A few reflections following ICT4S


(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:


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…


(‘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?


(‘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.


(‘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.

ICT4S 2016, Amsterdam

(Image by Sally Reeder. source)

I’m super excited about participating in the upcoming ICT4S conference, which will take place in Amsterdam, August 29-September 1 (only an hour by train from my current location in Delft!) I’ll also take part in a pre-conference workshop titled ‘computing within limits‘. Here’s the one-pager letter of interest I wrote:

To be honest, the notion of biophysical or computational limits does not play a central role in my work, nor does it occupy a significant part in my thinking about the intersection of ICT and sustainability. Of course biophysical limits – the carrying capacity of the planet, etc. – are inseparable from the way I understand the necessity and urgency of promoting sustainability, but they do so only implicitly. They are there, and they set the other dynamics in motion, but rarely take centre stage.

With that said, limits are indeed front and centre in my work, albeit these are social, cultural and political limits, and they are there mostly to be overcome. These limits relate first to our capacity to understand the intricate, complex and emergent relationalities that underlie sustainability (and unsustainability); second, to the cognitive and cultural limits of our ability to think in more elongated terms – to consider mid- and long-range futures instead of focusing on short-term incentives; and third, to our ability to intervene in the constellations of power that undermine the availability and success of both small- and large-scale solutions to our ecological crises. In other words, I wonder how interactive media can help us grasp the complexity of the challenges we face, compel us to consider our relation to futurity, and promote our ability to act as agents of deep societal change. In this sense I see the questions raised by sustainability as crucial to the emergence of civic media and the designerly cultivation of a new political imagination, both of which are the focus of my current research.

I tend to believe that the only limits to technological innovation that respects biophysical phenomena are established by our own (cultural) imagination and (social) conditions of possibility. So whether we choose to mitigate or to adapt to the consequences of life in the Anthropocene is ultimately a question of how we may evaluate (and hopefully transform) our capacity to own the future. This viewpoint and its implications for design and research would be my contribution to the workshop. At the same time, I am very curious about the meaning and implications of “computing within limits” for a world where unfettered consumption, large subsidies for the energy industry, and clandestine international treaties with grave environmental implications are still very much the norm. I look forward to discussing these and many other interesting topics with other workshop participants.

Lets Make the Petrified World Speak, Sing, Perhaps Dance

In his fantastic The Once and Future World (2013), Canadian author J.B. MacKinnon notes that one of the considerable challenges facing pro-environmental action results from what biologist Daniel Pauly calls the “shifting baseline syndrome.” Simply stated, each generation takes the present situation as the baseline from which change can be gauged. Thus, writes MacKinnon, “The way you see the natural world around you determines much about the kind of world you are willing to live with” (MacKinnon, p.37). It it is in this sense that “Memory conspires against nature” (ibid., p.21).

I was recently reminded of MacKinnon’s association of memory with the capacity for transformative action while reading Herbert Marcuse’s last major work, The Aesthetic Dimension (1978). There, among other observations about art’s essence vis-a-vis social relations, Marcuse argues that much of art’s revolutionary potential is premised in its ability to remind us of our frustrated dreams, hopes and desires; to remind us that the existing reality is only one of many possible realities. He writes:

Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle. Subjects and objects encounter the appearance of that autonomy which is denied them in their society. The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life. (Marcuse, p.72)

Marcuse adds that if, as Horkheimer and Adorno famously wrote in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, “All reification is a forgetting”, then “Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance” (Marcuse, p.73).

landlords game
(the original version of the board game monopoly was designed by Elizabeth Phillips to illustrate “the problems associated with concentrating land in private monopolies.” source) 

Seeking a method to evoke political awakenings, Walter Benjamin articulated a similar idea, what he called “dialectical images.” In his unfinished opus later published as The Arcades Project (1999), Benjamin explains that dialectical images “carry over the principle of montage into history” by evoking “flash-like” moments of understanding: stirring constellations in which utopian hopes are juxtaposed with their frustrated (un)realization to produce an “awakening of a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been” (Benjamin, p.461; p.458). By the way they embody multiplicities and produce a play in conjecture, we may say that dialectical images anticipate what Deleuze & Guattari would later call “lines of flight.”

But is the capacity to create dialectical images exclusive to artistic vocabularies and techniques, or could they be produced by other means? Can digital media, for instance, provide the conditions for overcoming the forgetting MacKinnon laments, evoking the historico-political awakening Benjamin yearns for?

While perhaps a bit too literal, digital dialectic images may be instantiated by virtual reality (VR) technology. The Owl, for instance, is a VR viewer that allows users to dynamically looks at different renditions of a single geographic location. Peering into a device shaped like one of those nickel-operated binoculars you find overlooking tourist attractions, users can see how a place looked like in the past or how it may look like in the future, and compare it to the present. This has practical applications for urban design – especially in the context of public engagement on potential development proposals – but perhaps it can be used more expressively, in more provocative ways.

(rising water levels in Marin County seen through Owl. source)

Sustainability in an Imaginary World

The latest issue of the ACM’s journal Interactions features a short article I wrote that describes my postdoc project. Here’s the first paragraph:

What if our environmental crisis is as much a failure of our imagination as it is a moment of reckoning with the material consequences of modernity? What would technologically mediated public engagement with sustainability look like, if instead of discussing gallons of fuel or water consumed, carbon dioxide parts-per-million, or dollars spent and saved, we collectively explored visions of possible futures? These are the questions that motivate Sustainability in an Imaginary World, an interdisciplinary project funded by a three-year Insight Grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Initiated a year and a half ago, the project involves faculty members and students from The University of British Columbia’s arts, design, and social science communities, including theater, visual arts, sustainability, scenario analysis, and human-computer interaction. What we are building together is an interactive multimedia experience.

If all goes well, the installation will be open to the public in January, 2016.