Category Archives: Computational Sustainability

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.

Rewiring Cities

We’ve been talking recently in my class on the environment, technology and society about different ways of measuring impact, but a recent post on the Nature of Cities blog made me rethink that discussion. What is important is not just the footprint of an individual (or home), but also its location. In particular, the shift from rural to urban settings not only impacts footprint, but also self sufficiency — it is categorically harder (if not impossible in some cases) to produce basic living supplies oneself in an urban setting (food, water, clothing, etc). On the other hand, the literal footprint (land owned, building size, etc) may be much smaller in urban settings. But most important of all, urban settings benefit from and require a collaborative approach to resource management that is not as necessary on a self-supporting farm.

A recent post about urban ecological footprints and innovations around the same at The Nature of Cities provides some examples of collaborative approaches to resource and water management in two cities of very different sizes.

I am curious: To what extent does the research currently contributing to work in online communities, collaborative (and crowdsourced) creation of knowledge, and other social science results coming out of the HCI and CS communities provide new ideas for how we could foster novel urban sustainability solutions. If research on group identity, motivation, and so on can influence the design of successful online communities, can we use the same information to intentionally design offline communities that are able to sustain themselves (and their environment)? What role might online tools and websites have in sustaining and supporting such offline communities?


Global Grabs for Water and Land

Global Grabs for Water and Land

This is the first in a series of posts that attempt to pose the question: What role might technology play in some of the most pressing sustainability problems today? In exploring this, I am explicitly attempting to move beyond a focus on affluent western single homeowners (Aw Shucks). This article describes a new global trend- a global power for limited resources.

The top water-grabbing nations by volume are China, Egypt, India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States, and some of the most grabbed countries are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Another take, specifically on American farmers buying up land in Brazil. Good for the economy? Bad for locals? Perhaps most importantly, this issue is a big unknown — who owns what land, where, and who stands behind the owners (in some cases) appears to be a very muddled issue.

Even setting aside the question of who owns the land (and the disclosure of this data, which is likely to be an issue requiring international policy making), the impact of a land purchase in terms of water access (and/or contamination), groundwater use (and/or contamination), and soil quality may not be immediately obvious or easy to predict. While much of this depends on the intended use of the land, the areas affected can be estimated based on data about nearby rivers, and streams, historical reactions to different types of land use in similar settings, and so on. There could be value in exploring how this information might be provided and collected prior to purchase decisions being made. Given better, centralized data about ownership and use even more might be done including mapping out the connections between parcels of land and  locations of owners.

Computational Sustainability

I’ve been hearing (and thinking) more and more about the role of machine learning and other data-intensive methods in sustainability.  This is certainly not a new idea — the highly successful expeditions project out of Cornell coined the term (and the website), I believe. Arguably, it’s one of the places in which the case for computer science is easiest to make: These are real problems where systems thinking and computational power, data gathering, and so on is making a difference. Some examples:

  1. Machine learning can find optimal solutions to complex problems that are difficulty for humans alone to model. For example: Golovin et al.  [2011] used machine learning to select patches of land for species conservation that optimize species survival (pdf). There is a nice synergy here as the problem being solved led to advances in machine learning. There must be dozens of similar problems waiting to be tackled.
  2. Big data meets big visualization in a number of projects. provides data about energy use, population, and so on on a map supporting exploration, comparison, and so on. Data is also made available via an API. In a similar vein, Paulos et al. [2008] visualize air quality using data sense from the tops of taxi cabs and buses (pdf). SourceMap visualizes where things come from on a map, using crowdsourced data. While maps are very powerful, especially when it comes to community action, it would be nice to see this data used in other ways as well. For example, one could imagine that air quality sensors and data of this fidelity could have huge political and medical impacts for those asthma.
  3. Modeling and prediction aren’t just for climate change prediction. One of my favorite alternate examples is UrbanSim, an interdisciplinary project led by Waddell, Borning, and others. As an example of the importance of computation in this project, they have a TOG publication on the use of geometric and behavioral modeling in the “interactive design of urban spaces” [2009].

