On 26 October 2023, we held an exciting workshop with researchers from Edinburgh University’s Design Informatics. Eight participants across the department used the Sustainability Reflection Cards to reflect on their research practice.
Participants’ backgrounds included jewellery making, interaction design, science and technology studies, waste management, and participatory design. Their field of work spanned a wide range of topics, including immersive environments, digital commons, sharing economy, e-waste and repair, circular economy, data science, and social justice in design.
After a round of introduction, participants were asked to write or draw their own definitions of sustainability and how it relates to their work. This included:
Social sustainability as continuity, low-impact resource use, and robust networks; paired with environmental sustainability (resource management) and ecosystem thinking.
People & Planet, meaning a good life for everyone (social justice and equity) within environmental limits, including for non-human ecosystems.
Living within the boundaries in a just and fair world, removing pollution, restoring nature etc. It requires system change also within academia and funders to think about impacts.
Environmental, social, and economic long-term benefit. There is a lack of environmental concern in the current developments of the sharing economy.
Resilience, adaptability and equity: A world-first, nature-led approach. We need to shift our systems and infrastructures for long-term and radical change. Using a feminist and person-led approach, adopting a non-human, holistic perspective in design.
Academically, sustainability needs to be transdisciplinary, cutting across social justice, feminism, technology, and ecological justice. Justice is the thread running through sustainability in line with activist ideas of interconnectedness of all life. Flourishing & abundance for all forms of life.
In pairs, participants then familiarised themselves with the cards and picked any number of cards that they found particularly interesting, provocative, or relevant.
They could then choose one of several templates (see gallery below) to map the cards. The templates were deliberately open to interpretation. For example, one template included a coordinate system of two axes (horizontal and vertical) but it was up to the participants to label them. Participants could also choose to work with a completely blank canvas to create their own structure.
The first pair went with the coordinate system template and labelled the four quadrants as “thinking”, “doing”, “result” and “impact”. They also decided to draw their own Venn diagram of two intersecting circles on top of the two axes to suggest a circular nature in which cards can move from thinking to doing to result to impact. They then looked at the verbs in the cards and assigned them to the different quadrants. They felt that helping to protect natural and human habitats and how to promote social justice are “thinking” cards, whereas “supporting co-governance and participation, making adaptable technologies, and supporting traditions and positive futures are doing cards. Supporting sustainable consumption was placed in the intersection between thinking and doing.
Supporting people developing a sense of purpose and meaning and asking how research impacts water, air, and climate are “result” cards. Support for mutual learning and contribution to sustainable policies and regulations were cards to increase impact of research. In the centre of their diagram the pair placed the card “How appropriate are the technologies we make?”, as this was for them the key question for technology research and design - the question of “why” we do what we do.
The second pair started with a blank canvas and drew an onion-like circular diagram. In the centre they placed the most important questions for them. They were all technology-centred, including its robustness, ownership, long-term use, and ability to be adapted and repurposed. In the second layer of the onion they placed three cards, asking about the core impact of technology - safety, use of energy and materials, and levels of emissions, waste, and recycling.
In the third layer of the onion, which was more of a reflection and discussion layer, they put six cards: support for regenerative business practices, sustainable consumption, transport infrastructures, co-governance and participation, social justice, and purpose and meaning. And finally, in the outermost layer, which included discourses coming from outside of one’s research through exchange with others, they put two cards, on contribution to wellbeing and mental health, as well as social benefit for all.
The third pair went with the coordinate system template. They labelled the vertical axis from “reflective” to “speculative” and the horizontal axis from “low impact” to “high impact”. In the reflective half (bottom), there are questions that ask how practices can be continued or made more circular. Low-impact questions centre around the verb “protect”, as this pair found this verb a limiting question, as it is about preserving rather than changing things. Cards included the protection of natural and human environments, long-term use of technology, negotiating differences, safety, and social impact of technology. Reflective and high-impact cards included contributions to local economy, regenerative business practices, learnability of technology, and impact on water, air and climate.
In the speculative half (top), there are cards that they felt we don’t necessarily have answers to and technologies we make. This included the robustness of technology, which depends on the kind of future we will live in, but also they questioned whether we want technology to persist in the first place. High impact and speculative are cards like ethical principles, as it is something we currently don’t have, but it could be something quite radical.
The final pair started with a blank canvas and placed the social justice card at the centre as the core question they wanted to explore. They developed a temporal structure, starting with the card that asks for the tension around supporting both the past (traditions) and (positive) futures. From there they moved to the present, looking at social questions of how technology is being adapted and repurposed as well as pluralism and agonism. How does everyone have a sense of belonging? How do you negotiate conflict? They found that many of the cards have a tension, as social justice for all is not a smooth journey, and will play out differently on local and global scales.
In the present sphere they also looked at the social and material impact of technology (water, air, climate, plant and animal ecosystem). In the future sphere the pair looked at systems, in particular the appropriateness of systems and their values, and how they impact policies and social benefit for all. These final cards are where they felt research can have real-world impact. The lines they drew on the diagram indicate that all these questions are interconnected, creating a web-like map.
Overall, each pair created very different but compelling maps and pathways to strengthen sustainability questions in design and research. Participants found the cards a useful and flexible design tool to look at sustainability from many different perspectives. The number of cards and the open-ended nature of the mapping was at times challenging for some, but by working through the cards they gradually developed a sense for organising them visually.