Towards a capability maturity rubric for Sustainable HCI

Posted on July 19, 2016


I’ve long been a fan of Bob Willard’s organisational sustainability maturity index – here’s a post from 2007. I’ve used it many times, including this talk to Young Enterprise. Now for a book chapter I’m writing with Oliver Bates we’ve had a go at using it for a rubric for considering the sustainabilityness of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research.

The chapter is in narrative form, the bit about the rubric goes like this:


Sam: Maybe we could model, talking about learning from transitional towns, it’s all about modelling good practice … Maybe if we were to provide people with a way of saying, “I’m not going to muck around in the papers defining what I mean by sustainability, but this paper sits as a 3.5 on the Bates and Mann sustainable HCI maturity scale.
Oliver: But we don’t have a…
Sam: If we base it on Willard’s maturity model for sustainable business, the first one is “Stage 1: The company feels no obligation beyond profits. It cuts corners and tries not to get caught if it breaks the law or uses exploitative practices that cheat the system. It ignores sustainability and actively fights against related regulations”.
So that becomes:
Stage 1: The researcher feels no obligation beyond publication. Research focuses on development of products without regard to wider implications.  It ignores sustainability and ethics and actively argues that it doesn’t apply this research.
Oliver: Sounds like we’re making a rubric.  OK, I got this, the second stage:  The researcher manages their ethical responsibilities as compliance.  The researchers are aware of implications and perhaps include a small section in the discussion that acknowledges a single sustainability factor, but wasn’t actually incorporated into the research question, methods or outcomes.      
Sam: The third is the shower app.
Oliver: OK. Stage 3:  Research is about products that deliver incremental, continuous improvements in eco-efficiency.   Researchers see sustainability as an opportunity to explore aspects of HCI: encouraging behaviour change or different ways to communicate.    Little attempt to question whether the activity being made efficient is sustainable in wider terms, nor alternative approaches.  If sustainability is defined, then it’s pillars or “environmental sustainability”.
Sam: Research in Stage 4 is research on sustainability, using HCI.  It references complex sustainability themes.   It is value driven.   It adopts a holistic sustainability, integrating all aspects through a process based approach.   In this stage In different models become apparent.  A key to resource efficiency is to understand products as a means to deliver a service to a customer. For example, people do not want energy, they want the service it provides such as heat or light (eg “products of service”).  Researchers are more likely to talk about empowerment, democracy, participation and social systems than they are interventions for behaviour change.
Oliver: That’s quite a leap from 3.
Sam: Yes, Willard describes that as a transformation.   The early steps were transitions.  Moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4 requires internalizing sustainability notions in profound ways, both personally and organizationally.   The transformation to Stage 5 is one of the positive socio-ecological transformation being the premise of the research.  Driven by a passionate, values-based commitment to improving the well-being of society, and the environment, the research helps build a better world because it is the right thing to do.
Oliver: So Stage 4 researchers do the right things so that they are successful researchers. Stage 5 researchers are successful researchers so that they can continue to “do the right things.”
Sam: Yes, where the right things are to drive a positive socio-ecological transformation.
Posted in: ecoLabel, HCI, research