ICT4S Trip Report

A word cloud highlighting popular topics at ICT4S including development, energy, sustainability, data, impact, and more.

Some of the topics popular at the ICT4S conference

I had the pleasure of attending (and speaking at) the ICT for Sustainability conference this week. This is the first sustainability focused conference I’ve had the pleasure of attending since I last attended the conference on Behavior Energy and Climate Change a few years ago (also a wonderful conference). Similarly to BECC, the attendees are highly multidisciplinary, and as can be seen from the word cloud at right, the range of topics covered at ICT4S is quite diverse. I was impressed to see a mixture of life cycle analysis, agriculture, water-focused projects, feedback and energy monitoring, and ICT software and hardware efficiency improvements among the talks I attended. Speakers addressed issues ranging from behavior change to technology to policy.

For example, Grunfeld & Houghton [1] discussed the use of ICT to support sustainable farming (tied to poverty reduction and human development). They identified roles for ICT ranging from knowledge exchange to supply chain management. This was connected to policy issues including climate change, food security, property rights, and funding.

The EcologTex project [2] explored supply chain sustainability for textiles. The authors raised an issue that is becoming a theme for me in thinking about the role ICT has in addressing sustainability issues: The need for data, and for ways of handling uncertainty with respect to that data. One of the most interesting facets of this project for me was their approach of creating a social-network like site for businesses rather than individuals to exchange information. Many of the issues they were facing (such as seeding the site and encouraging participation) are similar to those we face when creating successful social networks for individuals. I wonder whether organizational psychologists will one day add a new perspective to the theory and design of online social sites, or whether the issues are substantially similar. An area for future work.

One of the most compelling cases for feedback that I saw at the conference was the case of solar power (locally generated). The paper, titled “When looking out the window is not enough” [3] explored different ways of helping individuals with their own solar panels to easily understand when a surplus (or limited) amount of power was available so that they could plan their large appliance use accordingly. I wonder whether such a project could project expected use (and availability) to further advance planning.

Much of the conference seemed, from the perspective of a technologist and implementor like myself, to be theoretical or hypothetical in nature. So I was pleased to see specific examples that went beyond this, whether to simulate or model (such as Sissa’s work on modeling rebound effects using agents [4]) or build and deploy, such as Anda et al.’s [XX] deployment of a smart metering infrastructure for water management in Perth. That project included planning, ongoing coaching, and a 2011 deployment lasting 9 months in 9 households. While I hope to see further details on their results, one can see that the higher consuming households decreased to something close to the group mean (and below the australian average) once the meter was installed.

One of my favorite deployments was described by plenary speaker Robert Laubacher, the Climate CoLab. I was particularly impressed by this project because it took the sorts of ideas that have previously been employed for changing individual behavior (something I have critiqued in the past) and found a concrete way to move past that mindset. The CoLab is an online community designed to encourage individuals to think about issues such as climate diplomacy, green economy, geo-engineering, adaptation, and mitigation. The community explicitly includes experts recruited from universities and NGOs in multiple countries with everyday people. Participation is motivated through a series of competitions, and audience and expert judged prizes are both given out. But the most interesting prize is the ability to present to meaningful organizations (U.S. congress, U.N., etc.) or receive seed funding.

Finally, I want to comment on some structural elements of the conference. The organizers did a fantastic job of facilitating a conversation about where ICT for sustainability should be going. They did this by means of bringing in

  • a facilitator who helped to collect and distribute ideas and  connect people (he had people stand up and say “you should talk to me because” before one break for example) 
  • a group of artists who listend and rendered ideas and thoughts in compelling cartoons which were placed on bulletin boards and played in a slide show while participants were asked to submit ideas to the facilitator
  • A wide ranging set of invited speakers who brought in topics and ideas that might otherwise not have been represented.

The conference isn’t quite over, but I feel confident in ending this post here by saying it was well worth the trip. It combined the feeling of a well run workshop with the relaxed time period and ability to hear in depth about research by individuals normal to a conference. I look forward to seeing the final set of recommendations that comes out of this effort.

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