumers.

Pervasive sensing systems use sensors to monitor and report on environmental conditions, with the implicit goal of using the data collected to change these conditions. A lot of research uses participatory sensing, or involves non-experts in the technology in collecting data from sensing platforms. One catchphrase used in the literature for such work is “citizen science.” Work under this label tends to emphasize the democratic potential of involving end users in data collection.

Axes of Difference

While the genre analysis suggests a view of sustainable HCI as noncompeting clusters of homogeneous research, we found that major disagreements underlie works in our corpus—including works in the same genre.

Differences arise around how to approach users and their lifestyles. Some research targets users as individual consumers—by understanding them, educating them, or changing their behavior—while other works look at users in groups or through the lens of other social roles, such as citizens of a democratic public. Many see user behavior as the cause of environmental problems, and therefore in need of change. While other attitudes prevail, notably the formative studies in which users are not the problem, the aim instead is to drive design primarily in line with needs and opportunities raised by users. Other areas of research involve preserving current lifestyles while increasing levels of sustainability, for example, supporting existing activities while reducing resource usage. Instead, many in sustainable interaction design emphasize the need for fundamental cultural change.

Other differences center on the role of HCI and technology design in addressing sustainability, such as technological solutions to the problems of sustainability. Some researchers, however, question whether a solution for sustainability can be achieved through technology alone, or perhaps at all. Although existing HCI methods and orientations are used to approach problems of sustainability, others argue that the structure of HCI as a field itself contributes to the problems of unsustainability by supporting a wasteful rapid-obsolescence cycle of IT products.

Finally, the overwhelming majority of research and design in sustainable HCI neither acknowledges nor addresses political differences as part of the research. There is, however, a growing contingent of research that reports on and, in some cases, engages the politics of sustainability and the environment in a variety of ways.

Emerging Issues

Despite these differences in orientation, a striking characteristic of the sustainable HCI literature is the relative lack of debate. Sometimes it makes sense to simply pursue different approaches in parallel, but different commitments may also reveal deeper issues that are important for the community to grapple with.

For example, for many within HCI, the development of technological solutions for social issues such as sustainability is a fundamental objective. But some within sustainable HCI and many in the broader discourses of sustainability raise serious issues about how belief in technology as a neutral solution itself may be implicated in the problems of sustainability. However, a move away from an emphasis on technology design raises this question: If technology is not the point, then what becomes the work of sustainable HCI?

Most persuasive technologies imply that users engage in problematic behaviors and should be directed toward more desirable ones. In many scenarios, persuasion begins to border on coercion, sometimes even evoking Skinnerian behavior modification. This is an issue of ethical concern for HCI. However, we also cannot be too quick to uncritically engage users. Questions of “the user” quickly become issues of expertise and hegemony. If we agree that fundamental change is needed and it might be change that users don’t want, who gets to decide what change should happen and how? Whose needs are met, and whose values matter?

In addition to such conceptual issues, two key meta-level issues must be addressed in order to maintain a healthy research field: assuring that we are branching into new directions and building productive connections to other communities working in the area.

Knowns and Unknowns. In the subgenres of HCI, which have become sizable, there is a noticeable redundancy, with researchers frequently devising similar approaches and coming to similar conclusions. There is a need for the field to take stock of what is known and to identify major unknown questions that arise from what has been established as a basis for future work. It is important for the field to recognize that well-defined subgenres of sustainable HCI have become established and that in those areas work should be required to clearly extend, rather than replicate, already published works. For example, a significant body of research has documented the need to design products and services to which users develop greater attachments, so as to intervene in the cycle of rapid obsolescence. This leads to unaddressed challenges, such as how we might support users attached to software and hardware, which industry has declared obsolete. Similarly, it is a widely established design concept that ambient displays may support environmental behavior change, but few studies demonstrate actual changes in resource usage, especially over the long term. Current research overwhelmingly addresses individual consumers; this leaves an open area for research on producers and marketers.

