XXIII.5 September + October 2016
Page: 54
Digital Citation

Enriching visions of sustainability through informal public pedagogies

Lisa Nathan, Eric Meyers

Sustainability—what people value and want to uphold into the future—is an ethical statement. Rising sea levels, extraordinary temperatures, and catastrophic storms are forcing peoples around the world to articulate what they value and envision as essential for the future. The results of this valuing are not shared, universal, or constant. Yet, in a world desensitized to “green washing,” sustainability certification regimes, and eco-slogans, it is rare to find spaces where conceptualizations of sustainability are acknowledged to be inherently situated, contested, and shifting. How might interaction designers encourage discourses that enrich our visions of sustainability?



Responding to the call for leveraging insightful scholarship from outside the field of HCI [1], we propose a design orientation grounded by the work of Anthony Weston [2,3]. Weston is an environmental philosopher who offers drastic alternatives to dominant sustainability strategies. We preface our discussion of Weston—s philosophy by acknowledging that we are speaking from positions of privilege in North America. We are white, cisgendered academics employed by a Tier 1 research university in what Dayo Olopade described as a “fat economy” during her CHI 2016 keynote [4].

In alignment with our recognition of diverse positionalities, we do not support the view that there is an end goal, a state of sustainability, that is universally shared or even achievable. Nor do we accept the idea that there is a single ideal of sustainability that all peoples around the world (or in your neighborhood) agree upon. We assert that acknowledging differences in conceptualizations of sustainability is critical to informed action. Thus, our focus is on how discourses frame sustainability, rather than on the more familiar concerns of energy efficiency, water conservation, or behavior modification. We are interested in supporting deliberations of sustainability—whether ecological, economic, cultural, social, or personal—ethical negotiations concerning what is desirable and worth trying to sustain.

In alignment with our perspective, Weston argues that we have “an irreducibly pluralistic system of desires. Some are straightforwardly biological, others culturally rooted, others more personal, and many are mixtures of all three. If anything we are doomed to hopelessly conflicting desires. Neither our biological predispositions nor our cultural heritage are even self-consistent, let alone fully compatible with the other” [2]. Values change with time, context, and experience; they are neither static nor internally consistent.

Sustainability and Public Pedagogies

While much of the sustainable-HCI work to date has focused on designing information tools to affect user behaviors, a no less pressing concern is how information tools can influence public understanding of sustainability issues through education. The multi-lifespan nature of environmental challenges, in fact, makes it essential to bring people of all ages and walks of life into envisioning both the problems and possible solutions. Nurturing these capacities will require lifelong (across the entire lifespan) and life-wide learning (across the many places people learn) to be truly effective. We see informal learning resources, information tools, and media (including feature films, television documentaries, library collections, museum exhibits, websites) as public pedagogies: media through which we engage in learning outside formal institutional settings [5].

An emerging approach to teaching people about sustainability concepts and practices is the use of immersive game spaces, simulations, and virtual environments. Public pedagogies—and we place sustainability game worlds and simulations among these—have enormous potential to move beyond nudges: to engage players in informed discourse about the environment, to disrupt existing patterns of thinking and behavior, and to foster the kind of systems thinking that would help them analyze the myriad challenges of sustainability [6]. However, like any pedagogy, they may be fraught with ideology, too complex for general understanding, or oversimplified, creating dangerous misconceptions that are difficult to correct. And like any pedagogy, these media benefit from analysis and critique to improve how they represent the topics they teach, implicitly or explicitly.


Representations of Sustainability

To explore how discourses of sustainability are embedded within contemporary digital learning applications, we draw your attention to three social computing environments/experiences: EcoBuddies, a virtual world for young children with an explicit focus on environmental education; Little Green Island, an iOS game or iPad app that challenges young people to solve environmental problems through play; and World Without Oil, an open multiplayer alternate reality game (ARG) simulating an oil crisis. While each experience is an informal, playful approach to sustainability issues, they all claim the goals of education and behavior change.

EcoBuddies. As a player in the virtual world EcoBuddies, you are framed as a friend of the environment, as well as a friend of others who share your concern for the environment. EcoBuddies players adopt hamster avatars, which they use to navigate a park-like, consumer-oriented virtual space. Hamsters bound through lush, green landscapes with trees, rivers, rocks, and gardens. Small shops are nestled among the trees, where the hamsters can buy electric cars, clothing, costumes, pets, treats, and other hamster necessities. There are explicit environmental connections within the game world. Blue recycling bins are scattered across the landscape; clicking on them provides recycling trivia, such as “It takes 4,000 years for a glass bottle to decompose,” or “5 plastic bottles are enough to make stuffing for a ski jacket.” There are quizzes on environmental behaviors and videos that document the impact of humankind on the environment placed throughout the site for users to “bump into” during their adventures.

Acknowledging differences in conceptualizations of sustainability is critical to informed action.

