I'm in Amsterdam for the 4th international ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) conference. The main conference starts tomorrow but there are two full days of workshops before and after the conference. Today Elina and me held our workshop "Computing within Limits: Visions of computing beyond Moore’s law". I refer to the workshop as "Elina's and mine" workshop despite the fact there are officially six organisers - because we in fact did 95% of the work (not that that was an inordinate amount to start with). We are still happy for the input we got from our co-organisers and we are very happy that Lorenz Hilty was able to attend the whole workshop!
The workshop could be seen as an introduction to the background of and the ideas behind "Computing within Limits" (official website, my write-up of Limits 2016). While we have organised two workshops (small conferences) on Computing within Limits in 2015 and 2016, both of these have been held at UC Irvine and California is a loong way from Europe. Our workshop was, in other words, a chance for (primarily) European researchers to familiarise themselves with the ideas behind Computing within Limits. And, it seems the workshop was a success! Several people thanked us for organising the workshop at the subsequent reception and one person even said it was the best workshop she had ever attended.
We disseminated no less than three (relatively short) articles as well as one short story (fiction) for workshop attendees to read beforehand and that might have been (at least) one text too much. The texts (and the suggested order of reading them) were:
- Pargman & Raghavan (2014), “Rethinking Sustainability in Computing: From Buzzword to Non-negotiable Limits”. NordiCHI 2014.
- Tomlinson et. al. (2012), “Collapse Informatics: Augmenting the Sustainability & ICT4D Discourse in HCI”. CHI 2012 (read only the first 5.5 pages, skip the examples).
- Raghavan & Hasan (2016). “Macroscopically Sustainable Networking: On Internet Quines”. LIMITS 2016.
- O’Neill, K. (2012). “Bicycleman Sakhile and the Cell Tower”, in Greer (ed.), “After oil: SF visions of a post-petroleum world”.
Something that was confusing to us was that very relaxed process for registering for the workshops. I think that it might be the case that some people who attended the workshop had told the workshop organisers (us) that they would attend but not really registered (paid) for the workshop and others had registered for the workshop but that information had not reached us as workshop organisers. It for example seemed like some people who attended half-day workshops dropped in on other workshops (e.g. ours) when the first workshop was finished. That made it a little more challenging to lead the workshop but most people stayed all day and provided the workshop with the needed stability. Also we were surprised to find as many as 16 persons in the room when the workshop started! These were the workshop attendees:
- Elina Eriksson (SE), Daniel Pargman (SE) and Lorenz Hilty (CH) (organisers)
- Roy Bendor (NL), Steve Easterbrook (CA), Mine Ercan (SE), Mattias Höjer (SE), Sofie Lambert (BE), Dag Lundén (SE), Jens Malmodin (SE), Birgit Penzenstatler (US), Michaël Petit (BE), Mario Pickavet (BE), Dawn Walker (CA) (full day participation)
- Vlad Coroama (SE), Paola Grosso (NL), Norberto Patrignani (ITA), Pierre-Antoine Rappe (BE), Mahtab Sabet (CA), Daniel Schien (GB) (part day participation).
The workshop was divided into four 1.5-hour sessions with breaks (coffee, lunch) in-between:
- Short presentation round: “who are you and what brought you to this workshop today?”
- Short introduction to Computing within Limits (I managed to present 30 slides in 15 minutes sharp)
- Discuss of the literature disseminated
- Framing the futures
- Post-it notes session 1: write 3-5 post-its with trends/limits that you believer will play an important role in a future of limits and that we should take into account
- Post-it notes session 2: write 3-5 post-its with suggestions for areas where computing could make a difference (should be used) in a future of limits
- Divide workshop participants into smaller groups and start to determine/flesh out one scenario each with inspiration from the now-hastily-clustered post-it notes on the whiteboard. We got four groups with 4-5 persons each together and each group had one person who had attended Limits (Eriksson, Pargman, Penzenstadler, Easterbrook), one "technical person", one "non-technical person" and one "industry representative). That really worked out fine.
- Continue to work on the scenarios in smaller groups
- Prepare for presenting the scenario by "instantiating it" in the form of an "avatar story" (see further below)
- Present and discuss the proposed scenarios
- Wrap-up, discussions, informal evaluation, outstanding research questions, future events (Computing within Limits 2017) etc.
