A few reflections following ICT4S

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(The Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in Amsterdam was the site of the conference. source)

My first ICT4S was lots of fun. There weren’t as many participants as in previous years (at least that’s what I’ve heard from those who have attended before), but those who came to Amsterdam proved to be both engaging and friendly. I’ve heard lots of very interesting ideas, were impressed by several research projects, and even found myself moderately hopeful about the future.

Having a day to recuperate, here are a few terse reflections:

Converstations

The conference was quite intensive and intentionally convivial. Instead of the standard academic practice of having a few papers presented frontally in a panel, usually followed by (often bland) discussion, here each paper was presented to a very small group (up to 5 people) sitting around a small table. Participants had the chance to select the papers they would like to discuss (based on a first-come-first-serve mechanism using sticky notes), and were then able to really engage with the author. Authors, on the other hand, had to present in 3 rounds, each lasting about 45 min (including discussion). Win-win for everyone, I think.

It was also great to have a moderator (more like a facilitator) throughout the two main conference days. It helped steer and stir things and draw more connections between the keynotes, papers and workshops. Peter Woodward did a fantastic job adjusting the atmosphere, prodding speakers and keeping people engaged.

The big news: decoupling

Perhaps the most impactful research presented were two papers that showed evidence (from Germany and from Sweden) that the growth of data has now decoupled from energy use. This means that the rate of energy reductions in data centres and communication networks has outpaced the increase in the material footprint caused by the massive growth of new data. I hope some version of the Jevons paradox will not render these developments meaningless…

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(‘Hygiene’, wood carving in the council room of KIT)

Thinking about the future can be liberating

One of the important lessons I’ve learned in the Computation Within Limits workshop is that co-creating future scenarios can evoke a truly liberating effect. While many participants started the day mired about the grim reality of our inability to keep within the planet’s ecological limits, after a few hours of co-designing future scenarios many of the discussions turned to values, worldviews and cultural conditions. The limits, to some extent, were left behind, replaced by more hopeful views of the future. And that suits me just fine.

Who doesn’t want to be smart?

If I had a dollar for every time the words ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ were appended to a technology or process I’d be able to buy the world’s largest stockpile of stroopwafels (can you dig it?!) It seems like the cybernetically inspired tendency to conflate ‘adaptive’ with ‘smart’ has found a perfect match with the irresistible temptation to make ‘intelligence’ the objective of every technology. (but at least the word ‘disruption’ only came up a few times).

Innovation breeds innovation breeds innovation breeds innovation 

Listening to the keynotes it occurred to me that the imperative to innovate is often understood as a demand for newness instead of a drive for meaningful, positive change. But in so many cases that newness has only marginal advantages (if any), yet may cost more in terms of material impacts if we are to produce a whole new generation of artifacts. Where would all the regular toasters go when smart toasters take over?

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(‘Volkekunde’ (ethnology), wood carving in the council room of KIT)

From smart homes to wise dwellings

There’s more than just a modicum of irony that the best paper award winner, which coincidently also won the ‘people’s choice’ award, suggested that instead of focusing on the technological affordances of smart homes we should look at the way traditional homes (in this case in the warmer countries of the Middle East) took advantage of natural processes to keep their interiors livable. Innovation by reversion?

Can research mirror values?

It was a bit discouraging to see that many of the research projects presented had little to no longitudinal aspects. It’s tempting, and often encouraged by granting agencies, to look at new phenomena or invent new devices or new methodologies, the upshot of which is that very little is done in terms of revisiting past research. This way we not only lose opportunities to learn about the deeper impacts of design, but also limit our capacity to collectively build a knowledge base of what works and what doesn’t. In this sense it’s a bit ironic (again!) that research on sustainability is itself not very sustainable.

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(‘Handel’ (trade), wood carving in the council room of KIT)

We are the world (not)

The vast majority of the research presented had to do with European countries and contexts. Given that the majority of participants came from those countries it is somewhat understandable, but I would think that what happens in China, India and other ‘emerging’ economies will impact sustainability futures no less (and perhaps even more) than whether Germany, Sweden or the Netherlands are able to reduce the environmental impact of their digital infrastructure. And if the hope is that ‘western’ innovation could then just be exported to other domains then we haven’t really learned much from the checkered history of international development. Which leads me to ask…

Who’s missing from the conversation?

My own, non-quantified impression is that the majority of conference participants came from the engineering world, and were mostly interested in the material impacts of large technological infrastructure (energy utilities, data centres, communication networks, digital devices). I think it would be great to have more social scientists, humanists and artists take part in future conferences. This may inject some discussion about real people (and not prototypical ‘users’) and about the social, cultural and political contexts within which ‘they’ engage with technically-mediated sustainability. It would also be very nice if at least some of those people and contexts would represent the developing South and marginalized communities.

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