On 10 July 2023, 16 Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) researchers met online on Zoom and in person in Pittsburgh, PA, USA as part of the Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) conference to bring different ongoing but at times disjointed discourses on "sustainability" in HCI into conversation. The group was made up of researchers and designers from North America and Europe with a variety of specialities but with a shared interest in and concern for sustainability in HCI. Given the hybrid nature of the workshop, all activities took place on the collaborative whiteboard platform Miro.
If Sustainability was an Animal...
We opened the workshop with general introductions, after which we broke up into four small groups. Before the workshop, each participant was tasked to think about an animal that for them represents "sustainability". In each group, participants shared their animal and the reasons why they chose it. The gallery below shows all the contributions. What becomes evident is that all participants chose a different animal, and some even non-animals, representing the diversity of what sustainability means and includes.
Different Perspectives on Sustainability
After sharing our discussions with the other groups, four participants gave short presentations about how they conceptualise and use sustainability in their work. The four presenters represented the range of different approaches to sustainability present in this workshop.
The first presenter talked about how environmental, economic, and social sustainability are connected and how this plays out in product life cycles and the longevity of connected smart products. Connected products include hardware and software products; therefore, they need to fulfill life extension criteria dependent on larger innovation structures. This presentation highlighted the need to navigate this complexity and introduced a tangible tool (Özçelik et al., 2023) that introduces relevant concepts of life extension of products that are supported through circular systems. The second presenter talked about what researchers in the EuroWestern tradition can learn from traditional and indigenous stewards of the land and their knowledge systems, adopting a more-than-human perspective. The presentation called for new forms of citational justice to include statements from traditional knowledge holders, new hybrid, intercultural epistemologies, and relational approaches with Country (i.e., the land) as a sentient presence and potential research partner. This approach focuses on cultural dimensions of sustainability. The third speaker introduced the group to several sustainability concepts and initiatives, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals, circular economy approaches, and the European Green Deal. Finally, our last speaker approached sustainability from a community-based participatory design perspective, speaking about the longevity of impactful design outputs and practices and how this was implemented in a community value-exchange project.
Mapping Sustainability and HCI
Just before our lunch/dinner break, we introduced the sustainability reflection cards. Each group had its own set of 35 cards spread out on Miro. Back in our breakout groups, we first browsed the cards and dragged those out that spoke to us or our work the most. There were also blank cards to add further aspects. After the break, we discussed as many of these cards as possible and placed them onto a diagram with two axes: The vertical axis described how visible this question is within HCI (ranging from "HCI doesn't talk about it" to "HCI talks about it a lot"). The horizontal axis described how well HCI research addresses this question (from "HCI sucks at it" to "HCI does it well"). Each group approached this exercise slightly differently, resulting in different representations of the field. The gallery below gives an overview of the final diagrams.
Group 1 Discussions
Group 1 placed three cards in the top right quadrant, expressing that HCI talks a lot about these topics and is also doing fairly well in addressing them. Cultural and artistic practices are addressed through contributions to craft, design, art, music, VR, and exertion games. Co-governance and participation is particularly visible in participatory design but not so common in other areas of HCI and even less so in industry. Questions of social justice have gained more visibility in HCI in the last years, rich contributions come from decolonial HCI, more-than-human thinking, feminist HCI, and data ethics.
A second cluster of cards is in the upper half of the diagram along the vertical axis, meaning that HCI is fairly average at responding to these questions. Historically, the field has talked a lot about ease of use, however more recently usability studies have become rare. Ease of use is helped by off-the-shelf technologies, but there was a debate about what "off-the-shelf" actually means. Both Google docs and Arduino are off the shelf technologies, but require very different levels of technical expertise. Emissions, waste, and recycling are topics most commonly addressed through behaviour change approaches, but wider debates are less common. Mutual learning is a key aspect of participatory design. Beyond that, there is a plethora of technology-mediated learning platforms. The consumption of energy and materials in our research is not reflected about in most papers. Equally, regenerative business practices, or business models in general, are rarely the subject of HCI research, with the sharing economy and modular technologies being notable exceptions. Finally, while technologies based on open design and open source would be adaptive and repurposable, this is often more a theoretical idea than a practical reality.
A third cluster formed in the lower left quadrant around topics that are not talked about enough and HCI is not doing well addressing them either. The impact of our research on water, air, and climate is not talked about much, with citizen science projects being one exception. Other aspects, such as the climate impact of cloud servers are almost completely invisible. Regarding the robustness of technologies, the group was not sure whether this is a goal for HCI. While it is important for long-term deployment, much of HCI's outputs are very experimental. On the other hand, maintenance, bricking, and planned obsolescence of commercial products are understudied topics in HCI. In the far bottom left corner the group placed the card asking about the appropriateness of the technologies we make, calling it HCI's existential question. Too often we still fall into technological solutionism. There is a pressure to design and build, even when sometimes (or most of the time) the answer is not to design.
Group 2 Discussions
After browsing the cards, Group 2 chose the question “How well does our research promote social justice?” as the central and most important sustainability question. On the two axes, they placed it in the centre and then unpacked the question further, listing the different things the term “our research” can refer to. “Our” (or “we”) can include supervisors, research groups, universities, research communities, funders, and industry partners. And “research” includes ontologies, epistemologies, methods, data practices, research questions, citation practices, publication formats, review practices, norms and traditions, networks, word choices, research and development (and intellectual property) development, impact measures, and collaborations. As researchers, we need to ask ourselves how all of these contribute to social justice.
