Sustainable Interaction Design

By Talia Nassi

A recent trend that I have seen that is interesting is sustainable interaction design. It has become a huge part of design in the past few years. I saw an article published by npr last week discussing NASA’s design for one of their buildings, the Ames Research Center. The building uses passive cooling instead of traditional air conditioning and the electricity comes from solar panels on the roof. It is designed to minimize energy consumption and waste, and maximize recycling and reusability. Congress mandated a target of reducing fossil-fuel-generated energy consumption in all new federal buildings by 2030. The technologies used in this building help do just that. The challenge comes about when making sustainability the focus of interaction design in a way that will motivate people to use this design process.

Figure 1: NASA’s Ames Research Center

In this post, I will discuss the link between interactive design technologies and the use of resources. Design can have an immediate impact on the environment and sustainability effects. Eli Blevis discusses that the design of objects with embedded materials of information technologies implies the need to “first and foremost consider the possibilities of renewal and reuse of existing objects or systems from the perspective of sustainability”. If one can renew or reuse an existing technology, they would be a part of the global solution of sustainability. When designing new objects or systems, one also has to take into consideration “quality as a construct of longevity” (Blevis 504). This increases the overall value of the design. Blevis is saying that not only do we have to take reusability and renewal into consideration when designing, but also the quality of how those designs will affect the environment in the years to come.

More and more human computer interaction researchers are attempting to understand what it means to design in a more sustainable manner. What does environmental sustainability have to do with the HCI community? The world generates twenty to fifty million metric tons of electronic waste each year. Computer scientists can help reduce energy usage by reducing computers’ energy consumption and electronic waste. Technology can be a key ingredient of sustainable HCI by giving users information about the environmental impact of their actions and by increasing the desirability of pro-environmental behavior (DiSalvo 1976). This feedback from technology can have a huge impact on informing users of just how much their actions are impacting the environment. It could be just the thing that users need to increase their desire to be more environmentally friendly. HCI is largely oriented to the generation of short-lived consumer products and to the support of enhanced productivity (Nathan 2). Both of these goals require the user to be in a state of constant consumption.

Although HCI as a discipline has not yet understood sustainability to be a central design idea (Willis 48), working out this problem will open the possibility that notions of sustainability can be adopted in a meaningful way that does not harm the environment. In Blevis et al. [4], environmental decision making is used as the content matter for investigating interactivity. Sustainability should be more than recycling. Although making hardware recyclable and non-toxic would be a huge step in the right direction, it does not fully solve the problem. Because design is about interactions between people and environments, we as a collective people need to shift toward a system of environmentally-friendly thinking. I am claiming that this, in turn, will create better designs.

One example of software that uses sustainable design is Autodesk. Autodesk makes software for the architecture, engineering, construction, and manufacturing industries. It allows designers and engineers to design more sustainably by reducing the amount of physical prototypes required for a project as well as optimize building performance. Common applications that Autodesk uses are mechanical ventilation, external flow, natural ventilation, occupant comfort, analysis for building energy, solar load, and advanced energy heating and cooling. Some of the programs that Autodesk offers are the Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program and C-FACT. The Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program provides design and engineering software to early-stage clean technology companies in North America and Europe, which helps to accelerate development of solutions to the world’s significant environmental challenges. Additionally, each year, Autodesk gives hundreds of clean tech companies $150,000 worth of software to cover start-up costs. Autodesk also introduced C-FACT, a science-driven approach to setting greenhouse gas reduction targets, which calls for greenhouse gas reductions to be made in proportion to a company’s gross domestic product (GDP). Autodesk also has a sustainability workshop that is a free online tutorial that covers sustainable design concepts using videos that instruct viewers how to make sustainable design decisions. This is a great example of how interaction design and sustainability can work together.

Figure 2: Autodesk Sustainability Workshop Design Strategies

Blevis says that from the perspective of design methods, one way to think about sustainable interaction design is as the notion that “methods for interaction design need to integrate concern for potential effects on the environment and for the sustainability of the behaviors induced by designed interactions” (Blevis 506). Sustainability should be integrated into the design process. The reason for Autodesk’s continual success is their central focus on sustainability. They are currently a world leader in design, and their tools help enable innovative and achievable solutions for a more sustainable world.

A recent example of sustainable design and engineering came from a design competition in Kenmore, Washington. A team of four high school students won first prize in the High School of the Future design competition. They used Autodesk to design the ideal school of the future that is sustainable and eco-friendly. They designed a net-zero school — one that produces as much energy as it consumes. The key to their approach was the selection of a site that had an abundance of natural resources that could be harnessed for renewable energy. During architectural design development, the students incorporated clean energy systems that would create more energy than necessary to sustain the school on a daily basis. This design specifically targeted the repairing of harmful effects of unsustainable use, substituting sustainable use in its place — something Eli Blevis calls an active repair of misuse. An active repair of misuse is one of Blevis’s rubrics for understanding and assessing particular interaction design cases in terms of forms of use, reuse, and disposal from the perspective of sustainability (Blevis 506). The students also used solar panels and geothermal heat pumps, which consume 25% less electricity than conventional heating. Wind turbines are used to capture the wind, and kinetic flooring would harness the energy from the student’s footsteps. These are an example of finding wholesome alternatives to use. The design eliminates the need for the use of certain physical resources.

In my viewpoint, I believe that sustainable interaction design is the future of design. If we can master the integration of design and sustainability, we will not only abide by the congressional mandate to reduce energy consumption, but we will also minimize the harm to our environment. Designers need to start to understand all of the consequences of their design — environmental consequences included. Carla DiSalvo differentiates between sustainability in design, which she describes as mitigating material effects of software or hardware, and sustainability through design, which she describes as influencing sustainable lifestyles or decision-making. Improving sustainability in design would include things like improving performance per unit of energy, making computational devices longer lasting, and better recycling and disposal. Sustainability through design would include using sensor networks for building energy modeling. By having users monitor the state of the physical world, and having them see their direct impacts on the world, they will be able to better understand their role in creating a more sustainable environment.

Using software technologies like Autodesk will revolutionize design in a way that will be mutually beneficial to the users and to the environment. Overall, if things are designed and constructed with the idea that resources and interactive design technologies go hand-in-hand, the impact on the environment and sustainability effects will be a positive one.

Works Cited

Blevis, Eli. “Sustainable Interaction Design.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems — CHI ’07 (2007): n. pag. Web.

Disalvo, Carl, Phoebe Sengers, and Hrönn Brynjarsdóttir. “Mapping the Landscape of Sustainable HCI.” Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems — CHI ’10 (2010): n. pag. Web.

Nathan, Lisa P., Eli Blevis, Batya Friedman, Jay Hasbrouck, and Phoebe Sengers. “Beyond the Hype.” Proceeding of the Twenty-sixth Annual CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems — CHI ’08 (2008): n. pag. Web.

“NASA Uses Lessons From Space To Design An Efficient Building.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.

“High School of the Future — An Example of Sustainable Design and Engineering | Sustainability Workshop.” High School of the Future — An Example of Sustainable Design and Engineering | Sustainability Workshop. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.