XXXI.2 March - April 2024
Page: 39
Digital Citation

Imagining Sustainable Futures: Expanding the Discussion on Sustainable HCI

Eleonora Mencarini, Valentina Nisi, Christina Bremer, Chiara Leonardi, Nuno Jardim Nunes, Jen Liu, Robert Soden

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For the past 15 years, in light of biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, droughts, floods, and threats to humans' and nonhumans' health, life, and activities, HCI researchers have been reflecting on the role their work can play in reducing the impact of climate change. Recently, the discourse on climate change in the HCI community has expanded to include effective communication to raise citizens' awareness, policy design, the value of biodiversity, and the perspectives of nonhuman actors.

back to top  Insights

HCI researchers should work with other disciplines and include nonhuman perspectives to develop a systemic understanding of climate change.
A cultural shift from the concepts of persuasion, personhood, and property toward collectively nurtured common goods is needed to trigger collective action.
Hopeful visions of the future might help to contrast eco-anxiety and denialism.

During CHI 2023, we organized the workshop "HCI for Climate Change: Imagining Sustainable Futures" [1] to map the various perspectives from which the CHI community currently addresses the problem of climate change. By bringing together these different perspectives, our intent was to find contact points among them and create synergies to imagine sustainable futures together.

The workshop was met with great interest, highlighting the need for discussion spaces on climate change in the CHI community. We received 46 submissions (40 of which were accepted) and welcomed 53 participants (16 online and 37 in person in Hamburg, Germany). Participants were primarily researchers working on data and science communication, more-than-human entanglements, behavior change, and policy design. We created six discussion groups, each addressing a theme that emerged from the participants' submissions: "From behavior change to collective action," "Data-based speculative methods," "Interacting with climate data, "Collaborations towards sustainable HCI," "From awareness to climate activism," and "More-than-human for citizen engagement." A final plenary session examined concerns and linked similar positions.

Now, many months after the workshop, we have reflected on the event and our notes and come to realize that, despite the different foci within the six discussion groups, some issues recurred across the groups, signaling how crucial the community perceives them to be. Here, we articulate the recurring tensions that emerged from the discussions, and outline possible research directions and propositions for how the HCI community might tackle them.

back to top  Individual Change versus Collective Action

Since human activity primarily contributes to the rise of the world's temperature, mitigating or adapting to climate change requires rethinking human activity both in terms of production processes and people's habits, behaviors, and lifestyles. HCI has been working on this topic for about 15 years, and its approach has evolved over time [2]. Initially, the research focused on encouraging individuals to change their high-carbon-footprint behaviors, such as energy consumption or mobility habits, using persuasive technologies that generated awareness of the positive impact or economic savings achieved with the new behaviors. With this approach, motivation to change was triggered through extrinsic devices such as peer pressure, competition, and rewards.

The climate change phenomenon is complex because it has multiple causes and impacts at different geographical and temporal scales.

Conversely, the workshop revealed the need to reframe individual actions in the broader perspective of collective change, where citizens feel part of a community with shared values and resources, such as air and water quality, as well as the future itself. Convincing individuals to act for something that does not bring immediate personal benefit may require a cultural shift away from the concepts of persuasion, personhood, and property to a perspective where resources are regarded as common goods to be collectively nurtured. According to this view, communities should not be intended only as a network of human beings but also as entanglements with fellow nonhuman beings, thus requiring a systemic understanding of climate change.

Currently, two opposite societal actors are working to foster collective action against climate change. On the one hand, grassroots activist movements raise their voices to draw the attention of the masses to the effects and causes of climate change, the need to find a balance between human and nonhuman life, and fairness and environmental justice for vulnerable groups. On the other hand, policymakers have the power to enable collective action in their communities based on their decisions. In fact, climate action can have a broad impact and a lasting effect on people and the world only if supported by infrastructures, services, and incentives. For example, even if people are aware of the impact of traditional energy sources on the environment and the value of making an effort for the common good, using energy from renewable sources could be unaffordable for many. That said, it could still be encouraged by public policies.

In light of this, rather than focusing on "solutionist" digital tools, HCI researchers are called to work with other disciplines [2] such as climate science, sociology of grassroots movements, policy design, and the arts, among others, to contribute to a systemic perspective, frame the need for a collective endeavor, and trigger collective action.

back to top  Humanized Data Against Denialism and Eco-Anxiety

A crucial challenge for scientists is to communicate the complexity of climate change effectively to nonspecialists. The climate change phenomenon is complex because it has multiple causes and impacts at different geographical and temporal scales. The data describing it may appear abstract and detached from people's local experiences, and the impacts that the predictions try to trace over the coming years are quite uncertain; the further away in time they are, the vaguer they become. Furthermore, there is not just one audience; there are multiple audiences, each with a different level of expertise on climate change and various possibilities for action. Policy- and decision-makers need climate services, which are systems that provide climate and climate-related information [3] based on actual local and global data, to predict trends and make decisions for their territories. In contrast, citizens primarily need to understand the relationships between the weather-related anomalies they experience (such as heavy rainfalls, heat waves, and droughts) and the global and slower phenomenon of climate change and what it is in their power to do to mitigate or adapt to it.


