The complexity of "advancement"

XVII.5 September + October 2010
Page: 26
Digital Citation

Hope for the best and prepare for the worst

Eli Blevis, Shunying Blevis

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Typical interaction designers are not climate scientists, but interaction designers can make well-informed use of climate sciences and closely related sciences. Interaction design can make scientific information, interpretations, and perspectives available in an accessible and widely distributed form so that people's consciousness is raised. Such consciousness raising is our only hope to empower individuals, groups, nations, and the international community to possibly prevent or reverse climate change and at least prepare and adapt to it in as safe and orderly a manner as possible—with the goal of securing a sustainable future for and the well-being of each and every individual person, creature, and habitat, inasmuch as it is possible to do so.

Interaction design can help bridge the gap between scientific predictions and notions of certainty and uncertainty on the one hand and public conventional wisdoms that, however well intentioned, may lead to an unsustainable future or inadequate responses to climate change on the other hand.

The possibilities concerning the imminence of global warming and climate change, or at least the arrival of a tipping point, have implications for how we think about sustainability and interaction design. We are at a crossroads where the logic that applies is the logic of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst—that is, we need to continue our efforts to develop digital interactivity to induce people and societies to engage in behavioral changes that reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to develop digital interactivity that allows us to prepare for and adapt to climate change under the possibility that we will reach a tipping point, or the possibility that we have already done so.

In what follows, we describe the present state of sustainable interaction design. We describe the potential role of interaction design in preparation for and adaptation to a post–tipping point world in terms of digital projects we may undertake for monitoring global conditions, setting public policies, and informing public behaviors, and in terms of arenas of potential effects and concern, such as water supplies, rebalancing of ecosystems, food supplies and food safety, dangers to habitations (especially coastal ones), health, and migration. We characterize computational concerns in the context of preparation and adaptation to climate change and note the similarities and differences with computational concerns targeted at inducing behavioral change to reduce greenhouse gases.

back to top  The Tipping Point

The tipping point, by definition, is the point at which any efforts to stop something from happening arrive too late. According to the 2007 Nobel Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we are at imminent risk of reaching a tipping point with respect to climate change and beyond the point at which even the very best case scenarios predict a certain unavoidable amount of climate change. The IPCC states:

"There is high confidence that neither adaptation nor mitigation alone can avoid all climate change impacts; however, they can complement each other and together can significantly reduce the risks of climate change. Adaptation is necessary in the short and longer term to address impacts resulting from the warming that would occur even for the lowest stabilization scenarios assessed. There are barriers, limits and costs, but these are not fully understood. Unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed, and human systems to adapt. The time at which such limits could be reached will vary between sectors and regions..." [1].

The IPCC provides a historical overview of climate change research, which is compelling reading for those who want to understand the scientific basis of climate change predictions [2]. One of the scientists this report references is James Lovelock—famous for the Gaia hypothesis, considered controversial by some, that the earth is a living self-regulating system. The IPCC historical overview does not reference the Gaia hypothesis, but rather Lovelock's work from the 1970s on understanding the effects of CFCs. With respect to the Gaia hypothesis, the notion of an emergence of apparently intelligent or self-regulating behaviors from myriad autonomous agents with highly variant degrees of sentience is easily grasped by computer scientists and interaction designers who may be familiar with connectionism as understood, for example, in Minsky's The Society of Mind [3], Wikipedia, Web 2.0, and similar notions and systems. Lovelock provides a mathematical model called "Daisy World" to support his notion of Gaia—a model that will likely seem familiar and convincing to computer scientists and mathematically trained interaction designers [4].

A more dire prediction about climate change comes from Lovelock's latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning [4]. He believes we have already passed the tipping point—the point at which positive-feedback mechanisms will induce the near certain likelihood of a period of global warming, regardless of our efforts to reform our behaviors. That is, global warming will continue even if all anthropogenic greenhouse gas production ceases. Among the implications of this prediction that Lovelock enumerates is the ominous notion that the Earth's population—now approaching 6.9 billion people—may be reduced to under a billion.