Instead of mapping the other cards on the diagram, the group stayed in the circle and began to build relationships between the different cards. They connected questions of mutual learning and how researchers communicate with participants, including how we communicate our ontological and epistemological frames. They also connected the physical and mental health cards with a sense of purpose and meaning – not just for participants but also for researchers and PhD students.
The group was also critical towards some of the questions. In relation to the questions about safety and social benefit for all, the group questioned whose safety is concerned and whether social benefit for all is really a desirable goal. They asked who is privileged to be included to answer these questions. For the question on the contribution to the “local economy”, the group argued that sustainability research needs to cut across all scales from hyperlocal to global. Cultural belonging and tolerance was critiqued and the group asked to what degree we want to tolerate. Kinship and solidarity may be alternative concepts to belonging.
Finally, the group discussed longevity in technological development. They argued that there is very little longitudinal work in HCI. Often, technology is designed for obsolescence and ephemerality, with questions of maintenance remaining unanswered. On the other hand, long-term use of technology could also be seen as dependence, and we need to critically ask if we as researchers want people to use the technologies we build long-term.
Group 3 Discussions
The third group spread their cards fairly equally across the four quadrants. In the top right quadrant, they put cards on mutual learning, sustainable consumption, energy and materials, and social justice. While the group felt that social justice is talked about a lot, HCI does only average in addressing it, as ultimately our work is funded by particular funding bodies with particular interests. Placing the respective cards in the lower right quadrant, the group felt that HCI is doing very well in addressing questions of cultural and artistic practices and fairly well on long-term use, but these questions are less commonly talked about in HCI.
In the top left quadrant, the group put the questions on ease of use and appropriateness of the technologies we build in our research. While these topics are talked about a lot, HCI is not very good at delivering. The group discussed that corporate actors often have impoverished relationships with their users and disregard their real needs, thus developing digital systems that are clunky, difficult to use, overly complicated, and made for those who are technologically savvy. Like Group 2, the group interrogated the card on “social benefit for all”. The group felt this question is talked about a lot, but it’s not clear what “benefit” means, as it can span social, economic, and environmental benefit, and how this is distributed “fairly” given an unequal status quo. Who are the winners and who are the losers of technological innovation?
The group also placed the question on contributions to the local economy in the top left quadrant. Here, they discussed that this can be mostly a longitudinal impact that follows after the research has finished. However, more specifically, research can help to elicit conversations about value and worth of the research, explore more local currencies, tokenisations, and time banking, explore how more people can benefit from the system rather than being disenfranchised. Outcomes should not always be equally distributed. For example, the goal of many participatory design projects is to reduce the power of one party (e.g., management) and increase the power of another party (e.g., workers).
Finally, in the bottom left quadrant the group placed four questions that are less frequently talked about and also not very well addressed. This includes questions of shared ownership over the technologies we make and HCI’s role in influencing policy. The group felt HCI is particularly bad at addressing these aspects. Interestingly, this group also placed the question of co-governance and participation in the lower left quadrant, which contrasts with Group 1, who placed this card in the top right quadrant. The group wondered how well all members of society are addressed and included in HCI research and whether our funding even allows for full co-governance and participation.
Group 4 Discussions
Group 4 placed a large number of cards in the circle, signifying their broad interest in sustainability. They then selected only a handful of cards and placed them on the diagram, most of them on the left side of the vertical axis, meaning that HCI is not doing very well at responding to these questions. The only question placed to the right was the question on safety.
In the left top quadrant, the group placed the card asking “How does our research impact our local plant and animal ecosystem?” The group was missing long-term studies to address this better. A second card placed there was “How well does our research support both traditions and positive futures?” The group argued that as researchers we need to make our values more explicit and that more de-growth research is needed in HCI.
In the bottom left quadrant, the group put – like Group 3 – the card on policies and regulations. They felt that more interdisciplinary research is needed, asking the question who is responsible for influencing policies. Finally, like others before them, they also felt that HCI is doing poorly when it comes to the long-term use of the technologies we make.
In summary, we had engaging conversations that brought together people with quite different understandings of sustainability, taking a first step of bringing those understandings into conversation. Diversity is key for sustainability, and the aim of this workshop was not to agree on a shared understanding, but to celebrate different views and see what we can learn from each other. Sustainability is a complex topic with many facets. As the sustainability reflection cards show, they span ecological, economic, political, cultural, and technological facets, and of course many more. No facet should be deemed more important than another. To live sustainable in the long-run, we need to address all aspects of sustainability together.
Looking at the placement of cards and the discussion of the groups, a few potential calls of action stand out:
As a research community, we need to communicate more explicitly about our ontological frames, values, and sustainability principles.
Sustainability needs to be thought together with social justice, promoting concepts like environmental justice to inform our work.
Community/user ownership, co-governance, and participation need to be promoted in HCI research, not only in particular fields like participatory design.
We need more longitudinal research to better understand the long-term ecological, environmental, cultural, and political impact of our work.
HCI needs to demonstrate more readily what impact our research could have on policy design.
Similarly, HCI needs to more seriously engage with questions of economic sustainability and highlight the economic implications of our work, including alternative economic practices and models, such as de-growth.
There is more that needs doing. We look forward to writing up our workshop for a journal article and organising follow-up workshops. In particular, it would be interesting to focus on a particular sub-fields of HCI, for example human-robot interaction, artificial intelligence, tangible computing, gaming, health and wellbeing, education, and participatory design.