--- Outcome & reflections ---
The post-it notes sessions (session 2) were wild! There was such a breadth of ideas presented. We beforehand imagined that a lot of the suggestions would be about trends and phenomena that were closely tied to computing and while some were, most weren't. Clustering the notes was done quickly and under duress so taking that into account, the categories we "found" in the first post-it notes session were:
- Monitoring & tracking (there were may examples): "Tracking emissions & accountability", "Information about problems (collect and analyse data)", "Helping to allocate resources efficiently & globally",
- Computer-mediated communication: "ICT for connecting people", "Virtual workshops (less travel)"
- Knowledge & education (there were many examples): "ICT will/should support education", "Bring awareness (educate)", "Sharing knowledge on how to fix, repair and modify technology".
- Circular economy: "Circular economy", "Dematerialization".
- Policy: "Creating space for policy reform", "Negotiator to facilitate public debates".
- Empowerment & justice: "We need ICT for overcoming sensorial barriers (e.g. for people with disabilities", "Social equality & inclusion".
"My" group for the second half of the day consisted of: Sofie Lambert, Vlad Coroama, Daniel Schien and (playing tag) Norberto Patrignani/Mahtab Sabet. After having wide-ranging discussion, I "forced" my group to hammer down some specifics before we headed for lunch and these were goals we aimed for: Everyone in Europe will have an average carbon budget of 3 tons/year 20 years from now (down from 10 or so today - depending on how and what you count). We further specified that while computing/ICT today accounts for about 2% of our total use of energy (200 kg/year), it would increase to 6% by 2036 but still constitute only 200 kg/year since other sources of carbon emissions would have to decrease radically. Computing/ICT would therefore also have to take on additional tasks, for example more video conferencing to make up for decreased travel.
When we started to flesh out the scenario after lunch, we slipped into the idea of having a parallell carbon currency and that each item you buy has a price in Euros as well as a carbon credits price that depended on that item's carbon footprint (locally produced cheese has a lower carbon credits price than exotic cheese from far-away countries). We then started to discuss how the system for tracking, paying for and circulating carbon credits worked. Sometime into our discussion of how to set up and track a new currency, Elina handed out two so-called "avatar stories" from a research project I myself have been involved in ("Scenario and impacts of the information society"). What I had forgotten in the heat of the moment was that one of those scenarios were very similar to the one we were now construction so we quickly changed track and decided to "add" to that scenario/avatar story. The persons in the story below belong to the more affluent parts of the population and they have enough disposable income (hard currency) to be able to buy carbon credits from others who live ultra-frugal (low carbon emissions) lifestyles are who are willing to sell their carbon credits surplus.
Valuing the environment
“Darling, I dearly love Lisa, but why does she have to give me such a hard time when their spartan lifestyle is partly made possible by us?” Erik grumbles to Airi. “You and me both work hard, we really do deserve our salaries and they still choose to donate their surplus environrights to some stupid “worthwhile cause” instead of accepting our hard-owned cash for them!”. Airi agrees with Erik and tries to calm him down. Meeting with Erik’s sister and her oh-so-much-holier-than-thou husband can often turn into a tense affair that leaves them all frazzled and drained. But Lisa’s small farm really is lovely at this time of the year and their children enjoy the countryside and the animals so much, to say nothing about living there with their cousins for a full month every summer. And the squash, the potatoes and the beets Lisa insisted they bring with them to the city look lovely and will last for a long time. But still. Lisa’s austere ultra-low-carbon-emissions lifestyle makes it hard for her family to get buy without the hand-me-down clothes and the help she gets from her more economically secure brother.
Erik and Airi’s own summer cottage is yet more austere, but they really like to spend as much time as possible there during the warmer half of the year. It is not too convenient or practical to heat the house during the whole winter, but the first trip after Easter each year leaves the children as frisky as calves that are let out to the pastures after a long winter indoors. It is so convenient to book a large vehicle through the carpool and bring everything from door to door, even if they have to pay through the nose for that one spring trip. Worse, the costs for private transportation just go up every year as their (and everybody else’s) national carbon allowances go down. Erik and Airi don’t complain too much though as everyone suffers equally under the same regiment, as they have more than most others, and, as Sweden is right on track to meet its carbon emission reduction goals.
