Social interaction design

XVI.6 November + December 2009
Page: 24
Digital Citation

SUSTAINABLY OURSSmall change, big result

Kristin Hanks, Larry Riss, Steve Schunk, Eli Blevis

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You might not consider $22 a lot of money, but when you are talking about $22 in energy savings per installed computer, per year, in a large organization, it can be meaningful in terms of both cost savings and carbon-footprint reduction. Recognizing that many people are now aware of the need for more sustainable computing practices, we conducted an experiment to actually find a way to introduce such practices at Indiana University. The problem was conceptualized not only in terms of computer hardware and software, but also in terms of interactivity and policy. Our hope is that other institutions with large installed bases of desktop computers can replicate the lessons we learned.

back to top  Two experiments, One End Goal

Universities and other large institutions try to provide consistent, standardized, and high-quality technology services to students, staff, administrators, and faculty. Many of these individuals engage in unsustainable behaviors such as leaving computers on at all times. They offer a variety of reasons: Ordinary folks want to avoid the inconvenience of powering up a computer, while systems staff dislike the need to install patches and upgrades at a moment's notice. For many organizations, simply shutting down computing facilities is not feasible. Taking all of this into account, representatives from the School of Education (SOE) and the University Information Technology Services at Indiana University-Bloomington engaged in an experiment to answer the following questions:

  • Can we use native operating system power-management strategies and the creativity of our IT professionals on campus to come up with a free way to reduce the power consumption of desktop computers on campus? How much power could we save?
  • How can we ensure that the ordinary folks are engaged in the process? Would systems staff and ordinary folks alike be willing to change their habits in the name of sustainability?

Two experiments—one human in nature and one technical—were conducted to answer these questions.

back to top  BIOS Changes and Power Measurement

The technical aspects of the project were fairly straightforward and consisted of the following:

We arranged to visit 400-plus machines in the SOE to make minor changes to the BIOS. These changes prompted the machines to be put into a deep-sleep mode after two hours and fifteen minutes of inactivity. Machines could be easily re-awakened by moving the mouse or typing on the keyboard.

We created a way to wake up machines if someone needed to remotely access their computer. This was implemented by means of a Wake-on-LAN utility written by the SOE. A simple Web interface was created, using the user-name and password combo that faculty and staff at the SOE already use regularly.

We used Kill-a-Watt devices, which measure electricity consumption, as well as the services of electrical engineering personnel to measure the power used before and after the BIOS changes were installed. The power consumption differences were measured on three different scales, namely on 11 individual computers, on one wing of the fourth floor, and the entire building.

back to top  The GoGreen Gadget and Habit Change

Once the technical changes were made on the computers in the SOE, we hoped that the power savings would automatically begin to accrue. Nonetheless, we recognized that such changes do not come without potential problems, the most notable being resistance to change. Even the minor delays associated with waking a computer could be bothersome enough to some folks to prompt complaints to high-level university officials and reverse the support of administrators in the department. With that in mind, we knew that we had to find ways to engage people.

The IT professionals in the SOE were asked to test how running virus scans and OS patching during the day would affect performance for end users. This changed decades of standard operating procedures and support methods in which such software traditionally runs at night.

In order to engage the faculty and staff at the SOE, we created standard mass emails to inform people about the changes, provide methods for reporting problems, and distribute instructions for looking up frequently asked questions. Most important, we realized this need for information about sustainable practices was an opportunity to create a more interactive solution. In response to this opportunity, we created the GoGreen sidebar gadget. Once someone installs the gadget as a desktop application, it begins reporting the exact amount of carbon dioxide that is not leaking into the atmosphere by virtue of his or her participation in the power-management test run. It also shows how much CO2 has been saved in the entire School of Education and at the university overall. The gadget sends all of this information back to a central database where we can gather data about the impact of our project. Finally, it has a link to more facts about sustainable computing.

