Computing Within Limits


I have just attended LIMITS 22, the eight annual workshop on computing within limits.

As the name suggests, the workshop addresses the role of computing in human societies affected by real-world limits, for example limits of extractive logics, limits to a biosphere’s ability to recover, limits to our knowledge, or limits to technological “solutions”.

Very much tied to the interests of the TechnologyBloggers website, this collection of researchers and practitioners aim to reshape the computing research agenda, grounded by an awareness that contemporary computing research is intertwined with ecological limits in general and climate- and climate justice-related limits in particular.

This was a virtual distributed workshop, with many participants joining hubs so that they could avoid travel but still attend a social event. I touched upon this as a model in my post about conferencing a few weeks ago.

I attended one of such hubs in Rotterdam (Netherlands), held at Varia, a space for developing collective approaches to everyday technology. There were a dozen people there, computer programmers, university lecturers and students and the likes, which made for interesting discussion during the break-out sessions and a very nice social mix.

I won’t go into the individual presentations too much, but would like to highlight a few of the questions addressed and point readers towards some resources.

What is the carbon footprint of streaming media?

Researchers estimate that streaming media accounts for about 1% of global carbon emissions. These emissions are created throughout the chain, with only a small percentage visible to users (the electricity that appears on their household bills), the vast majority hidden as it is produced during data storage, cooling, delivery, maintaining back-up systems and during a miriad of other processes (not to mention construction, mining of raw materials, etc).

This website offers lots of information, beginning with the startling revelation that ICT in general is estimated to use about 7% of all electricity used, so may contribute (depending how the electricity is produced) to up to almost 4% of global greenhouse gasses.

So the actual carbon footprint is very difficult to measure, with a range offered for watching a streamed film as equivalent to burning between 1.2 and 164 kilos of coal (depending on your calculations and not the film).

The large data centres providers often claim that they use clean energy for their centres, but this was also questioned as their mass use of this energy has been shown to monopolize access, at very least having an enormous effect on the local networks and sometimes resulting in others having to use fossil fonts,. Their green claims were described as cherry-picked.

Digital platforms

Well we all love a digital platform don’t we? Facilitating car sharing, what could be better than that? Well even here a critical perspective appears, as we have to add ICT emissions to real emissions if calculating the possible environmental implications. And not only that! For example, using one car instead of two halves the emissions for analytical purposes, but on top of this we should add the ICT emissions (which as we know are difficult to work out). But we can come up with an estimate. Then behavioural change might also come into play. People might drive further because they are sharing, some will share a car and leave the bike at home or not take the usual train. It all becomes rather murky.

Other discussions

Other questions arose: what are the implications of framing the discussion in terms of limits, rather than abundance? Could such a reframing bring in an ethics of care? Can we discuss the relationship between humans and nature and its ties to capitalism? What role can religion take? How important are imaginaries of the (technological) future? Does the public have the information required to understand the environmental implications of their choices?

As you can see, it was very stimulating.

Check out this website for a perspective.

And the Chaos Computer Club for another.

The papers are all available here so fill your boots.

Open Scholarship, Responsible Research and Innovation and Anticipatory Governance: Event at Kate Hamburger Kolleg, Cultures of Research-RWTH Aachen University (Germany)

This (online) Open Scholarship event will be held on 29 and 30 June 2022, with registration possible by contacting Regular followers may recall that I edited a book with one of the organizers René von Schomberg and that there is a post about his work here on the website.

The following overview has been made available by the organizers:

29 June and 30 June 2020 Käte Hamburger Kolleg (KHK), Cultures of Research, RWTH Aachen University

First Day

10:00 – 10.15 Welcome address Andoni Ibarra, René von Schomberg, Stefan Böschen.(KHK)

10.15 – 10.30 Intro to the first day: René von Schomberg

10:30 – 11.15 Opening up science: a means for responsibility? Clare Shelley-Egan, Technical University of Denmark (DTU)
11.15 – 11. 30 Discussion

11.30 – 12.15 Missions? Quite Possibly! The legacies of rri and RRI in tackling global and local societal challenges, Douglas Robinson (Université Gustave Eiffel, France and CNRS)
12.15 – 12.30 Discussion followed by lunch