HCI could help convey knowledge about climate change to raise awareness and, beyond that, call for action by exploiting its skill set to:

  • Transform communication into experience, for example, by exploiting the potential of technology to create immersive environments through extended reality
  • Translate data into concepts that are understandable to the broader public through the development of visualizations, physicalizations, and sonifications that relate events and places and help people understand the relationship between causes and effects
  • Humanize data, that is, helping bridge data with the local knowledge and lived experience of climate change, for example, through digital collaborative storytelling or citizen science campaigns that enable firsthand experiences of environmental issues.

Furthermore, those already open to engaging with the topic are willing to listen and learn more about climate change. But how can we reach climate change deniers or skeptics? It is essential not to fall into the error of sensationalizing the news, which could have several adverse effects, such as polarizing audiences or causing ecological anxiety. Making information more accessible and understandable for a broader audience while avoiding oversimplification, which may strip away essential details and nuances, is a prerequisite for effective communication. In this regard, transdisciplinary collaborations would strengthen the power of dissemination. For example, psychology could be used within a collective, social, and cultural change frame to create constructive and action-oriented paths forward. Rather than apocalyptic representations that may generate eco-anxiety and action paralysis, HCI could create more joyful and hopeful visions of the future, helping users understand what future they would like to live in. HCI researchers could also "prototype" these futures by simulating different scenarios and communicating the impact of, for example, environmental policies.

back to top  Centering the Margins

Data has a rhetorical power; that is, the way it is collected reflects a specific vision of reality and what is deemed relevant in describing a phenomenon and its solution. Therefore, besides making data digestible for different audiences, HCI could have a more significant impact earlier on, at the collection stage. To understand, frame, and predict climate change, data is often collected and reported globally, and not all perspectives are considered equally. Many living beings and entities who experience the effects of climate change firsthand have no say in the matter. This condition concerns specific human groups (such as low-income or Indigenous citizens) and nonhumans (the natural world). We explored the reasons for this exclusion in the workshop. They can be ascribed to a lack of shared language, different experiences (more-than-human entities often have different life spans from humans), and, most of all, differences in power. Even though marginalized and natural communities are the most vulnerable to climate change, they are not recognized as experts on it, and thus are excluded from the discussions and decision-making about it. Once again, environmental and social justice are intertwined [4].

A change in people's lifestyles is needed, but rather than framing the change as bringing individual benefits, it should be seen as a form of collective action for the common good.

To advocate for these groups, HCI strives to find new ways of engaging with those actors who typically are not at the heart of the general discussions. In addition to being ethical, the challenge is also methodological. How do we bring marginalized stories to the table? How do we give voice to nonhumans? To bring those at the margins into focus and empower them, HCI could join forces with posthumanist design and anthropology and engage with the following lines of research and practice:

  • Fostering new solutions to creating less hierarchical relationships, both human and nonhuman, such as Indigenous knowledge systems, which are often significantly linked to the territory and other more-than-human elements of the land, by leveraging storytelling as a practice to give voice, listen, and share
  • Speculations and fabulations, which may help imagine alternative futures and choose the preferable ones
  • Noticing and indexing [5]
  • Familiarizing the population and policymakers with the systemic perspective, including the needs of more-than-human entities. This could be done by collaborating with natural world scientists like biologists, ethologists, and ecologists, who could help HCI researchers interpret nature's language.

back to top  Conclusion

The need for a shift in framing what HCI can do to tackle climate change emerged from the workshop. A change in people's lifestyles is needed, but rather than framing the change as bringing individual benefits, it should be seen as a form of collective action for the common good. The motivation to change must be a vision of a shared and common future in which unity is strength rather than personal benefit. The collectivity must include Indigenous groups and more-than-human beings, who are the most vulnerable.


We align with these efforts to untangle the tensions currently populating the HCI discourse on climate change and create new paths toward less hierarchical relationships, both human and nonhuman. Thus, we advocate for a systemic perspective, which should be communicated to citizens and policymakers, particularly those outside academia, to help them channel individual behaviors into collective action. We are aware of the limited impact of negatively highlighting the effect of the Anthropocene-induced climate change crisis on our world without giving actionable insights and hope for change. So, to achieve these goals, designers are moving toward new design philosophies and practices by thinking and designing more-promising futures for humans and nonhumans. As mentioned earlier, speculations, fabulations, noticing, and indexing, as well as hope [6], are just some of the avenues we've explored.