In referencing Lovelock, it is not our intention to enter any debate about scientific skill in fields that are quite different from our own, namely those connected to climate sciences. Nor are we qualified to do so. The IPCC report delimits one view of predicted effects of climate change, and we are taking Lovelock's view to delimit another view—a view that is both worst case and plausible. We could, for example, have chosen James Hansen, who also makes dire predictions about climate change, and Freeman Dyson, who has claimed climate change is nothing to worry about, to represent strikingly variant views as well [5]. In our context, these viewpoints delimit a possible design space for interaction design. The possibility that Lovelock may be correct or that the IPCC is correct or even that Dyson's refutation is correct is sufficient for the purposes of defining this space.

If Lovelock's view seems alarmist, it is sobering to note that of the six scenarios advanced by the IPCC for predicting greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the present century, only one predicts that at the end of the century, "in the absence of additional climate policies," we will be under the two-degree warming mark that pervades as a generally accepted notion of the tipping point [1].

back to top  Hope for the Best; Prepare for the Worst

How does one deal with these possibilities? It would be possible to despair on the grounds that it may be too late for efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions—and to do nothing as a consequence of despair. Alternatively, the logic of Figure 1 may work—"hoping for the best and preparing for the worst." This logic is complicated in this case, because the choices we make now about how much effort to direct toward either reducing greenhouse gas emissions or preparing for and adapting to the potential effects of global warming have implications for the possible outcomes. The difficult choices this chart represents may be mitigated somewhat by the possibility that adopting lifestyles that reduce greenhouse gas emissions may overlap somewhat with preparing for and adapting to the potential effects of global warming, by helping us understand how to sustain ourselves on fewer resources in a post–tipping point world, which likely offers fewer resources.

Much of what has been written in HCI about sustainability relates to designing digital interactivity to change the behaviors that lead to unsustainable lifestyles—lifestyles that produce the greenhouse gases that almost indisputably lead to anthropogenically induced climate change. From the logic of "hope for the best and prepare for the worst," it is clear that at least some if not many of us need to also consider the degree to which some of our efforts need to be directed toward designing digital interactivity to prepare for and adapt to the potential effects of global warming and climate change. We are proposing the middle course of Figure 1; that is, we are not proposing to abandon efforts to use digital interactivity to promote behaviors that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or muster public support for technological solutions. Lovelock provides an analysis of the viability of various technological ("geoengineering") solutions [4]. We are proposing to augment efforts to include design for digital interactivity that helps prepare and adapt to the potential effects of global warming and climate change.

back to top  Sustainable Interaction Design

Much has been written about sustainable interaction design; there is much left to do and to write. In the previous issue of interactions, as well as in a well-received paper at CHI 2010, DiSalvo, Sengers, and Brynjarsdóttir identify several genres of work along these lines based on a thorough study of what has been written to date, raising important questions about the future paths for this work—especially questions of faith in technology as usual [6]. There are some substantial projects, too numerous to inventory here—examples include software for showing the source of constituent elements of products for small-business owners, data mining by SAP to track carbon as if it were a commodity, and software targeted at letting individuals understand and take steps to lessen their carbon footprints [7]. As a more general account of sustainable design, Tony Fry's notions of redirective practice, acts of elimination, and development of sustainment [8] are keys to understanding sustainability not just as a matter of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but more important, as a matter of adopting lifestyles that rely on fewer and more natural uses of resources. As such, Fry's notions and the degree to which efforts in sustainable interaction design target-wise use of resources are likely as germane to a post–tipping point world as to a world at risk of reaching a tipping point.

back to top  The Potential Role of HCI in a Post–Tipping Point World

With scientific dispassion, Lovelock claims it is possible to think of the culling of the global human population as a matter of natural course, even if the catalysts to such culling occur or occurred as a result of anthropogenic activities or by some other means. Let us say unequivocally that interaction design is a science, and an art, of compassion and that saving lives above all else and incorporating sustainability whenever possible is a suitable and critical goal for our discipline—resigning to Lovelock's prediction of the potential loss of roughly six out of every seven people and many species is not an option.

