XXIX.1 January - February 2022
Page: 23
Digital Citation

Be like a hummingbird: Three opportunities to do the best we can for this planet we call home

Daria Loi

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According to the National Centers for Environmental Information [1], August 2020 was, in the Northern Hemisphere where I live, the second-hottest August on record in 141 years. Not only that, the Northern Hemisphere had its warmest summer and the entire globe experienced its third-hottest three-month season. Fast forward one year, and in July 2021 the global surface temperature was 1.67°F (0.93°C) above average, making it the hottest July on record [2].

Looking at these as well as (too many to list) other concerning data points on the state of our planet, many HCI practitioners, armed with their problem-solving attitudes, increasingly feel the urge to do something. Yet the question is: What? What can we do as a community to deeply and continuously care for the natural wonders that make our planet so precious?

In the movie Dirt!, Wangari Maathai tells the story of a hummingbird [3] that, while all other animals—much bigger animals—powerlessly watch a fire raging through the forest, goes back and forth carrying tiny drops of water from the nearest stream onto the fire. When other animals ask the hummingbird, "What do you think you can do? You are too little!" the hummingbird simply responds, "I'm doing the best I can." So, what can HCI practitioners do to seriously care for the natural wonders that make our planet so precious? We can be like that hummingbird, and—despite what often feels like insurmountable odds—do and continue doing the best we can.

As Stephanidis et al. [4] report, the work of HCI communities "to develop more sustainable patterns of production and consumption" is rich in breadth, from environmental informatics to computational sustainability, sustainable HCI, green IT, green ICT, ICT for sustainability, and slow HCI, to name a few. The "what can we do?" question, however, remains crucial, as, on the one hand, we can and should simply do more and, on the other, the issues we are facing are complex, multifaceted, and constantly shifting. For instance, let's consider the crucial relationships between environmental challenges and the ideals of democracy, equality, prosperity, and stability; since environmental care can be practiced only in societies where such ideals are pursued and safeguarded [4], environmental care implies focusing on complex, intertwined, and diverse societal challenges. That realization alone would make most feel like those powerless animals in the forest. Yet the hummingbird in us should focus on the opportunities—and those, in my humble opinion, abound.


A first opportunity has to do with us (yes, you and me, dear reader) and the type of human-nature interactions that we decide to engage in as we live our lives. Masashi Soga and Kevin Gaston discuss how the many forms of human-nature interactions "can be classified along five key dimensions: immediateness, consciousness, intentionality, degree of human mediation, and direction of outcome," highlighting the "widespread recognition of the importance of direct interactions between people and nature, particularly for human health and wellbeing, but also for the future of biodiversity" [5]. What would happen if we were to look at our personal human-nature interactions as something that is constantly being designed, daily, through our own actions and decisions? What would happen if we were to embrace the opportunity to design those interactions intentionally and consciously, as we would a product, service, or system—something to be proud of and leave behind as our legacy? Are those interactions fostering opportunities for us and our local communities to actively participate as citizens in how decisions are made about energy use, pollution, and climate change?

A second rich opportunity resides in our professional roles. What does doing the best I can mean for us as HCI practitioners? Of course, for those involved in sustainable HCI work the answer is somewhat simpler, as they have dedicated their lives to that work. Yet I believe that the opportunity is for the entire HCI community to see themselves as hummingbirds, all doing their best from their diverse vantage points. This opportunity can take many forms. The beautiful part is that it's OK to do small, humble, everyday steps: A drop of water is better than none. For instance, think about the power of critical thinking; arguably, a thoughtful, grounded, courageous question asked in a meeting to promote more sustainable ways to tackle a problem could make a difference. Being an unashamedly persistent critical thinker can make a difference, as can systematic HCI research that focuses on showing what people expect from their products, services, and systems given their increasing awareness of, for example, climate change. Modularity and a decrease in material consumption are of course great hardware-design opportunities, as are optimizations to how servers are designed and positioned. HCI designers and strategists can embed criteria and metrics in their processes that include environmental care as part of how and why products, services, and systems are designed, prototyped, built, distributed, and consumed.

