NordiCHI 2018 from an environmentalist’s perspective

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As already alluded to in a published blog post here on the blog, I attended the 10th Nordic conference on Human-Computer Interaction (NordiCHI2018) and organized a workshop on Saturday the 29th of September. The conference did not end there for me, but I stayed for 4 more days. And here are my most personal musings on this experience.

The 30th of October, I attended another workshop, to which I had been drafted by one of the organisers – and I could attend despite not having submitted a position paper on the topic of Design Fiction in Participatory Design processes. This is however close to things I have done, for example in the Empowering Energy Futures project where we created the energy fiction Vitiden. The workshop had a hint of a sustainability theme, where we worked with the fiction of moving a future city to Greenland due to climate change issues. The workshop was fun, although somewhat challenging, and made me realise that I have a potential project proposal in my back pocket, we’ll see if I can come back to that.

Workshoppy thingies going on at NordiCHI 2019

A large part of what you discuss on a conference is keynotes! On Monday 1st of September, the proper conference started, with a keynote by Carly Cloge from (Google) X. She presented X’s work on moonshot ideas and great technological breakthroughs. In a sense it was good to hear that we can and should sometimes fail, in order to find the best solutions. The keynote was really slick, with amazing projects and beautiful pictures – however, I was left with feeling that if they had almost unlimited resources – why concentrate on these particular problems? On Tuesday 2nd of October, Jeanette Blomberg reminisced on her 30 years of anthropological HCI studies within companies such as IBM. Her work resonated better with me, mirroring what I did myself in my PhD-work – working to enhance the user-centerdness in public authorities, and also mirroring my own (and probably your) everyday work situation with all these ICT systems we have to wrestle down for unclear reasons. On Wednesday 3rd of October, Steven Jackson presented the keynote I had the highest hope for, ”Sustainability Beyond Design: HCI Meets the Anthropocene”. But it turned out, this was the keynote that made me the most disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the keynote in itself was great and interesting, but Steven invited others into not taking it seriously by saying that it could be argued whether this ever would be central to HCI. And just so, the first to get the microphone did say that he did not think this ever would become central in HCI. But if we don’t fit our own field within the planetary boundaries, do we have any right to be part of forming the future?

My sketch notes of the keynote by Steven Jackson. Much of his talk touch upon the materiality of our ICT society, and how it will be here long after we are gone.

The rest of the days went by in a blur, and the conference committee’s decision to blend full papers, design cases, future scenarios and work-in-progress papers in the sessions made the sessions diversified and interesting. Hanna admirably presented our paper ”Designing for Diverse Stakeholder Engagement in Resource-Intensive Practices” on Wednesday, in the only dedicated sustainability session. That there were only one session on sustainability (and smartness) might be considered a weakness from my (our) point of view, especially with a conference with the theme ”Revisiting the Life Cycle”. However, I do believe that efforts to address sustainability were visible in other parts of the conference. One of the lunches were completely vegan, to many peoples’ surprise, others included at least low carbon meat such as chicken. The conference dinner was held at a restaurant that serve fish – with salvaged vegetables. There was a goodie bag – but you didn’t get it automatically and the gift from the conference were a water bottle that you can use forever.

I was invited to sit in the panel on the last day of the conference, debating what is Nordic about NordiCHI. Before the panel I was wondering how radically I should push the sustainability agenda. The conference had been as many other conferences I have visited. With a few exceptions, I often sit in the audience and wonder why. Why do you do this research and what is the aim, what will change in the world if this research was widely spread and is that a change we want? Sometimes I hear the voice a dear friend, that often say when we are discussing the state of the world: ”Why? For the worst possible reason – cause we can”. In the end, I did push sustainability a bit, openly by arguing that we need NordiCHI since we will have to travel less by airplane in the future, and implicitly by suggesting that we should have a court jester (a nod to Daniel) at the conference that makes fun of us, and perhaps sometimes tell us that we are on the wrong track. Personally, I am too polite (or afraid of conflicts?) to question the papers as they are presented, but somewhere I am beginning to think that we have to, I am just not sure how. How do we change the culture and norm of what is good HCI research, so that it becomes more relevant in the age of Anthropocene, help us adapt to coming climate change, and keep us within the planetary boundaries? Not by being silent at least.

(And yes, I took the train to Oslo)

//Elina

 

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