What most of their friends don’t know is that Erik and Airi have been on a quest for the last five years. Their goal has been to reduce their use of environrights, and, use their higher-than-average income to buy as many surplus environrights as they can afford on the open market. The plan is to spend them all visiting Airi’s relatives on a trip to Australia next year. It will be the trip of the decade and something they hope their children will remember and cherish for the rest of their lives. They both realise it might very well be the last intercontinental flight any of them every makes. Boats take an eternity but the passenger lines are conquering market shares from flight (on a shrinking market) every year with their comparatively low carbon footprint and low environrights price tag. While they regularly talk to their Australian relatives, it will be a blast to meet them in person, something only Airi has previously done.
Saving up environrights has forced them to reconsider their lifestyle and many small decisions has helped them save up. Their oldest kid wanted to practice karate, but there was no club nearby and they didn’t want to use money and environrights to book a car and give him a lift. The local judo club had to make do instead, and, the added benefit was that he made new friends there that they sometime bump into. It also really feels like a boost to the local community that people have more acquaintances, are more rooted and feel more solidarity with the part of city they live in. Judo instead of karate, but otherwise a win-win situation. If their son really wants to, he can switch to karate later, when he can use the public transportation system to get around the city by himself.
The biggest decision of theirs though has been to change their food habits. Since Erik and Airi have decent incomes, it makes sense for them to spend more money and fewer environrights buying relatively expensive products with a lower ecological footprint (and a corresponding lower price in environrights). They always buy wild game meat like boar instead of industrially produced pork when entertaining guest. Their children never drink cow milk and have seldom eaten dairy products since they have replaced it with oat milk and other suitable substitutes. The steep initial learning curve of always looking for locally produced food, this season’s food and alternative sources of protein (the children love beans) is now second nature to them.
To the scenario above we added a few twists by writing no less than five very short "vignettes":
- I’m so worried about Vlad, he just turned 20 but he just plays computer games and never leaves home!
- I’m sure he will eventually meet a nice girl and settle down
- No Elma, I really mean it. I worry for Vlad. He really never leaves home unless I force him to go out. He does meet people through his games but he’s very very shy around girls
- I understand. But at least his carbon emissions are really low and he isn’t costing you a fortune in carbon credits! And if he doesn’t have any kids, your retirement benefits will stay a lot higher in your old age.
Darling, do you have any bills I need to pay?
Yes, the hospital bill just arrived. The surgery cost 1.34 tons of carbon emissions but we only have to pay for 147 kilos. Phew.
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“Our week in e-Hawaii was fantastic. We got to observe an actual volcanic eruption, all from the safety of the E-Tourism Wakitama agency.”
“I have loved space ever since I was a child, but because of my epilepsy I knew I’d never get to be an astronaut. E-Tourism Wakitama let me customize my own dream vacation – exploring planets and even other galaxies! Within seconds I arrived at nearby solar systems and got to see nebulae up close. It was a very enjoyable and educational experience.”
- Eee, look at the tippies. They are so ugly and poor!
- Yes, it’s disgusting and they smell too!
- Kids, please stop immediately. They perform a valuable social function and we should respect and cherish them for it. If they wouldn’t dig up the landfill to compost the organic waste, it would continue to ooze methane which is really bad for the climate. You really shouldn’t judge other people before you have walked a mile in their shoes and we don’t know why they lost their carbon credits. It could have been an accident, a fire that emitted a lot of carbon and they didn’t have carbon insurance.
The new system also brought new inner-European tensions: in the most recent scandal, Greece is suspected of having systematically underreported the carbon footprint of its islanders, in particular those of the Cyclades.
Due to the social unrests that followed the sharp decrease in tourism, the Italian constitutional court has declared the Ghent carbon treaty non-constitutional. As a consequence, the Italian government threatens with the I-exit, including retreating its armed forces from the peace-keeping missions Sudan and Saudi Arabia.
The so-called "Bratislava-group" (Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania) claims the non-availability of fine-grained carbon data and that it will only be able to report such data by 2040.
The Portuguese government continues on the point that it will only participate in the Ghent treaty if its eucalyptus plantations count as carbon benefit and each Portuguese receives an extra 2 tons of yearly carbon credit.
Finally, the French cattle farmers continue blocking Paris for the 6th week in a row, arguing that the gourmet cultural heritage should be exempt from the carbon budget.
Since "perfect is the enemy of good", I chose to stop here despite the fact that much more happened at the workshop. I have not mentioned the results (scenarios) from the other three groups, nor have I delved into some interesting comments from the wrap-up of the workshop (truth be told, my notes from the end of the workshop are pretty sketchy due to my cold and my cough catching up and depleting the very last of my energy resources). I'll be back in a few days with another blog post about the main conference.