In our view, the key enabler for this direction is transdisciplinarity. The various disciplines investigating climate change focus only on certain aspects of it, thus fostering a silos approach rather than interdisciplinarity. Instead, HCI researchers are called to develop multidisciplinary competencies and work across disciplinary boundaries. Still, pursuing interdisciplinarity is not without challenges. During the workshop, we talked about what it means to be a research community, what it means to be a field, and how we can get more skilled in doing the kinds of boundary work that we need to do between what we consider to be our field and what we believe to be outside of our field. There are also different forms of knowledge. When do we want to invite people in? When do we need to make connections at the borders of various forms of knowledge? Is there a translation or other tools that can help with that? How can we become comfortable with questions about knowledge pluralism and different ways of knowing about a problem, which does not necessarily need to be synthesized into a single answer but rather can include multiple answers? It would be exciting to answer these questions together.

back to top  Acknowledgments

This article was partially supported by the Horizon Europe NEVERMORE (GA 101056858), BoSS (GA 101079995), and BIG (GA 952226) projects, the Portuguese National Funding Agency for Science, Research, and Technology (FCT) (UIDB/50009/2020), and the Leverhulme Centre for Material Social Futures Research (DS-2017-036).

back to top  References

1. Mencarini, E., Bremer, C., Leonardi, C., Liu, J., Nisi, V., Nunes, N.J., and Soden, R. HCI for climate change: Imagining sustainable futures. Extended Abstracts of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2023, 1–6; https://doi.org/10.1145/3544549.3573833

2. Bremer, C., Knowles, B., and Friday, A. Have we taken on too much?: A critical review of the sustainable HCI landscape. Proc. of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2022, 1–11; https://doi.org/10.1145/3491102.3517609

3. Rigby, J.M. and Preist, C. Towards user-centred climate services: The role of human-computer interaction. Proc. of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2023, 1–14; https://doi.org/10.1145/3544548.3580663

4. Bates, O., Thomas, V., Remy, C., Nathan, L.P., Mann, S., and Friday, A. The future of HCI and sustainability: Championing environmental and social justice. Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2018, Paper SIG01, 1–4; https://doi.org/10.1145/3170427.3185365

5. Tsing, A.L. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton Univ. Press, 2015; https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400873548

6. Bendor, R. Sustainability, hope, and designerly action in the Anthropocene. Interactions 25, 3 (2018), 82–84; https://doi.org/10.1145/3194351

back to top  Authors

Eleonora Mencarini is an HCI researcher at the Bruno Kessler Foundation (Italy). She is interested in understanding ecological relations and fostering awareness and resilience in communities affected by climate change. Currently, she works on two EU-funded projects, NEVERMORE on strategies against climate change and SMARTERA on sustainable growth models in rural areas. [email protected]

Valentina Nisi is an artist and HCI researcher leveraging interactive digital storytelling, gaming, and HCI to bring awareness and care to social and environmental issues. She is an associate professor at the Interactive Technologies Institute (ITI] Laboratory of Robotics and Engineering Systems (LARSyS), Instituto Superior Técnico (IST), at the University of Lisbon and an adjunct faculty member at the HCI Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. [email protected]

Christina Bremer is a doctoral researcher at Lancaster University (U.K.). Her latest research explores factors that shape the energy-saving potential of behavior change and energy efficiency technologies in buildings, including rebound effects and baseload. More generally, she is interested in research that holistically addresses the environmental and societal impacts of digital technologies. [email protected]

Chiara Leonardi is a social scientist who applies inclusive and participative methods to understand users' needs, values, and practices and envision novel digital solutions that address societal and environmental issues. She is a senior researcher at Bruno Kessler Foundation. [email protected]

Nuno Jardim Nunes strongly advocates digital technology as a means to scale sustainability. He coordinates the Bauhaus of the Seas, a New European Bauhaus lighthouse project. He leads ITI LARSyS, IST, at the University of Lisbon and the Carnegie Mellon Portugal Program at the Technical University of Lisbon, where he is a professor. [email protected]

Jen Liu investigates the ecological, social, and political implications of computing technologies and infrastructures. Her current work is on the impact of climate change on networked infrastructures in the American South. She is a Ph.D. student in information science at Cornell University. [email protected]

Robert Soden is an HCI researcher focusing on improving information systems for understanding and responding to environmental issues, particularly disasters and climate change. He is an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Toronto School of the Environment, where he coleads the Toronto Climate Observatory. [email protected]

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