The 2007 IPCC report predicts climate change will have massive implications for global food production and conditions of production, as well as for water, coastal habitations, health, and ecosystems. For the case of food production, "complex, localized negative impacts on small holders, subsistence farmers, and fishers" is virtually certain, and the latitudes at which cereal production is viable will change depending on the amount of warming. Another salient effect is the likelihood of "increased damage from floods and storms" and the possibility of coastal flooding and wetlands loss, depending on the amount of warming [1]. These two factors and others in the IPCC report have implications for the many urban areas that are located in coastal environments, not just in terms of food, but potentially in terms of habitability.

A changing climate and its associated implications in relation to this imply a need for the design of digital networking and interactive technologies that can help people at various levels—as individuals, small groups, governments, and global bodies—plan and prepare for the orderly adaptation to these effects. Such networks will need to make available data, visualizations, tracking, and predictive simulations about changing locations of food production and threats to particular urban environments. A number of interactive systems could potentially play a positive role.

In a characteristic fashion of design thinking, we offer here a design problem-setting approach—that is, we propose the need for particular concept systems targeted at preparation and adaptation to climate change and owing to insights based on the IPCC report, primarily. What follows are some speculations about the kinds of things the interaction design community can be doing.

Food production and source tracking. As an issue of both sustainable supply and food safety, interactive systems are needed that can assist various groups of people to adapt to the changing suitability of particular regions for growing particular crops and other forms of food production. Moreover, ensuring and tracking equitable food distribution to meet basic human needs under these changing conditions is a matter of certain importance.

Dashboard earth. As an issue of preparation and adaptation to changing climate, interactive systems to ensure planning and preparation for how people in particular locations can respond to changes in food and water supplies and even to threats to the habitability of coastal environments in particular and other environments in general are essential.

Orderly absorption and evacuation. We will need interactive systems that allow policy makers to provide orderly immigration to or emigration from environments in the face of the effects of climate change. Depending on the scales of particular migrations induced by climate-change events, policy makers at all levels—local, regional, national, intergovernmental—will need the information at hand to make informed decisions about orderly absorption of environmental refugees and planning for the possibility of the need for local populations under their charge to evacuate areas that have become uninhabitable.

Habitability index. Interactive systems that allow access to data about the habitability of particular regions and predictions about the future habitability of particular regions will need to be in place. Such data and predictions will be critical to providing for orderly absorption and evacuation, as environments change in terms of their habitability.

Living with fewer resources. Interactive systems are required to instruct people in urban and other environments on how to live with fewer resources, either as a matter of sustainable practices or as a matter of adapting to climate change or both.

Saving life. Social mechanisms—especially those that rely on interactive technologies—can hopefully play a role in fostering relationships between people at various levels of organization in order to ensure that as many people as possible have access to safe environments, with food and drinking water, and that people are actively engaged in helping others in the face of changes that might otherwise easily induce conflicts.

Fostering public and governmental support for technological solutions. Lovelock is himself not without hope; he outlines a number of geoengineering interventions that might reverse a positive feedback loop. One example is the conversion on a large scale of agricultural waste into char and burying it in the soil or possibly on the ocean floor [4]. The strategy is effectively a form of exploiting the power of photosynthesis to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a form that can be buried so that it is no longer part of the atmosphere. Lovelock: "So far it is the only realistic proposal by which we have even a chance of restoring the Earth to the state it was in before we started using fossil fuel." Clearly, such projects require public and governmental support on a massive scale. Interaction design of social mechanisms of awareness to create such support is needed in a pervasive manner, as in the case of carbon calculators. Such systems can help inform choices about energy production; such choices likely vary from one location to another.

