SIDS: Blevis’ Sustainable Interaction Design

Posted on June 28, 2007

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Eli Blevis’ “Sustainable Interaction Design: Invention and disposal, renewal and reuse” (pdf, ACM link), is set to become an influential paper in Human Computer Interaction and Interaction Design, if not the wider computing sphere.The photograph of a woman bent over in sorrow and imitating the curves of the Sydney Opera House...I include it here to represent the tension between the built environment and nature which threatens sustainable ways of being.

Blevis describes a broad approach that brings together computing (HCI) and sustainability in a way that benefits both streams. He argues that sustainability “can and should be a central focus of interaction design”. This is works both ways – both from the point of view of how interactive technologies can be used to promote more sustainable behaviours and with a

view of how sustainability can be applied as a critical lens to the design of interactive systems, themselves.

Taking a wide interpretation of sustainability :)

 

Sustainability as a notion of viable futures can be defined to include aspects of the environment, public health, social equality and justice, as well as other conditions and choices about humanity and the biosphere

Blevis describes some ideas in detail. The first isthe linking of invention & disposal. This means that

any design of new objects or systems with embedded materials of information technologies is incomplete without a corresponding account of what will become of the objects or systems that are displaced or obsoleted by such inventions.

Other important ideas include

  • promoting renewal & reuse
  • promoting quality & equality (considering quality as a construct of affect and longevity, motivating the prolonged value of such objects)
  • de-coupling ownership & identity (increased importance of commons, shared experiences etc)
  • using natural models & reflection (design objects should promote sustainable behaviours and relationships).

He proposes a rubric for understanding and assessing the material effects induced by particular interaction design cases in terms. He argues strongly that material effects applies to software as much as it does to hardware:

The important claim is that software and hardware are intimately connected to a cycle of mutual obsolescence with implications for the environmental sustainability and other sustainability effects and modes of use enumerated by the rubric.

…software is material that prompts physical qualities in the sense that it drives the demand for new hardware, and as such it causes pre-mature disposal of perfectly adequate physical materials through obsolescence—too often, software may be almost wholly defined as that insidious material of digital artifice that causes the premature obsolescence of physical materials.

In other words, in addition to software driving demand for new hardware, software drives a wider set of values, beliefs and behaviours in society such that sustainability should be considered in software design.

The items of Blevis’ rubric are:

1. disposal—does the design cause the disposal of physical material, directly or indirectly and even if the primary material of the design is digital material?

2. salvage—does the design enable the recovery of previously discarded physical material, directly or indirectly and even if the primary material of the design

3. recycling—does the design make use of recycled physical materials or provide for the future recycling of physical materials, directly or indirectly and even if the primary material of the design is digital material?

4. remanufacturing for reuse—does the design provide for the renewal of physical material for reuse or updated use, directly or indirectly and even if the primary material of the design is digital material?

5. reuse as is—does the design provide for transfer of ownership, directly or indirectly and even if the primary material of the design is digital material?

6. achieving longevity of use—does the design allow for long term use of physical materials by a single owner without transfer of ownership, directly or indirectly and even if the primary material of the design is digital material?

7. sharing for maximal use—does the design allow for use of physical materials by many people as a construct of dynamic ownership, directly or indirectly and even if the primary material of the design is digital material?

8. achieving heirloom status—does the design create artifice of long-lived appeal that motivates preservation such that transfer of ownership preserves quality of experience, directly or indirectly and even if the primary material of the design is digital material?

9. finding wholesome alternatives to use—does the design eliminate the need for the use of physical resources, while still preserving or even ameliorating qualities of life in a manner that is sensitive to and scaffolds human motivations and desires?

10. active repair of misuse—is the design specifically targeted at repairing the harmful effects of unsustainable use, substituting sustainable use in its place?

What does this mean for computing? Blevis knows that his suggestion is a paradigm shift. Here’s his take on the iPoD:

For example, there are many mp3 players that preceded the Apple iPod, but Apple succeeded in turning the mp3 player into an item of fashion both through the design of form and through the design of systemic support in the guise of iTunes. A sustainability proposition in this case is that to be truly responsible from the perspective of sustainability, Apple needs to use its fashion and design talents to make it chic to want to own and keep an heirloom quality iPod, even if some of its components need to be updated from time to time and rather than making it fashionable to have the new and latest iPod.

Sadly, the re-invention by Apple of its own product from time to time—from the original iPod to the mini to the nano—is a deliberately unsustainable act intent on driving consumption and with the clear side effect of premature disposal.

 

Recognising that this incorporation of sustainability is not uncomplicated, Blevis is not claiming to have all the answers (or even all the questions). He does though pose some valuable research questions which he breaks into two sections. The first concerns policy and prediction:

(a) How can the effects of information technologies on unsustainable behaviors be measured?

(b) How can the effects of harmful use of information technologies be predicted, or simulated?

…(f) Who is responsible for ensuring that design with the materials of technologies is directed towards sustainability?

His second category of questions concerns motivating sustainable behaviors by means of sustainable interaction design:

(a) How can digital artifice be designed such that people will prefer sustainable behaviors to unsustainable ones? …(c) How can renewal & reuse of digital artifice be made to be more attractive than invention & disposal in the view of interaction designers and in the public view?

 

 

Reference:

Blevis, E. (2007). Sustainable Interaction Design: Invention and disposal, renewal and reuse. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 503 – 512 San Jose, California, ACM

 

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