The gadget is a mechanism of awareness and motivation that provides a means of gathering and dispensing information. The gadget provides a form of interaction, which exposes the energy consumption that would otherwise be obscured by the plastic casing of computer hardware. It also provides a window into the invisible world of electricity-consuming circuit boards and gives us a way to understand our own environmental impact when using computers. It presents a way to observe how a small personal change can amount to huge gains, and it allows us to refute the internal voice that asks "I'm just one person—what can I do?" It allows us to see how simple individual acts aggregate into significant wholes.

back to top  Outcomes

Technical Results. At Indiana University, we pay a very low 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Even so, the month-long experiment indicated that we could save an average of just under $22 ($21.95, to be exact) per machine, per year by setting them up to enter deep-sleep mode after two hours and 15 minutes. Clearly, more aggressive power settings could accrue even higher savings. Even at the $22 rate, multiplied across the more than 32,700 computers on our campuses, the university could save more than $719,000 per year. From an environmental perspective, each computer with the new settings would save approximately 0.61 metric tons of carbon dioxide, for a grand total of 19,947 tons. That is like taking 3,314 passenger vehicles off the road. It is the same amount of CO2 as is created by consuming more than two million gallons of gasoline or the emissions from the electricity use of 2,510 homes for one year [1].

Human Results. IT staff adjusted well to the new patch and upgrade routine, indicating that the need for such maintenance to occur on machines in the middle of the night was a habit worth changing. Overall, faculty and staff were very patient with the changes, and several people mentioned that the savings were worth the minor inconveniences associated with being the first department on campus to make such changes. Of the 229 IT problems reported during the test period, only 29 were related to the project. Most of these were caused by network equipment problems. During the one-month run, 107 people installed the GoGreen gadget on their computers, amounting to more than a quarter of the participants.

back to top  Successful Sustainability

There was no revolt over the changes, and old habits began to change. We were able to save substantial amounts of money and energy. The success of these experiments has several possible causes.

Ordinary users experienced very few major inconveniences. They had to wake their computers up in the morning with a slight wiggle of the mouse, a small habit to adopt. If they needed to wake it up from home, they used a simple log-in application using existing usernames and passwords. The learning curve for this was marginal. Computers were set to go to sleep after a long period of inactivity rather than aggravating people by going to sleep during a coffee break or lunch. In short, the habit changes were automated by the BIOS change and were simple to adopt. Adopting more sustainable behavior was an easy, natural change.

IT professionals at the SOE were able to test changes to their nightly upgrade routine in the name of energy savings. They used native power-management settings and free software, adapting it to meet our needs. It was a challenge, a puzzle, and a way to show that a vendor solution was not necessary. The programmers, designers, and IT staff could prove their contribution to the university. Adopting more sustainable behavior was an opportunity to be creative and test the limits.

Finally, the GoGreen gadget provided a way to actually see the savings add up over time. A visible reminder of our individual contribution to a large and complex world facilitated the adoption of more sustainable behavior. Adopting more sustainable behavior was both personal and communal.

back to top  Going Forward

Designers need to look for ways to make computing practices sustainable. We must incorporate such successful strategies to other projects. How do we promote habit change? How can we design IT to make sustainability a natural shift instead of an inconvenience? Can we use interaction design to harness human creativity and our love of solving problems? While it is easy to use technology to show how much we harm the environment—bombarding end users with frightening statistics—how can we use it to encourage small steps that add up to large benefits instead? At Indiana University we are using these concepts to guide a print-reduction campaign, engaging end users by providing real-time data about their printing habits, exploring tools to encourage alternatives to printing, and designing interactive ways for them to pledge to reduce usage. We are also exploring the use of IT to manage and visualize energy consumption of the data centers, understand our electronic waste stream, and promote work practices such as telecommuting and virtual offices, which reduce our footprint.

Editor's Note: Have you designed and implemented a successful IT or interactivity project targeted at improving sustainable practices at your institution or for a client? If so, please consider contributing your story to this forum for a future issue. Contact Eli Blevis:

back to top  References

1. Environmental Protection Agency Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. Retrieved July 21, 2009, from:

back to top  Authors

Kristin Hanks is a doctoral student in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington. Her research focuses on designing and implementing sustainable IT projects in large organizations. She is also striving to understand how we measure environmental impacts and how to make such data more relevant to individuals.

Larry Riss is the director of education technology services in the School of Education at Indiana University Bloomington. He has a passion for organizing small teams of creative people to solve problems—and then getting out of the way to let them create. He also believes that we have a rich technology environment that is not fully utilized. So, by combining our technical talent and rich environment, we can do anything!

Steve Schunk is associate director of system administration and infrastructure in the School of Education at Indiana University Bloomington. His current interests include virtualization of servers, storage systems, and hardware in general.

Eli Blevis is an associate professor of informatics in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington. He is contributing editor for the Sustainably Ours forum. His primary research concerns are sustainable interaction design and design-oriented perspectives in the confluence of HCI and design.

back to top  Footnotes


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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/1100  $10.00

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