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What is Sustainable Interaction Design? Part One

By Guest contributors on November 7, 2008

This is the first of three blog posts by our managing editor Jeff Binder exploring the concept of sustainable interaction design as put forth by SM blog contributor Eli Blevis of the School of Informatics at Indiana University, in a paper entitled Sustainable Interaction Design: Invention & Disposal, Renewal & Reuse.*

We humans have a love affair with interactive technology, and why shouldn’t we? Inventions like the telephone, the Internet and the camera have made it easier it to communicate concepts of both immediate practical value and broader cultural worth.

Whether it’s to get driving directions or view a photo exhibit, technology has made our lives easier and has enriched our understanding of the world. But that comes with a price.

Because we love technology, we admire early adopters, awarding them status merely for owning the latest laptop first. We overlook the fact that early adopters are also by definition early rejecters; like bored children they toss out gadgets without considering where they might end up.

It’s up to product designers to retool the process, says Eli Blevis, a faculty member of the School of Informatics at Indiana University at Bloomington.

Blevis, whose primary arena is Human-Computer Interaction Design (HCI/d), has been a central figure in the definition and development of how interaction design should progress. In a paper written in 2007, he defines the concept of Sustainable Interaction Design (SID).

Design, according to Blevis, is the act of choosing among, or informing choices of future ways of being. His basic premise is that sustainability must be a central focus of interaction design. But sustainability is a vague term, used and abused by many. Blevis is careful to proscribe its use in the context of interaction design:

“Sustainability as a notion of viable futures can be defined to include aspects of the environment, public health, social equality and justice, as well as other conditions and choices about humanity and the biosphere [14]. In what follows, the focus is primarily on environmental sustainability and the link between interactive technologies and the use of resources, both from the point of view of how interactive technologies can be used to promote more sustainable behaviors and—with more emphasis here—from the point of view of how sustainability can be applied as a critical lens to the design of interactive systems, themselves.”

Blevis goes on to identify five vital principals to serve as goals for Sustainable Interaction Design (SID):

“… (i) linking invention & disposal—by which I mean the idea that any design of new objects or systems with embedded materials of information technologies is incomplete without a corresponding account of what will become of the objects or systems that are displaced or obsoleted by such inventions, (ii) promoting renewal & reuse—by which I mean the idea that the design of objects or systems with embedded materials of information technologies implies the need to first and foremost consider the possibilities for renewal & reuse of existing objects or systems from the perspective of sustainability … (iii) promoting quality & equality—by which I mean the idea that the design of new objects or systems with embedded materials of information technologies implies the need to consider quality as a construct of affect and longevity and quality in the sense of anticipating means of renewal & reuse, thereby motivating the prolonged value of such objects or systems and providing equality of experience to new owners of such objects and systems whenever ownership transfers, (iv) de-coupling ownership & identity—by which I mean the idea that the virtual world has irrevocably changed the way in which ownership of information and in particular ownership of personal identity are constructed and secured and that alternative notions of ownership and identity have design implications for sharing materials, intellectual commons, and sense of self-hood which must be considered as part of sustainable design of interactions with digital artifice, and (v) using natural models & reflection—by which I mean the prospect that there may be an approach to interaction design-even by the design of its removal-that prompts sustainable relationships to nature and that SID begins with a reflection on this principle of making the world of the artificial more like the natural world with respect to sustainability.”

The central problem of sustainability in the context of HCI, is its human-centeredness:

“The very title Human-Computer Interaction has embedded within it meanings which are problematic from the perspectives of sustainability—it is anthropocentric, and even if the anthropocentrism was not in-and-of-itself a condition of ontological blindness, the sense of human-centeredness in the HCI context is oftentimes construed as a notion of method in which engineering "needs and requirements" follow from cognitive models of ''users,'' rather than a concern for human conditions, particular or global.”

Other writers, points out Blevis, have identified another basic flaw: that HCI as a discipline has not yet understood sustainability to be a central design idea.

“Notions of sustainability and design are common nonetheless, there is little written specifically about sustainability and interaction design in the main corpus of the HCI literature-the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) digital library in particular-and concern for sustainability in the arena of interaction design is in an apparent infancy.

“One of the reviewers of this paper provided the following very insightful summary statement of much of its spirit: "sustainability [should be] more than just recycling, and indeed [must become] a cultural paradigm shift away from technology novelty and induced consumption, toward an aesthetic of well-cared-for systems. "That same reviewer suggested that understanding the role of technology in such ambitions for cultural change is key-an understanding which this paper modestly frames as important research for the larger community of HCI and interaction design.”

Clearly, how we deal with the sustainability of the human-computer interaction is becoming recognized as a topic of major importance. Companies like Apple and Microsoft have announced “sustainability initiatives.” But what is the context for their programs, and how are they to be verified? Thought leaders like Eli Blevis are helping to frame the debate.

In the next post, I’ll explore the first of two major ideas presented in Blevis’ paper: the idea of linking invention and disposal. I encourage you to comment on these concepts by clicking on the link below.


14. Fry, T. (2005). The Voice of sustainment: the scenario of design. Design Philosophy Papers. #01/2005.

* -- Blevis, E. (2007). Sustainable interaction design: invention & disposal, renewal & reuse. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (San Jose, California, USA, April 28 - May 03, 2007). CHI '07. ACM Press, New York, NY, 503-512.
Paper available for download from the ACM digital library:
Publications list for Eli Blevis:


Image credits: cell phone: © Pedro Díaz, rotary phone: © Marc Dietrich, leica: © Ruslan Gilmanshin