After more than 20 years in computing, I doubted our field’s desire or ability to drive change. So I changed direction. Formerly a professor in IT, I am now a professor of sustainable practice in a post-discipline department specializing in professional practice.
My work centers around the notion of the sustainable practitioner and the sustainable lens. You can think of education as being about the development of your lens—how you see the world, your values, and your mindset. The early bits of life and education are about developing your personal lens, mixing your values with opportunities to practice increasingly advanced sets of skills. Then higher education is about turning that into a professional lens. The focus of my work is in making sure that the personal and professional lenses are also sustainable lenses.
In 2011, I began a radio show and podcast called “Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio” (sustainablelens.org). On that show we have had conversations with more than 270 people from many different disciplines who are actively working for a sustainable future. In our talks, we try to find out what motivates our guests and what it means to see the world from a sustainable perspective—through their particular sustainable lens. The archive on Sustainable Lens provides wisdom, optimism, challenges being faced, and things that can be done. The show presents a positive, forward-looking vision. Our guests are people who are working—in a variety of scales and contexts—for a sustainable future. What can we learn from them to help us scale that up to the socio-ecological transformation we really need? (Throughout this article, I point to particular Sustainable Lens interviews as noted by their names in parentheses.)
For me, the most important thing is identifying and helping the disciplines that have the greatest societal leverage. That is, the disciplines where the handprint—the potential to do good—is massively greater than the negative impact, the footprint. Education, computing, and in particular HCI are disciplines with very high societal leverage, so that is where I have focused my career.
Computing has the promise of being such a leverage discipline. Its handprint is massively greater than its footprint. Don’t get me wrong. Its footprint is huge, too; if we just consider climate change (and we shouldn’t, as sustainability is much broader than that, but energy and carbon are useful proxies), ICT contributes about 2 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Chris Preist, Barath Raghavan). This is about the same as the aviation industry. It’s a huge footprint, and we need to do everything we can to reduce this burden on the planet. But computing’s potential handprint is bigger—much bigger. Skip Laitner estimates that our society runs on about 14 percent energy efficiency: “We are wasting most of what we produce” (Skip Laitner). While not the only solution—we need to consume less, too—a chunk of the gain Laitner describes can come only from ICT-enabled systems improvements, perhaps as much as 30 to 40 percent.
Education can similarly be considered a leverage discipline. Our service—our potential to do good—is vastly greater than our negative impact. This is why education for sustainability is fundamental to the global Sustainable Development Goals. Most, if not all, tertiary organizations have begun to address the operational aspects of sustainability. But few have addressed education for sustainability in a holistic, multidisciplinary, and systematic manner. The notions of the sustainable practitioner and the sustainable lens can provide a vehicle for this project.
In 2007, Otago Polytechnic adopted as a core strategic objective the statement that “every graduate may think and act as a sustainable practitioner.” The statement has been revised over the years but still holds, as illustrated in the opening paragraph of Otago Polytechnic’s Annual Report:
Guiding our students through a formative time in their lifelong learning journeys is a special privilege. At Otago Polytechnic, they engage in an experiential learning process and emerge as capable, work-ready, future-focused and sustainable practitioners .
Otago Polytechnic’s sustainability journey is explored in The Green Graduate  and The Simple Pledge . Rather than specifying in advance a predetermined set of behaviors to describe a sustainable practitioner (either generically or for each discipline), instead we aim to take students on a journey toward identifying what it means for them to think and act as sustainable practitioners. After nearly 10 years, 93 percent of graduates agreed with the statement, “My learning experience developed my understanding of social, environmental, and economic sustainability” (2013). In the Graduate Employer Survey (2012 data), 94 percent of employers rated “Demonstrate an understanding of social, environmental, and economic sustainability” as a criteria for employment as very high, high, or moderate, and 87 percent agreed that Otago Polytechnic graduates demonstrated this attribute. The international benchmark AUSSE survey (2013) asked respondents to rate the learning experience on a number of dimensions, including “[the learning experience] contributes to living in a sustainable way.” OP respondents were considerably more agreeable than the benchmark (58 percent agree, compared with 35 percent for both national and international benchmark groups).
Both computing and education can clearly have a big effect on sustainability. Therefore the potential for combining them as Computing Education for Sustainability (CEfS) was appealing. While I had been doing sustainability through computing before 2007, in that year my colleagues and I began a series of papers on computing education for sustainability. We first linked sustainability and computing, quoting United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who argued that “information and communications technologies (ICT) are crucial in spurring development, dignity, and peace.” He urged us to “turn the digital divide into digital opportunity” and said that ICT should be promoted “in fighting poverty, illiteracy, and disease; in protecting the environment; and in empowering women and girls.” We responded, “As computing professionals, we need to examine what role we see computing professionals playing in that future. As computing educators charged with creating those computing professionals, we are doubly responsible, as we also have put in place the system to get us there” . In another paper we took up this challenge and described the drivers for CEfS . We explored options for including sustainability in computing qualifications. We looked for, but couldn’t find, whole degrees in sustainable computing—indeed whole courses were similarly elusive. Our preferred approach was one of “critical inquiry and integration throughout the curriculum in ways that are both incremental and transformative” .
