Bran Knowles, Maria Håkansson
It is easy to feel discouraged when doing sustainable HCI (SHCI) research. What have we as a community accomplished? Well, we have done what we set out to do in early musings about the role of HCI in sustainability. We have devised clever solutions for increasing energy efficiency, only to realize that these approaches may instead reinforce a larger system that is ultimately driven toward greater energy usage . We have developed a range of interventions targeting consumer behavior, only to recognize the socially constructed nature of “unsustainable” behaviors, and questioned the impact of work that does not address the systems, structures, and logic that causes such behaviors . We have explored ways of promoting renewal and reuse of computing technologies, which has highlighted the tension between (certain) sustainability goals and the imperative for innovation that underpins our research culture . On the whole, the tacit motivation of early SHCI—affecting “more sustainable” living through facilitation of small, individual-level changes—no longer makes sense in isolation from affecting more fundamental change .
As a result, our goal of sustainability has seemed more daunting the more we delve into this topic, and it has gotten significantly harder to envision what contributions HCI can make. What can be difficult to appreciate in times of frustration is that this is a sign of progress—not necessarily the kind of progress we were initially hoping for, but definitely a sign of maturity. Perhaps diving into the problem as we did was the best way of discovering how naive we were. Still, despite the emotional lows and limited impacts so far, we have not conceded defeat. We retain our optimism that there may yet be some greater contribution we can make. We know we need to delve even deeper into the problem, grasp the big picture, and better understand the intersection of HCI and sustainability. But how should we as a community move on?
The Need for a Knowledge Base
Progress in a field of research is typically characterized by linear, incremental advancements in knowledge. In contrast, the way SHCI has advanced is by enfolding theories and methods from diverse disciplines, by zooming in and out of various scales, by exploring perspectives in a range of contexts, all to gain different vantage points from which to determine which questions we should be asking in the first place. We have naturally adopted this approach because “[t]he processes that give rise to the issues indexed by the term sustainability are larger in time, space, organizational scale, ontological diversity, and complexity than the scales and scopes addressed by traditional HCI design, evaluation, and fieldwork methods” . As such, SHCI researchers have to find some means of assimilating a vast body of knowledge before we are able to identify appropriate research contributions we could make. As if this were not difficult enough, (according to certain conceptions of sustainability) we need to come to grips with this quickly, before the window of opportunity shuts (e.g., heading off climate change and other environmental disruptions before we reach tipping points).
In their 2014 article “Next Steps for Sustainable HCI,” reporting on the insights and outcomes from the CHI 2014 SHCI community workshop, Silberman et al. announced their intention to develop an online collaborative SIGCHI HCI & Sustainability Community knowledge base to help “address some of the barriers to more engaged and effective SHCI research” . This stems from a collective wish to continue discussing, beyond individual workshops and conferences, how to advance SHCI and to establish a long-term, dynamic, and collaborative resource for building up our knowledge in SHCI. With this article, we announce that the development of the knowledge base is now under way. Here we describe the conceptual development of the knowledge base, discuss how its design is intended to foster more engaged and effective research, highlight some potential challenges, and invite the community to participate.
Although typically relegated to a dedicated sustainability track at conferences, SHCI has from the beginning asserted the importance of sustainability as a central focus of HCI , and as such has been encouraging of any HCI researcher taking an interest in the topic. In light of a growing criticism within SHCI in recent years, concerns have been raised that the critiques may “risk sundering a nascent community of scholars”  who, if given a welcome reception by the community and time to develop their understanding of sustainability, may make important contributions. We walk a fine line, then, in trying to improve the quality of SHCI research and discourse without alienating new researchers. And yet surely critiques are essential, ensuring the work we do is academically rigorous and has impact.
The aim is to deepen understandings of the important, legitimate differences that make up our community.
In its initial conception, it is precisely this tension that the knowledge base would ostensibly resolve. By providing a canonical reading list and a high-level summary of the main critiques that have furthered the growth of SHCI, the knowledge base could rapidly and thoroughly induct newcomers into the area and potentially offer reviewers a guide for evaluating the quality of new submissions. But given the diversity of views within the community, who should get to create this material? Do we know enough yet—and will we ever know enough—to comfortably and confidently “privilege a limited number of approaches to addressing a complex, problematic situation” ?
We propose democratizing the knowledge-base content as much as possible through the use of a wiki. To create a canonical reading list, anyone with an account would be able to propose work that they believe others in the field should familiarize themselves with and also vote (thumbs up/down) on other people’s recommendations. The knowledge base should, therefore, produce a peer-ranked reading list that reflects the opinions of a community of researchers. To help assimilate some of these works, members would further be invited to add Key Concepts, Key Debates, and Open Questions, linking them to editable summary entries for each.
