Top three readings for Sustainable HCI

Posted on May 15, 2014


Think like a bird not like a computer

At the sustainable HCI workshop at CHI this month we each agreed to contribute our top three “must reads” for Sustainable HCI (spoiler, none of these papers even mention Sustainable HCI).   Of course, I’d recommend my own books and other writings, but beyond that, here are my three (current) “must reads”.

1.  Sigrid Stagl’s  “Theoretical foundations of learning processes for sustainable development” (journal) is an education piece that contains the best descriptions of the sustainability problem I know of:

We have to learn to live in a complex world of interdependent systems with high uncertainties and multiple interests in society. The main challenges for sustainability science arise from the systems’ characteristics (complex and evolving), indeterminancy of outcomes (comprising risk, uncertainly, ambiguity and ignorance, Stirling and Mayer 2004) and the democratic resolution of the problem of unsustainability needs to account for multiple legitimate perspectives.

And my later expansion of these ideas:

As a society we have to learn to live in a complex world of interdependent systems with high uncertainties and multiple legitimate interests.  These complex and evolving systems require a new way of thinking about risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance (Stagl 2007).  These systems require that we can think simultaneously of drivers and impacts of our actions across scales and barriers of space, time, culture, species and disciplinary boundaries.   It means that we need to switch from a focus on outcomes to one of process.

Stagl’s work is similar to that of the transformative educationalists (see for example Stephen Sterling’ Ecological Intelligence).   The opportunity is to read “education” here as referring to one vehicle for promoting societal change – sustainable HCI is another such vehicle with a wide potential impact, and can adopt the same approaches.

2.  Ann Pritchard’s  “Hopeful tourism: A new transformative perspective (pdf).  This also isn’t about computing or HCI at all, and it is not without critics (too far, not far enough), but this is a critical and transformative perspective of a discipline that, like ours has too readily been sucked into a techno-business model.    The opportunity is to read it, mentally replacing “tourism” with “computing”.

If you don’t have time for the whole paper, I had an explore here: Hopeful tourism computing?

3. In The Virtues of Ignorance Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson (with many contributors from a research camp) argue that a “knowledge-based worldview is both flawed and dangerous”.

Since we’re billions of times more ignorant than knowledgeable, why not go with our long suit and have an ignorance-based worldview? The upshot of this premise is a whole different way of looking at the world: What would human cultures look like, and how might we interact differently in the world, if we began every endeavor and conversation with the humbling assumption that human understanding is limited by an ignorance that no amount of additional information can mitigate? How would we educate our children differently or engage in scientific research? Might we be  more cautious and more willing to listen to others-and not just other human beings, but the whole conversation going on all around us?

Exploring the implications of the ignorance, or humility based world view, several authors have argued that the ignorance-based world view is not defeatist, and also celebrates knowledge. Paul Heltne (2008) has a simple take, arguing that there are at least two kinds of ignorance – differing such as to be considered opposing worldviews:

One ignorance world view is built on the belief that one knows or understands a situation or a subject rather thoroughly, perhaps even definitively or absolutely, when, in fact, one does not. This sort of ignorance-masquerading as- certain-knowledge often comes to us as whole systems of thought and work and with intellectual buffers that make its facts, claims, and practices beyond question. Its assumptions, often invisible or unstated, are thereby unassailable.

The other, humble ignorance:

Acknowledging that one does not know is a humble kind of ignorance, one that is, in fact, filled often with the joy of discovery and wonder at what is discovered. This is the kind of ignorance based worldview that can help us fathom the messes we are in, articulate assumptions and processes, entertain questions and be enriched by them, and imagine new ways and new knowledge.

Robert Root-Bernstein (2008) argues that science is not a search for solutions but a search for answerable questions – it must become acceptable to say “I don’t know”.

Science is a way of asking more and more meaningful questions.  The answers are important mainly in leading us to new questions. So try to learn some answers, because they are useful and interesting, but don’t forget that it isn’t answers that make a scientist, it’s questions.”

Root-Bernstein challenges educators to train student to raise answerable questions that no one has ever asked (and we’re not going to achieve that by always getting them to answer questions to which we already have answers).

The Virtues of Ignorance is hard to find (I think I interloaned the author’s personal copy), so here are my notes from it.  See also Guy Harrison’s work on scepticism (interview).

4. Wide.   Oh dear, now I’m lost in my Endnote library – send the St Bernard with a strong drink.   I’ve so many contenders for this list.   My main advice is to go wide. I learn far more from the conversations for Sustainable Lens than I do from the computing literature. If you can’t bring yourself to dive into the psychology, farming, zoology, economics, botany, education (and so on) literature, I would suggest that you try listening to the people we have on the show.  I learn heaps from it, I humbly suggest you might too (we even have a decent chunk of conversations with Sustainable HCI folks).

Worthy mentions that didn’t quite get into the main list:

  •  Alan AtKisson’s ISIS sustainable thinking involves much more than understanding simple physical chains of cause and effect. One must also understand the decisions that are taken either to change those causes or to respond to their effects.
  • Anything that makes the distinction between weak and strong sustainability Daly…
  • Anything that has a bullseye diagram rather than three overlapping circles.
  • Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence  “Green is a process, not a status— we need to think of “green” as a verb, not an adjective”.
  • Any Landscape Ecology textbook.  I suggest Naveh and Lieberman’s Total Human Ecosystem
  • Jickling, B., H. Lotz-Sisitka, R. O’Donoghue and O. A. (2006). Environmental Education, Ethics, and Action: A Workbook to Get Started. Nairobi, United Nations Environment Programme.
  • Bob Willard’s (2005)  The Next Sustainability Wave: Building Boardroom Buy-in.  McEwan and Schmidt, (2007)  have a similar list.  Presents a continuum of sustainability in business (see my notes).  I would contend that most Sustainable HCI is stuck in supporting 1 or 2.
    • Pre-Compliance: ignoring sustainability and opposing related regulations
    • Compliance: obeying laws and regulations on labour, environment, health and safety. The business manages its liabilities by obeying the law and all labour, environmental, health, and safety regulations. It reactively does what it legally has to do and does it well. Emerging environmental and philanthropic social actions are treated as costs, projects are end-of-pipe retrofits, and CSR is given lip service.
    • Beyond Compliance: recognizing the opportunity to cut costs mainly through higher resource efficiencies and reduction of waste, leading to both financial and ecological gains. Sustainability is still separated from core business development.
    • Integrated Strategy: Sustainability is integrated in the company’s vision and informs key business strategies to be more successful than competitors through innovation, design, and improved financial risk
    • Purpose and Passion: This is actually not a next stage of development for most companies but rather a special type of companies, being originally designed to ‘help saving the world’
  • Deep Ecology (anything on the less weird end of this literature – here’re my thoughts on value chain services through a deep ecology perspective).
  • Any of the papers from Arran Stibbe’s The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World 


Stagl, S. (2007). “Theoretical foundations of learning processes for sustainable development.” International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology 14: 52-62.

Pritchard, A., N. Morgan and I. Ateljevic (2011). “Hopeful tourism: A new transformative perspective.” Annals of Tourism Research 38(3): 941-963.

Vitek, B. and W. Jackson (2008). The virtues of ignorance: complexity, sustainability, and the limits of knowledge. Lexington, University Press of Kentucky.