Informatics Professors Weave Sustainability into the Fabric of Computing with Comm. ACM Paper

September 27, 2018

“Computing within Limits,” a new paper appearing in the October issue of Communications of the ACM, starts by recognizing that “humanity is rapidly approaching, or has already exceeded, a variety of planet-scale limits related to the global climate system, fossil fuels, raw materials and biocapacity.” And while the authors go on to argue that computing has a significant role to play in responding to such limits, their argument extends far beyond the topic of green IT. In fact, they point out that the LIMITS community of researchers they have built specifically questions green IT’s “implicit assumption that we can ‘engineer around’ the finiteness of the Earth’s resources and waste capacity.”

LIMITS 2018 in Toronto: Informatics Professor Bonnie Nardi introducing the first keynote speaker, Alan Borning.

The paper is a multi-university collaboration between seven members of this growing LIMITS community, spearheaded by UCI’s Informatics Professors Bonnie Nardi and Bill Tomlinson. Nardi, originally skeptical that “Computing within Limits” could appear in a mainstream computing publication such as Comm. ACM, says the paper’s acceptance is a sign of change. “I think we’re at a moment now when people are ready to start looking at more radical ideas,” she says.

“Bonnie and I have been working together on this for years and years,” adds Tomlinson. Although his interest in sustainability dates back decades, he didn’t think to combine it with his professional work —his computing research — until 2004, after attending a National Science Foundation (NSF) Ecology and Computing Workshop at UCI organized by Nardi. “Around that time, I realized that if I’m going to spend my whole life doing something, it ought to be something I care deeply about, and sustainability became that thing.”

A New Framework for Computing Research
In 2015, Nardi and Tomlinson helped organize the first Computing within Limits workshop, LIMITS 2015, hosted at UCI. This was the start of a community focused on researching, designing and developing computing systems for a future defined by a scarcity of resources.

“It’s been exciting to find a group of people whom I feel like I’m on the same page with,” says Tomlinson. “So much of computing relies on a growth-based world view, but I’m not sure that’s the right way forward.”

As the paper articulates, the LIMITS community aims to reframe computing research to question growth, consider models of scarcity, and reduce energy and material consumption. In particular, community members “question the focus on ongoing economic growth that lies at the heart of industrial civilization and propose a shift from emphasis on standards of living and material productivity to an emphasis on long-term well-being.”

The paper clearly distinguishes between growth (quantitative change) and development (qualitative change) — a distinction based on Herman Daly’s work. As Tomlinson explains, “growth is inherently problematic from an ecological point of view, whereas development is something that could potentially work.” The paper notes that those in the LIMITS community “optimistically assume that with advances in science and progress in philosophies of human rights, we have a good chance of transformative change to a system more like the steady-state economy Herman Daly envisions.”

This is a main research focus for Nardi, who recently started studying communities interested in “degrowth” or “post-growth” economies. “They firmly believe that, both for reasons of environmentalism and for social inequality — which our current economic systems tend to exacerbate — we need a whole new economic model,” she says. “So they’re looking at what it would be like if we lived in economies that didn’t grow.” Nardi hopes to incorporate their ideas and theories into her own computing research, and the LIMITS community encourages others to similarly build systems and envision worlds that don’t rely on or contribute to runaway growth.

The Future is Now
The paper quotes science fiction author William Gibson in stating that “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed,” arguing against speaking of “LIMITS-scenarios only in the future tense.” From the wildfires in California and hurricanes across the U.S., to the drought in Northern Europe and the loss of lakes and rivers around the globe, “LIMITS” scenarios are becoming a regular occurrence.

“Everybody breathes the same air,” notes Nardi. “Almost all of us are going to be in this together, and that’s what I think we haven’t yet come to realize and start working on.”

Tomlinson admits that at least one colleague he knows “doesn’t think things will get that bad for upper middle-class people in the U.S. — we’re just going to get better and better at closing our minds to the suffering of others.” This is a prospect that Tomlinson finds deeply disconcerting.

Yet Nardi insists that the number of people sheltered in “gated” communities will increasingly shrink. “Most of us are going to be feeling the effects,” she says, which is why the paper pushes people to consider new perspectives: “Being aware of the wide diversity of current and future potential contexts in which humans may find themselves, more than a few of which are characterized by scarcity, may help computing researchers and practitioners design technology that promotes global well-being.”

Expanding the Community
Both Nardi and Tomlinson are thrilled to have their paper appearing in Comm. ACM. “We are very excited that they took it,” says Nardi, who was surprised to see reviewers embrace their arguments about capitalism and the economy. As stated in the paper, “we need to be cognizant of the power of capital markets in deciding what is a success and what is a failure…. Structural changes such as cap-and-trade markets, taxes, fees, rationing and quotas are needed, in concert with technological changes.”

Tomlinson further points out that “one of the challenges with branching out beyond academia is that companies, by the very nature of the legal scaffolding on which they are based, are strongly incentivized to work toward growth.” Seven or eight years ago, in collaboration with a law professor from the University of Kansas, Tomlinson submitted a grant proposal focused on benefit corporations and a legal framework for enabling corporations to contribute to the social good. The proposal wasn’t funded at the time, but he hopes to revisit the topic. “Isn’t it funny,” he asks, “that one of the things that you have to do in order to support work about the decline of capitalism is find funding for it?”

Yet the LIMITS workshops — held at UCI in 2015 and 2016, Santa Barbara in 2017 and Toronto in 2018 — have had corporate support. “We got funding from Google and Facebook, so there are people in those places who recognize these problems,” says Nardi.

Another LIMITS workshop is in the works for 2019. It will be co-chaired by Jay Chen, an assistant professor of computer science at New York University – Abu Dhabi (and one of the Comm. ACM paper’s coauthors), and Oliver Bates, a senior research associate at Lancaster University, UK. The workshops have been a source of new collaborations, resulting in papers such as “Responding to Riverbank Erosion in Bangladesh,” by UCI Informatics graduate student Maruf Zaber, Nardi and Chen. The paper includes an analysis of online social media activity and its role in raising public awareness about riverbank erosion and pushing for political change.

“One of the challenges is to recast the argument,” says Nardi. “It doesn’t matter where you are on the planet or how much money you have. The ecological disasters that are occurring are going to affect everyone.” Hopefully the LIMITS community will be a catalyst for change as it re-envisions technology’s role in safeguarding our future well-being amid the global transformations occurring all around us.

Shani Murray