If you’re looking have ideas along these lines, post a comment or better yet submit to one of the up and coming sustainability conferences (e.g. If you’re looking for ideas, there’s a number of past or about to be held conferences you can read up on or attend (e.g., or the list at


Daniel Golovin, Andreas Krause, Beth GardnerSarah J. ConverseSteve Morey: Dynamic Resource Allocation in Conservation Planning. AAAI 2011

Eric Paulos, R.J. Honicky, and Ben Hooker, Citizen Science: Enabling Participatory Urbanismin Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City. Edited by Marcus Foth, Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, IGI Global, 2008

Vanegas, Carlos, Daniel Aliaga, Bedrich Beneš, Paul Waddell (2009) Interactive Design of Urban Spaces using Geometrical and Behavioral Modeling. ACM Transactions on Graphics (TOG), also ACM SIGGRAPH Asia, 28(5): 10 pages, 2009. This is accompanied by a video.

A Tale of Two Motivations

I’ve been feeling for some time now an inkling of discomfort with the standard motivation for some of the work we do on the StepGreen project (and as members of the sustainable CHI research area in general). I’ve seen the same concern in various forms crop up in reviews and on thesis committees I’ve been privy to — the question of how much impact a project really has, what the costs of the project are, and so on. Sort of like privacy in the oldest Ubicomp work, the issue is often avoided or handled in a cursory fashion. But I want to investigate this issue in more depth today.

The standard motivation for much of the work in sustainability in the HCI community (and I’ve used this myself) goes something like this: “Using too much energy is bad (list of reasons). But look, energy is used by people for everyday activities (percentage given), and daily activities are a big percentage of this (more percentages). These things are within our control, and because they involve human choice, they are an area that human computer interaction has something to say about. Not only that, but technology has advanced and … ” I’ll stop here  because of course there’s some divergence (are we looking and individuals? businesses? campuses? what technology has advanced in what way? what study did we do? these things vary from project to project).

On the positive side, this motivation is exciting, encouraging, and easy to connect to human computer interaction work such as technologies for behavior change. On the negative side, as others before me have argued (e.g., Dourish, 2010it is utopian, ungrounded, and difficult to measure.

Global emissions, broken down

Global emissions, broken down

As an alternate, let us require that we work from raw facts down to specific potential impact number. Such a motivation might go something like this [starting from the same place]: “Using too much energy is bad (list of reasons). Globally, we used 16 Terawatts (TW) of energy in 2005, 90% non-renewable (gas, coal, oil, nuclear) (Griffith, 2008). About 7.8 GtCO2 emissions can be removed by information technology advances (Climate Group). This is about 2.7 TW by my calculations1, assuming that the source  is coal (about 17% of of 2005 emissions). Of the categories of IT work proposed in Smart2020, the largest impact category is the smart grid category (2.03 GtCO2). More than half of the energy generated each year is wasted in the grid (“directly”) or is wasted because it is unnecessary to spend (“indirectly”). The indirect component adds up to about .28 GtCO2 (Climate Group). This is a vanishingly small portion of global energy emissions (.6%), as shown in the graph at right. Human behavior change to reduce energy use (such as home heating and cooling) falls into this category. By this reasoning, the maximum impact we can have is .6% of global energy emissions, assuming that we had a systemic impact on all energy wasted post grid (not just home heating and cooling in a few U.S. households).

Projected global emissions vs Smart2020 decreases

Projected global emissions vs Smart2020 decreases

On the positive side, this motivation is measurable, can be used to set real goals, and is based on real data. On the negative side, it is discouraging. Worse, it highlights how much we don’t know. Over what time period is Smart2020 technology expected to have its effect? What are the current global emissions, and how much are they likely to rise? The 7.8 GtCO2 saved by Smart2020 projects pales in comparison to possible projections of global increases, as shown at right. Would such work actually replace or reduce coal plant emissions, or just enable increased energy use globally? As a side note, projecting impact requires projecting future trends, something I would argue requires more formal methods, as humans are notoriously bad at doing this intuitively in the face of exponentially increasing change (Mankoff, et al., In Submission). What percentage, really, would even global adoption of any of our projects create? Is any of the work we do appropriately designed for a global context? And on and on…

In other words, neither of the two most obvious motivations for doing sustainable HCI work seems to justify the time we are putting in. Is there an alternative? I would argue that yes, there is. But it requires putting our work in a new context, viewing it in a new way, and that may affect how we must proceed. Before describing that motivation, we need to explore a broader theory of how we might reduce global emissions. If we combine the recommendations of Pacala & Socolow (2004) and Gore (1992), we can see that the list of ways to reduce carbon emissions is both broader than either of the previous motivations can conceive, and amenable to research at the intersection of technology and people.