Open Areas, Potential Connections. Despite the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability as a topic and the vast amount of related research in many fields, connections to these fields by sustainable HCI have been fairly ad hoc, depending primarily on the disciplinary orientation of the authors. Ethnographic approaches, for example, frequently draw on anthropological and critical studies of the environment, while persuasive technology, which has a strong social psychology component, tends to draw on environmental psychology. Now might be a valuable time to step back and more systematically survey which areas have not yet been drawn on and what they could do for us. For example, there is a significant body of literature in science and technology studies that addresses the role of technology with respect to the environment, the politics of environmental information, and the history and problems of various stances to environmentalism, but this appears fairly unaddressed in sustainable HCI. (Please see our paper, “Mapping the Landscape of Sustainable CHI” [1], for a detailed account of the literature.)

Another area in which connections need to be built is professional design. Although sustainable interaction design is building strong ties to design research, a significant gap appears between the professional fields of industrial and interaction design and sustainable HCI research. While disconnect with the professional design community may be systemic throughout HCI, this lack of connection to sustainable design is increasingly problematic. For example, initiatives within most professional design organizations foster sustainable design practices, design exhibitions, and monographs; trade publications feature sustainable products and practices; and the design press explores this topic through public forums, articles, and online media. Yet, with few exceptions, this work is unaddressed in sustainable HCI. This disconnect is also present between sustainable HCI and architecture and urban design.

There is even a noticeable lack of connection between sustainable HCI and other technical fields. For example, with the exception of the genre of participatory sensing, there are few papers that span references across ACM and IEEE, even when topics overlap. We also found numerous examples of persuasive systems in both ACM and IEEE periodicals that seemed to conceptually replicate one another. Such redundancy illustrates a disconnect within related disciplines, resulting in the overproduction of knowledge and missed opportunities for advancing the contribution of technology development to sustainability.

These issues prompt questions of what the boundaries of sustainable HCI are or should be. We were forced to tackle this question in developing our corpus and chose to include only papers that were concerned with sustainability and oriented to the HCI audience. An unexpected consequence was that several genres that we expected to be relevant were poorly represented. For example, works on low-power displays are generally focused on maximizing mobile battery use rather than on sustainability, while research on environmental information systems tend to be geared toward non-HCI audiences. There is a clear need for sustainable HCI to draw on the expertise of researchers in areas such as hardware, environmental information systems, and community information systems, and there is also a clear need for HCI expertise in those areas. The question for us as a field is how to set up those conversations.


1. DiSalvo, C., Sengers, P., Brynjarsdóttir, H. “Mapping the Landscape of Sustainable HCI.” In Proc. CHI ‘10; 1975–1984.


Carl DiSalvo is an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he runs the Public Design Workshop. He graduated in 2006 from Carnegie Mellon with a Ph.D. in design. His research interests include critical approaches to design, the role of design in the construction of publics, and speculative and issued-based design. DiSalvo is currently writing a book that explores the political qualities of contemporary design, and he directs the growBots project: a participatory design research project with small-scale organic farmers exploring how emerging technologies can support their practices.

Phoebe Sengers is an associate professor in information science and science and technology studies at Cornell University, where she runs the Culturally Embedded Computing group. She graduated in 1998 from Carnegie Mellon with an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and cultural theory. Her research interests include critical approaches to sustainable HCI and humanities and arts–based HCI methodology. Sengers’s current project is a design-ethnographic and historical study of modernization in the small fishing village of Change Islands, Newfoundland.

Hrönn Brynjarsdóttir is a third-year Ph.D. student within the interdisciplinary field of information science at Cornell University. Her dissertation work focuses on the politics of information in the sustainability of the Iceland’s small-producer fisheries. Before starting her Ph.D. work, she completed a master’s degree in human factors engineering, also at Cornell.




UF1Solar energy will be a key resource in the future as technologies improve and more products are designed around it.

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