Fostering public understanding. Even for well-intentioned people, it's not easy to make choices that help secure our collective future. The viability and greenhouse gas emissions effects of various methods of producing energy are not commonly understood. Moreover, various forms of energy production—nuclear, wind, hydro, bio-fuels, geo-thermal, solar thermal, solar voltaic, gas, diesel, oil, and coal—have very different implications for greenhouse gas emissions and food supplies and other side effects of energy production [4]. The best choice can vary from one location to another. Interaction design can play a role in ensuring that such choices are informed by scientific knowledge and interpretations of our collective best interests, rather than the economic interests of private-sector enterprises.

Computing issues. With respect to sustainability, the focus of attention on computing issues has centered on issues of energy use, including individual (personal computers), corporate (servers), and very large-scale (cloud- and grid-computing) levels. One of the promises of cloud computing is the possibility of using energy more efficiently as redundancies are removed from information-storage and retrieval systems. There is a need for interaction designers to make such efficiencies transparent to individual people [9]. Nonetheless, energy savings are only a small part of what is needed. We also need to focus on building systems that can track necessary information and interactivity that can inform human preparation for and adaptation to climate change. Such systems must make this information available at scale and in forms that are suitable to a number of different constituencies, individuals, policy makers, governments, and intergovernmental organizations.

These suggestions are just the start of the discourse that we as interaction designers must have to help prepare for and adapt to climate change as a concurrent strategy with present efforts to help prevent it.

back to top  References

1. IPCC. "Summary for Policymakers." In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, edited by Parry, M.L., Canziani, O.F., Palutikof, J.P., van der Linden, P.J. and Hanson, C.E. 7–22. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. See Figures SPM.2 and SPM.5.

2. Le Treut, H., R. Somerville, U. Cubasch, Y. Ding, C. Mauritzen, A. Mokssit, T. Peterson and M. Prather. "Historical Overview of Climate Change." In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, edited by Solomon, S. et. al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. This report references: Lovelock, J.E. "Atmospheric fluorine compounds as indicators of air movements." Nature, 230 (1971): 379–381.

3. Minsky, M. The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

4. Lovelock, J. The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, 139–158. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

5. James Hansen's and Freeman Dyson's views are at opposite sides of the debate about climate change. See Dawidoff, N. "The Civil Heretic." New York Times Magazine, 25 March 2009.

6. DiSalvo, C., Sengers, P., and Brynjarsdóttir, H., "Navigating the Terrain of Sustainable HCI." Interactions 17, 4 (2010): 22–25.

7. See Bonanni, L., Hockenberry, M., Zwarg, D., Csikszentmihalyi, C., and Ishii, H., "Small Business Applications of Sourcemap: A Web Tool for Sustainable Design and Supply Chain Transparency." In Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems CHI '10, (2010): 937–946; as well as StepGreen ( Dan Rosenberg and Daniela Busse from SAP are building dashboards to track carbon based on the considerable scale and reach of SAP software installations [private conversation];

8. Fry T. Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice. Oxford: Berg Publishing, 2009.

9. Mankoff, J., Kravets, R., and Blevis, E, "Some Computer Science Issues in Creating a Sustainable World." Computer 41, 8 (2008): 102–105.

back to top  Authors

Eli Blevis is an associate professor of informatics in the Human-Computer Interaction Design program of the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, Bloomington. His primary area of research, and the one for which he is best known, is sustainable interaction design. This area of research and his core expertise are situated within the confluence of human-computer interaction as it owes to the computing and cognitive sciences, and design as it owes to the reflection of design criticism and the practice of critical design. His research also engages design theory, digital photography, and studio-based learning.

Shunying Blevis is an independent scholar and social entrepreneur living and working in Bloomington, IN. She holds advanced degrees in informatics from Indiana University and Beijing Normal University. Her interests and practice also include design, locavorism, and permaculture.

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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