Here is a partial list. At left are direct ways of reducing carbon emissions, at right are indirect ways of reducing carbon emissions.

  • Efficiency (new technologies, new patterns of use, better buildings, etc.)
  • Carbon capture & storage
  • Alternate sources of energy
  • Carbon sinks (e.g., reforestation)
  • Population control
  • Economic controls (e.g., taxes)
  • Cross-cultural solutions (expanding solutions in either category to work in multiple global contexts)
  • Improved energy grid
  • Education
  • Governmental buy in (local laws, world treaties, etc.)
  • Advances in science

The category “alternate sources of energy” requires special attention as most people underestimate exactly what is involved in making a significant change in how we produce energy. According to Griffith, to replace 14 (of 16) TW of global energy use with alternative sources (which be sufficient to reduce CO2 emissions to a manageable level), we would need, for the next 25 years, to build: 1 1250 m^2 pool of algae per second; 1 100 m^2 solar cell per second; 1 50 m^2 thermal mirror per second; 12 wind turbines per hour; 3 geothermal turbines per day; and 1 nuclear plant per week. This paints a daunting picture of how big the effort required is to truly solve the problems we face.

Projects about individual behavior also fit within the list above (under efficiency), but I would argue that the list of indirect ways of reducing emissions are potentially much more impactful. In fact, we must engage with this broader list, or we risk, as Dourish states (2010) that “framing sustainability solely in terms of personal moral choice in a marketplace of consumption options may obscure the broader political and regulatory questions that attend significant change.”

So where do we go from here? What is the “right” motivation for sustainable human computer interaction work? I would like to argue for a new checklist for impact. Projects must be explicit about the potential for both direct and indirect impact, measurable, and (ideally) scalable. They should consider major growth trends, multiple cultural contexts, and address energy production as well as use. Here is a partial checklist of issues to consider.

  • Production of energy (how much, if any, is produced)
  • Direct reductions of energy (which type is supported by the project, and how much is reduced?)
  • Indirect reductions of energy
    • How will it be implemented within or across nations?
    • How will it influence national trend (e.g., growth)
    • How will it integrate with national trends/cultural context?
  • Scale (and scalability) of impact
    • At what scale must this be deployed to have impact?
      • One person at a time?
      • Institutional?
      • Cultural/National? (social movements; governments; science)
      • International?
    • How could that be achieved?
  • Metrics & Measures
    • How much energy could one unit save?
    • How much energy does one unit use?
    • How much impact / cost does it have at scale?
    • What are the uncertainties here?

This is just a partial list of things that we might consider when choosing a project. When we accept the importance of things like scale, internationalization, and indirect options for reducing energy use, then a new focus for sustainable CHI emerges. I wil nickname it Local-e, because it requires locally grounded, socially focused solutions. Local-e attempts to decentralize power production, increase sharing of resources, and encourage environmentality (Agarwal, 2004). We must measure waste (of all sorts) so that it can be regulated and taxed, monitor resource use, model it, and inform governments as well as individuals about what we discover. And all of this must be made relevant across sectors and scale up to cities, nations, or more.

Feel-good motivations are no longer enough. The crisis we face is too big for that. Luckily, it turns out that indirect influences on energy use are as important as direct. If we think about IT for sustainability more broadly, perhaps we can begin to have the impact that is needed. IT has changed so much in the world. It’s worth believing (and trying) to do this as well.

Agarwal, A. (2004). Environmentality: Community, intimate government, and the making of environmental subjects. Current Anthropology, 46(2).

Dourish, P. (2010). HCI and Environmental Sustainability: The Politics of Design and the Design of Politics. Proc. DIS 2010, pp. 1-10.

Gore, A. (1992). Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, Houghton Mifflin

Griffith, S. (2008). GamePlan 1.0. Available at:

The Climate Group (2008). Smart2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age.

Pacala, S. & Socolow, R. (2004). Stabilization wedges: Solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologiesScience 305(5686):968-972.