Ansel and Claire: Little Green Island. Among a growing number of app-based adventure games for children, the Ansel and Claire series for the iPad presents a “gamified” learning experience for children ages 6 to 12. Developed by CognitiveKid, an award-winning developer of touchscreen media, the app is designed to introduce children to environmental issues with an emphasis on the effects of pollution. Over the course of 18 game levels, players are invited to develop and nurture the “Green Island” into an ecological utopia, in contrast to two neighboring islands, Smokey Island (an industrial cesspool) and Folksville (a crowded residential suburb) where mismanagement has had disastrous consequences. Players advance through tasks of preventing or mitigating man-made ecological catastrophe: clearing trash, planting trees, replacing chemical pesticides with “good” bugs, cleaning oil spills, or putting scrubbers on the coal-burning power plant. Players earn greenbucks, the in-game currency, by successfully averting disaster. Using their wealth to buy trees, solar panels, or a sack of nematodes allows players to address future ecological mishaps, support the greening of neighboring islands, or further embellish the Little Island.

World Without Oil. World Without Oil is a massively collaborative imagining of the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis. Designed by Ken Eklund (creative director) and Jane McGonigal (participation architect), the game aims to bring people together around a shared concern, namely getting them to reflect and share insights about oil dependence with the aim of devising plausible and effective courses of action in response to it. The design team sought to elicit this response by posting the news of an imaginary oil crisis on their website for the period of 32 days starting April 30, 2007. Each day represented a week of the crisis. Players engaged with the game by imagining how such news might change their life and local environment as well as the steps they were taking to respond to this imaginary crisis. The game played out as a series of individual “reports from the field” as well as responses to the puppetmasters’ (game designers) challenges and prompts. Players could phone or email their contributions, submit responses on a blog or online journal, or send images, videos, or links for posting on the WWO homepage. The original game hosted more than 1,500 contributions from 330 players, including stories from around the world. Thousands more participated through lurking and reading the narrative aggregated on the site. WWO is also replayable in localized instantiations, and classroom educators have adopted this ARG for use in schools; however, our analysis focused exclusively on the public game contributions.

Tools that bring debate to the fore are more likely to prompt growth and innovation.

Analyzing the Representations

Here, we discuss themes from Weston—s work that are particularly generative for HCI researchers interested in supporting engaged learning: acceptance, positivity, and patience. We pull out brief examples from these designed environments/experiences that illustrate the challenges and tensions in representing sustainability, as well as suggest a set of recommendations for designers and researchers in this space.

Acceptance. Throughout Weston—s work is an argument that dominant Western approaches to contemporary human relationships with the natural world can be broadly characterized through resistance and fear. Nature is something for humankind to tame and control. He argues that rather than making things that nature eventually tears or wears down, our designs and patterns should be modeled on acceptance and embracing the shifting tides of the natural world. He develops this idea by considering New Orleans—rising sea levels and the increasing severity of tropical storms. He proposes that New Orleans city planners should embrace the rising waters (e.g., through developing a floating infrastructure) rather than continuing the Sisyphean task of trying to stop water from entering the city [3].

EcoBuddies is a kind of static paradise, filled with green grass, trees, beaches, and snow-capped mountains. The colors are bright and attractive, and nothing appears in a state of decay, with the exception that bright blue bodies of water are always filled with trash that needs removal. But in this game, the environment is merely a backdrop, an idealized world where nothing changes. Trees do not grow, tides do not hide or reveal new coastlines. Patterns and rhythms of the natural world do not exist: It is always day, bright and beautiful in EcoBuddies, a perfect 20 degrees Celsius and not a cloud in the sky. Curiously, it is only the man-made elements of the world that are interactive. One can use the submarine to remove refuse from the lagoon, but relaxing on the beach, picking up shells, or climbing a palm tree to gather coconuts are all impossible.

Positivity – Humans are part of the beauty of nature. Most of the rhetoric surrounding green programs and initiatives is wrapped in negative terms: We must reduce our carbon emissions, limit our consumption of fossil fuels, and stop polluting our waters. But Weston contends that our imaginations are limited by the system that supports our current society, and that we can do much better. We must reimagine ourselves—not merely as parasites that slowly consume the resources of our planet, but as beings that share it with others—before we can create positive net benefits for our world [3].

The Little Green Island app explicitly positions human civilization as a destructive force; hence the goal is to nurture the island as a kind of leave-no-trace utopia. The “green” utopia is presented as a place of ecological purity, free of mankind—s influence. In contrast to places where humans work (Smokey Island) or live (Folksville); Green Island is at its best when unsullied by these day-to-day aspects of human living. It represents the “ecological preserve” notion of sustainability, where human damage is fought and mitigated (or suffered through); technology and behavior change are combined to repair the effects of other technologies and behaviors; and true beauty is found only in the absence of humans.

Patience. Part of accepting and embracing the natural world involves becoming sensitive to its rhythms, and above all limiting our activities to ones that are beneficial to our environment: Broadly speaking, we must learn that merely because we can do something does not mean that we should do it. Weston speaks particularly poignantly about the need to become a positive force on our own planet before we look to space exploration, lest we harm that which we find [3].