14.00 – 14.45 Interpretive multiplicity in Anticipatory Governance. Evidence from 12 countries, Mario Pansera (Universidade de Vigo)
14.45 – 15:00 Discussion

15.00- 15.45 Quadruple Helix Collaborations, the ethics of stakeholder engagement, and the future of responsible innovation, Vincent Blok (Wageningen University)
15.45- 16.00 Discussion

16.15 – 17:00 Roundtable Discussion: lead question, whether open scholarship can make science more reliable, efficient, responsive, inclusive in the incorporation of a broader range of scientific knowledge producers beyond the academic context and facilitte globally organised mission oriented research.

17:00 – 19.00 Key Note: Transition to Open Science, Why and How, Frank Miedema (Vice Rector for Research at Utrecht University and chair of the Utrecht University Open Science Programme)

Second Day (30 June): Anticipatory Governance

10:00 – 10:15 Andoni Ibarra: Introduction to the second day

10.15 – 11.00 The missing component of anticipatory governance, Roberto Poli (University of Trento)
11.00 – 11.15 Discussion

11.15-12.00 Framing RRI in health research domain: the case of MULTI-ACT participatory and anticipatory governance model, Paola Zaratin (Director of Scientific Research, Italian MS Society – Italian MS Foundation, Genoa, Italy)
12.15 – 12.30 Discussion followed by lunch

14.00 – 14.45 Foresight on additive manufacturing in order to support RRI, Marianne Hoerlesberger, Austrian Institute of Technology
14.45 – 15.00 Discussion

15.00 – 16.00 Round Table on Lead questions:
How do we conceptualize ‘anticipation’ in such a way that it leads to open anticipatory governance? What is the significance of anticipatory governance for Open Science and Responsible Research and Innovation? What are the narratives of open anticipatory governance in different institutional and organizational settings?
How can we assess Anticipatory Governance? How can mission-oriented research be best practiced as part of facilitating anticipatory governance?

16.00 – 16.05 Closing of the Workshop.

I will be there, it looks really interesting.

Conferences and their Environmental Impacts

Audience listens to the lecturer at a conference

International science and business conferences often involve flying large numbers of people across the world, but what about the solution of online only or hybrid online/in-person events? Last week I attended a sustainable research conference that was offered as a hybrid, with physical presence as well as online offered. A great idea at first sight.

A hybrid conference is not as organizationally simple as one might think as they are technically complex. Fully online conferences are easier to organize, but they run into time-zone problems, and the hybrid solution risks building a two-tear scientific community: those who travel, network and socialize in person, and those who attend from their own homes or offices.

This may have implications, as those attending in person benefit from knowledge exchange and networking to a greater extent, which may be not only advantageous for their scientific development but also for their careers.

On the other hand, those travelling for work (through no choice of their own) may feel that they should not be, which could bring personal and psychological problems.

As part of ongoing research into the environmental consequences of conference-going, last week’s attendees were all asked to complete a questionnaire so that the environmental implications of their in-person attendance could be measured. Questions addressed how they had travelled, were they staying overnight and which food choices they had made, all of which can be used to generate data.

And here lies the difficult question.

I learned a lot from attending, I grew my network and I enjoyed myself. I left rejuvenated! If I had the choice, I would not give up on attending conferences, because I believe that at the end of the day there is more to gain from attending in person than from following online, even at such a well-organized and participatory event that even included desk yoga.

Learning Includes the fact that attending led me to interrogate myself and my own actions and choices when presented the possibility of presenting or attending a conference either online or in person, and discuss these contradictory feelings with others who face the same conundrum, in a relaxed social setting.

But how much gain is there from personal attendance in relation to the environmental impact. Flying is unavoidable for many, but we all know that CO2 emissions are enormous from such trips.

In my experience conferences have often been the starting points for projects and even books. It is very difficult to imagine how calculations could be made that took gain (or possible gain) into account in relation to pollution though. What is the value of publishing a book or participating in a project?

The EU stopped funding travel during COVID, so we were all in some way forced to attend conferences virtually. But now that conferences are once again appearing in person, how can we make decisions about whether to attend or not?