Mankoff, J., Rode, J. & Kinnaird, P. (In submission). Looking past yesterday’s tomorrow: Using Future Studies methods to extend the research horizon. CHI 2011, In Submission.

1I will not repeat the entire calculation here, but calculated a conversion factor of .036 I using the following data sources to help;;

Exploring Expanded Validation: Including Externalities such as Energy

Validation is an ongoing area of discussion with regard to systems work and applications work, e.g. [1,2,3,4]. I argue here that we need to reconsider the range of issues to be included in validation.  Validation should incorporate costs and benefits that are normally consider “side issues” or non-issues such as waste, energy, economic impact, socio-political impact, and privacy of information. From an economic perspective, one might name these externalities [5]. Like all externalities, some issues (such as waste) may never be directly tied back to the work we do. However, in the end, even that may become relevant, should user values come to encompass it. Additionally, one could argue for a moral imperative to consider such externalities in validating what we do.

Why am I arguing that this broader view is important for HCI? Because many issues that are currently outside our approaches to validation can affect usability (e.g., energy use affects battery life), lead to harm (e.g. privacy problems leading to security violations) or affect viability (e.g. is an innovation likely to be affordable to the population it’s intended for). Why is this important to research? Because just as we have to innovate to develop systems that are efficient and scalable and usable, we may have to innovate to develop systems that are energy efficient, secure, low-waste, and so on.

As an example, consider the issue of energy use. The relative energy use of two solutions to a systems (or applications) problem can vary significantly. It is important to consider not only the energy use of the code being run, but the overall impact on the number of devices a person may own, and the expected lifetime of a device. One can go further and use techniques such as lifecycle assessment [6]. If we expand from energy to sustainability, it makes sense to report ecological impacts, such as projected waste or production-based waste.  Energy use and sustainability also spill over into other issues as illustrated in the table below – the needs of multiple stakeholders need to be balanced against resources consumed, the needs of other species & etc. Indirect benefits (such as increased civic engagement, or the opportunity for re-appropriation) may also be important. A full validation might be expected to include metrics for scalability, efficiency, energy use, memory use, physical space use (in the case of mobile and ubiquitous devices), and so on.

Environmental Questions: Societal Questions: Economic Questions: Computer Science Questions: Other Questions:
How much waste is generated/ saved? How does it address the needs and values of different stakeholders?
Who are they?
What are the costs over the lifecycle of the product? Can we characterize the efficiency of the solution? How about the energy use?  And the space use? How relevant will this be in 10 years? 20 years?
How many resources are consumed? Does it engage citizens in learning about energy/sustainability
(e.g., through citizen science)
What other externalities are need to be  considered? Does it scale? How
flexible is the solution?
What predictions about the future need to be considered in answering these questions?
How are the needs of other species affected? Does it support civic engagement? Does it support re-appropriation

Some of these things are relatively easy to consider in validation, but many of them require us to draw from techniques that we have not previously been familiar with. Within the field of HCI, there is a history of introducing methods that help to address specific issues such as these. An example is the development of value-sensitive design [7], which can be used to explore the effect of an interactive product across stakeholders. There is a need for further innovation in terms of the methods and metrics that ought to be a component of validating our work.


1.   Olsen, D. R. Evaluating user interface systems research. In Proc. UIST ’07, 251-258.

2.  Gray, W. D., & Salzman, M. C. (1998). Damaged merchandise? A review of experiments that compare usability evaluation methods. Human-Computer Interaction, 13(3), 203-261.

3.  Carter, S., Mankoff, J., Klemmer, S. R. & Matthews, T. (2008). Exiting the cleanroom: On ecological validity and ubiquitous computing. Human-Computer Interaction, 23(1), 47-99.

4.  Greenberg, S. & Buxton, B. (2008). Usability evaluation considered harmful (some of the time). CHI’08, 111-120.


6.  Hendrickson, C. T., Lave, L. & Matthews, S. H. (2006). Environmental life cycle assessment of goods and services: An input-output approach. Resources for the Future, Washington, DC.

7.  Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Borning, A. (2006). Value Sensitive Design and information systems. In P. Zhang & D. Galletta (eds.), Human-computer interaction in management information systems: Foundations (pp. 348-372). Armonk, New York; London, England: M.E. Sharpe.