World Without Oil is about simulating a much longer and evolving situation, albeit by compressing the time of eight months into 32 days. Part of the narrative involves documenting how people adapt to a new way of living, including changes in their daily routines, but also longer-term efforts (e.g., neighborhood gardens, alternative transportation, communal efforts to share dwindling resources). The puppetmasters hoped to promote innovative solutions, including “hacking” how cities and neighborhoods run. Yet much of the conversation in players—posts is about immediate concerns and direct solutions to short-term problems, not redesigning lifestyles or systemic changes. That is perhaps in part because these personal, short-term responses were the types of posts rewarded and featured by the game designers [6].

In sum, by employing Weston—s philosophy, we found these media representations of sustainability to be impoverished, by which we mean they largely fail to represent the complexities of, and in particular the plurality of perspectives on, sustainability. There is room to develop contexts that support an ecology of values—not just one. Otherwise we end up with static and fragile conceptualizations of sustainability that will break down at the first sign of conflict in problematic, non-idealized situations.

Design Insights

We, like everyone else, are influenced by the public discourse. Weston [2,3] helps identify and articulate the impoverished nature of the overall sustainability conversation. The discourse needs to change, and we propose that public pedagogy initiatives are a way to advance the conversation. It is only at the mass consumer level that you are able to change the parameters of the conversation. It isn—t just about awareness building and consciousness raising, but also about how we understand what sustainability is at its heart: a negotiation of what we value and what kind of world we want to create.

We offer the following insights for the design of interactive systems for sustainability, with an emphasis on those that educate users and facilitate engagement with conceptualizations of sustainability.

Plurality of perspectives. We need to embrace the reality that we live in a diverse, pluralistic, and dynamic world. Each of us constructs a unique web of values through our interactions with the environment and with other beings. Designed experiences that represent just one uncontested perspective on sustainability run the risk of not only diminishing the conversation, but also of handicapping individuals in developing a richer, more nuanced, and durable approach to the challenges of living together on a changing planet.

Discomfort and destabilization. A plurality of perspectives invariably generates conflict and disruption. Individuals and societies learn through confronting different values systems, where naive, simplistic conceptions of the world are broken and remade. We can move the conversation forward only by surfacing the areas where we disagree, rather than focusing on mitigating conflict and sublimating confrontation.

Negotiation of ideas and experience. Disruption makes space for change. Tools that bring debate to the fore, rather than offer a homogeneous and uncontested perspective, are more likely to prompt growth and innovation.


Human creativity and diversity are limited by the dominant assumption that everyone knows what sustainability means and what a sustainable world looks like. This assumption suggests there is agreement and consistency among, between, and within individuals concerning what they value over time. “It is wiser to accept the fact that many of our contemporaries, even our most thoughtful contemporaries, hold deeply different, probably irreconcilable, visions of the ideal world” [2]. In addition, these visions are neither static nor permanent.

Through this piece we join others who seek to move the conversation from how systems might nudge or influence user behaviors to how we might design experiences that facilitate richer discourses, including multi-generational and multicultural discussion of how we wish to adapt to our diverse, ever-changing world.


This article is based on Meyers, E.M. and Nathan, L.P. Impoverished visions of sustainability: Encouraging disruption in digital learning environments. Proc. of CSCW 2016. ACM, New York, 2016, 222–232.


1. Silberman, M.S., Nathan, L.P., Knowles, B., Bendor, R., Clear, A., Håkansson, M., Dillahunt, T., and Mankoff, J. Next steps for sustainable HCI. Interactions 21, 5 (2014), 66–69.

2. Weston, A. Beyond intrinsic value: Pragmatism in environmental ethics. Environmental Ethics 17, 1 (1985), 321–339.

3. Weston, A. Mobilizing the Green Imagination: An Exuberant Manifesto. New Society Pub., Gabriola Island, BC, 2012.

4. Alopode, D. Opening keynote: The bright continent. Proc. of CHI 2016. ACM, New York, 2016;

5. Giroux, H.A. Cultural studies, public pedagogy, and the responsibility of intellectuals. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 1, 1 (2004), 59–79.

6. JafariNaimi, N. and Meyers, E.M. Collective intelligence or groupthink? Engaging participation patterns in World Without Oil. Proc. of CSCW 2015. ACM, New York, 2015, 1972–1881.


Lisa Nathan is an assistant professor and coordinator of the First Nations curriculum concentration at the University of British Columbia—s iSchool. Through generative collaborations she strives to (re)imagine and (re)design information practices and ways of managing information, to address long-term societal challenges (e.g., decolonization, social justice, environmental adaptation).

Eric Meyers is an associate professor and chair of the master of arts in children—s literature program at the University of British Columbia—s iSchool. His research investigates how young people engage socially with contemporary information systems as they work, learn, and play.

Copyright held by authors. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.

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