While discussing HCI's role in tackling important societal challenges, Shneiderman et al. [6] highlighted 16 grand challenges, a number of which are extremely pertinent to this conversation, such as the shift from user to community experience, the need to encourage resource conservation, and the focus on amplifying empathy, compassion, and caring as well as clarifying responsibility and accountability. The core of the matter is that there are so many opportunities to make a difference—opportunities that start when we ask ourselves: What, how, and why am I designing this specific product, service, or system? What resources will be used for its production? What are the consequences of this design? Where is this product going at the end of its life? Can I substitute any physical component with a service? Where are the resources (e.g., human, materials, equipment, servers) located and what is that location's impact? What are my company's hiring practices and do they reflect the ideals of democracy, equality, prosperity, and stability that are so key to successful environmental care?

A third opportunity is in the HCI education sector. As a firm believer in pedagogical practices that prioritize learning by doing and by experiencing, I suggest we double down on such practices, uncompromisingly and relentlessly. Given technological advancements' crucial role in influencing democracy [4]; the relationships between environmental care and the ideals of democracy, equality, prosperity, and stability [4]; and the importance of direct interactions between people and nature [5], the next generation of HCI practitioners will need practical competencies and the ability to tackle environmental care as part of their everyday jobs, not as an elective, a specialization, or a passion project. The next generation will need to be equipped to do great HCI and to be able to see environmental care as a natural, core component of what great means. For this to succeed, the HCI education sector must both weave sustainability into the core curriculum and offer a multitude of diverse experiential-learning opportunities. Future leaders must be trained with not only key relevant competencies but also essential skills such as critical thinking, courage, persistence, empathy, citizenship, and compassion. Given the complexity and multifaceted nature of environmental care, the next generation of HCI leaders will need to be exceptional multidisciplinary practitioners and systems thinkers. For that to be possible, they will need to have strong participatory design and collaboration competencies. Finally, they will need to be able to resiliently adapt, to futurecast, and to apply design and research skills regardless of context, scenario, or lens (e.g., dystopia, protopia, utopia), ultimately envisioning and designing "technologies that will be appropriate for a future with a scarcity of resources, handling crisis response issues and designing for situations when availability on infrastructures may be low (e.g., natural disasters), healthcare may be deficient, food supply may be unreliable, and governments weak or corrupted" [4].

It would be somewhat easier, convenient, and even comforting to believe that those who dedicated their careers to sustainable HCI will do all the heavy lifting and succeed on our behalf. The reality, however, is that we, as a community, need to be better than that. That means facing the challenge, embracing the responsibility, sharing the load of this challenging journey, and becoming better versions of ourselves as a result. We can be like that hummingbird, and despite what often feel like insurmountable odds, do the best we can for this planet we call home.

back to top  References


2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It's official: July was Earth's hottest month on record. Aug. 13, 2021;

3. Maathai, W.M. "I will be a hummingbird." From Dirt! The Movie, 2009;

4. Stephanidis, C. et al. Seven HCI grand challenges. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 35, 14 (2019), 1229–1269. DOI: 10.1080/10447318.2019.1619259

5. Soga, M. and Gaston K.J. The ecology of human–nature interactions. Proc. R. Soc. B 287, 1918 (2020). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.1882

6. Shneiderman, B. et al. Grand challenges for HCI researchers. ACM Interactions 23, 5 (Sep.–Oct. 2016).

back to top  Author

Daria Loi combines design strategy with experience research and innovation to enrich people's lives and humanize technology. She heads innovation at Avast, serves on the board of directors for Democracy Lab, is conjoint professor at Newcastle University Australia, and co-chairs the Participatory Design Advisory Board. [email protected]

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