That paper concluded with a suggested agenda for developing CEfS. After further workshopping at a national conference, an agenda was developed by the New Zealand National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications (NACCQ). NACCQ (then its successor organization CITRENZ) added sustainable practice to all computing qualifications. Most recently, all sub-degree computing qualifications were completely rewritten in a government-mandated review. All such New Zealand computing qualifications now include explicit requirements for sustainable practitioners in the graduate profile outcomes. On an international level, a series of workshops at ACM’s ITiCSE conference brought CEfS to the attention of international computing educators (Michael Goldweber). The eventual outcome of this was the recognition of the sustainable practitioner in the ACM CS2013 Core Curriculum as a Core Tier 1: “Identify ways to be a sustainable practitioner.”
So, has this been a success? Have we made it? Unfortunately, no.
If we take the example of HCI, seminal papers such as Blevis’s “Sustainable Interaction Design” (Eli Blevis) prompted a flurry of research in sustainable HCI. However, as Brynjarsdottir et al.  found, much of this research is weak and focuses on a limited framing of sustainability and human behavior, or, as Eric Meyers and Lisa Nathan  described, is research with an “impoverished” focus.
In describing computing as a potential leverage discipline earlier, I positioned computing as having strength in driving computing-supported efficiencies. But now I believe this is not just ineffective; in fact, this focus is doing us harm. To be clear, computing does need to address its own footprint, which will require education. And it does need to maximize its handprint, which will also require education. But so far we have been ineffective at addressing the handprint, and for the most part have gotten stuck on energy efficiency, with limited effectiveness and quite possibly even doing sustainability a disservice (Bran Knowles).
Computing for sustainability cannot be just about efficiency gains. The problem transcends carbon and energy. How can computing help reverse biodiversity loss? Or massive global inequities? Or even local problems, such as why the logs are transported on the road instead of on the adjacent train track? Nor is it just about the environment—the systems in question are as much social as they are biophysical. As a society we have to learn to live in a complex world of interdependent systems with high uncertainties and multiple legitimate interests. These complex and evolving systems require a new way of thinking about risk, uncertainty, ambiguity, and ignorance . They require that we think simultaneously of drivers and impacts of our actions across scales and barriers of space, time, culture, species, and disciplinary boundaries. It means we need to switch from a focus on outcomes to one of process. Ethics and sustainability are rarely as simple as choosing between an obvious good and an obvious bad. The world is beset with wicked problems, but, as Andy Read describes, “the wickedness of problems is no excuse for standing by” (Andy Read). We need to be thinking about every decision and every action contributing to a system operating under ethical principles. Sustainability provides a framework for expanding ethical reasoning to a complex world.
So what gives me hope? The previous paragraph does—and the fact that some computing researchers are beginning to recognize this as the next step (Six Silberman). Batya Friedman and Lisa Nathan’s multilifespan information systems have really looked at how we might start to address intergenerational equity (Batya Friedman). I’m excited by work that focuses on community engagement, not as a means for behavior change, but for the sake of an empowered community: Steve Benford’s trajectories and uncomfortable interactions (Steve Benford), the University of Lancaster’s work on Tiree (Maria Angela Ferrario), Rob Comber’s empowering communities (Rob Comber), and David Green’s participatory documentary making (David Green). This research is supporting community to create sustainable futures beyond the behavior-change-intervention-via-new-product paradigm.
So now, rather than being critical of computing, I’m instead working to demonstrate positive alternatives. There are a number of computing people on Sustainable Lens working on positive solutions (http://sustainablelens.org/?cat=66), but if you look for only one, I suggest going beyond computing and listening to Richard Latham and Jennifer McIvor of Wishbone Design Studio (Latham and McIvor). If we could do computing for sustainability like they do business, the world would be a better place.
I began a career in computing to make a difference. I would like to think that I have made that difference. I am now making a different difference, directly supporting the professional practice of people who want to be considered sustainable practitioners. So here’s the question I would like every computing educator to ask themselves: How is my work contributing to a restorative socio-ecological transformation at scale?
Although this is presented as a monologue, this work has benefitted from discussions with Oliver Bates and Lesley Smith. Neither of them is leaving computing.
1. Otago Polytechnic. Annual Report. 2014; https://www.op.ac.nz/assets/marketing/PDF-books/OP-Annual-Report-2014-WEB-FA5.pdf
6. Brynjarsdottir, H., Håkansson, M., Pierce, J., Baumer, E., DiSalvo, C., and Sengers, P. Sustainably unpersuaded: How persuasion narrows our vision of sustainability. Proc. of the 2012 ACM Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2012.
7. Meyers, E.M. and Nathan, L.P. Impoverished visions of sustainability: Encouraging disruption in digital learning environments. Proc. of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing. ACM, New York, 2016.
A geographer working in computing, Samuel Mann has taught and researched at Otago Polytechnic since 1997. He has published over 150 conference and journal papers in the fields of augmented experiences, sustainability, and computer education. He is now professor of sustainable practice at Otago Polytechnic. email@example.com
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