At this point we don’t know whether this is an effective way of producing a knowledge base that both represents SHCI research and supports high-quality research. This knowledge base is, ultimately, an experiment. The benefit of crowdsourcing content is that the knowledge base should represent views other than those of the few people developing the website. The downside of crowdsourcing is that, without any editorial oversight, the most popular works being promoted are not necessarily the works most likely to advance SHCI discourse. In particular, it is likely that newer works will struggle to compete in the rankings against works that have had time to accrue votes. Similarly, it is important that we “draw from and support relevant work outside HCI” , but being lesser known, how will these works gain the attention they deserve? As the knowledge base evolves, we as a community will have to evaluate the pros and cons of this approach, and reflect on how best to collectively curate content. In the future, it may become a natural task of a CHI SHCI workshop or SHCI-oriented classes to add to the knowledge base as one way of contributing regularly.
Grappling with Sustainability
As Silberman et al. point out, “we cannot assess our effectiveness at contributing to sustainability if we do not make clear what we mean by the term” . Important though it is for researchers to articulate the sustainability goals that motivate our individual projects , it is problematic for a community that ostensibly coheres around a shared term that “definitions of sustainability in the sustainable HCI literature have become so broad as to become meaningless” . So how might the knowledge base provide clarity around our central, motivating concept?
The aim of the knowledge base is not to produce a shared definition of sustainability or an agreed-upon set of methods or outputs for the community. Such a consensus is both unlikely and undesirable. It would squeeze out the exciting ideas that happen at the edges, the fresh inspiration that leads to breakthrough insight and radical innovation. Rather, the aim is to deepen understandings of the important, legitimate differences that make up our community to foster more effective debate and collaboration, and reveal new research opportunities. At the same time, it should provide a forum for debate about the relative merits of such definitions. While there are various facets worth considering, different scales and orientations, not all definitions of sustainability provide an equally good foundation for SHCI research. Furthermore, where certain approaches are in direct conflict with one another, it is important that this is noted and that attempts are made to resolve these tensions.
As an initial step toward articulating and refining a set of sustainability goals within the community, members will be asked to provide a definition of sustainability that (currently) motivates their work as part of their profile. Other users are then encouraged to vote on these definitions (thumbs up/down), helping to create a ranked list of competing definitions of sustainability. In addition, users will be able to post comments about each other’s definitions; as definitions evolve, people may propose new definitions. This history—a user’s various definitions over time and the comments about each of these definitions—will be preserved as important insight into the evolution of SHCI discourse.
There is potential for the knowledge base to do even more than we have described for this first iteration. Potential extensions for future stages of development may include advanced visualizations—for example, mapping emergent research clusters within SHCI, creating a web of links between SHCI work and the non-SHCI work that has influenced it, and representing the evolution of content over time—and bolting on additional reporting functionality as new questions emerge. Indeed, we may find that the knowledge base can be used not only as a repository of knowledge but also as a repository of data that we may crunch as desired. Further, we hope the knowledge base will provide a new vantage point from which to conduct a comprehensive survey of SHCI research, and ultimately develop a taxonomy of this research and a lexicon for elaborating the fundamental disagreements within the field.
Developing a knowledge base that represents an interdisciplinary community of researchers with diverse opinions about the role of HCI in sustainability is no easy task. Yet it is worth trying as one way of deepening our understanding of what we can do. Consistent with the intention that this be a truly collaborative endeavor, our hope is to initiate a model of rotating stewardship for the knowledge base by passing it along to others to pick up where we left off. For this reason, the primary development goal for this stage is designing the basics of a website that can be extended and adapted toward realizing the more ambitious elements we have described here, which can be adjusted when difficulties or new needs arise.
This year, people will be able to begin using the knowledge base, creating a profile, adding content, and interacting with others. We intend to announce the launch of the knowledge base via mailing list when it is ready for collaborative activity. In the meantime, please see this as an invitation to get in touch with us if you have ideas how to improve the design of the knowledge base or want to participate in its development. In fact, we encourage everyone interested in sustainability and HCI to start thinking about what content they think would be useful to include in the knowledge base—only together can we make it a great resource.
This work has been funded by a personal grant from Chalmers University of Technology. A special thanks to Oliver Bates (Lancaster University, UK) who is contributing to the ongoing development of this knowledge base.
Bran Knowles works as a research associate at Lancaster University, where she received her Ph.D. in digital innovation. firstname.lastname@example.org
Maria Håkansson is an assistant professor at Chalmers University of Technology. email@example.com
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