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Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably – Part 6: Replacing Physical Objects with Virtual (Digital) Ones

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – September 27, 2011

In a series of six articles with the motto, "Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably", I investigate how designers – particularly user interface (UI), user experience (UX), and interaction (IxD) designers – can help make a company's workforce behave more sustainably. In this, the sixth and final article in my series, I will look at the "replacing physical objects with virtual (digital) ones" action item. This primarily constitutes a reduction strategy, and I will therefore also look briefly at related reduction strategies.

 

Introducing Action Item Number Four: Replacing Physical Objects with Virtual (Digital) Ones

The following reduced version of the "action field/sustainability aspect" matrix from my second article illustrates where this action item is applicable:

 
Sustainability Aspect
 Action Field
Reduce
Restore/Rethink
Commute & Travel

***

 

Resource, Energy, and Waste Management

Replacing physical objects with virtual (digital) ones

Replacing physical objects with virtual (digital) ones

Much like other action items, this one fits the reduce aspect in Shedroff's (2009) scheme of sustainability aspects best. Since this item also provides challenging puzzles for designers to think about, I have also assigned it to the restore/rethink aspect.

The symbol "***" in the matrix indicates that matters may not always be as simple as they appear at first glance. In a broader sense, we might conceive the use of groupware as replacing our physical colleagues with their digital representations.

 

Strategies for Reducing Material and Energy Impacts

In the main part of my article, I will focus on reduction. The following selection of reduction strategies from Shedroff's 2009 book Design is the Problem provides a good starting point:

  • Dematerialization: Reduction of the amount of materials and energy used in a design solution
  • Substitution: Substitution of materials/energy with other materials/energy that are/is more sustainable with respect to various characteristics (weight, toxicity, energy/resource consumption, and so on)
  • Transmaterialization (or servicing): Transforming a product into a service
  • Informationalization: Sending the information instead of the product

Next, I will briefly explain what Shedroff means by these terms, add some ideas of my own where appropriate, and reframe each of the strategies as a "replacement strategy" to align them with the title of my article.

Dematerialization

Dematerialization refers to the reduction of the amount of materials and energy used in a design solution. One might say that the resources that are no longer needed are "replaced by nothing". According to Shedroff (2009), "anything developers can do to reduce the amount of materials and energy in a solution will reduce – sometimes dramatically – the impact it has on resources and the environment." Gains can also have a multiplying effect. For example, a lighter product also has a positive impact on packaging and transportation. Sometimes, new solutions may even make other products simpler, lighter, or even superfluous, and thus dematerialize them, too. There are, of course, natural limits to this strategy and, in order to achieve more gains, one has to reframe and rethink the problem and turn to one of the other reduction strategies.

Substitution

Substitution refers to the replacement of materials or energy with other materials or energy that are/is more sustainable with respect to various characteristics (weight, toxicity, consumption, and so on). Thus, in this approach, resources are "replaced by other resources" that help reduce the negative impacts on the environment. Sometimes, substitution can also lead to reduced liability and risk, for example, when toxic materials are replaced by less toxic ones. However, like dematerialization, substitution has its limits. Some materials cannot be replaced, particularly not in electronic components. Substitution can also have unwanted side-effects if the new materials do not have the same quality or characteristics as the original ones.

Transmaterialization (Servicing)

According to Shedroff (2009), transmaterialization (also called servicing) is "the process of turning a product into a service". This reduction strategy is probably the hardest one to understand and explain. Shedroff himself presents examples to illustrate the point, some of which – like car rental services – have become a commercial success, while others – such as a carpet rental service – have not.

I would, however, like to present another example of servicing – one that has recently become a trend on the Internet: moving to the cloud. Instead of buying external hard disks to store their digital data, people are increasingly subscribing to offerings from Internet providers and storing their data "in the cloud". Thus, they moving from using a product – a physical hard drive – to using a service, in this case, the provision of disk space in the cloud. People profit from this move in several respects: They save on electronic equipment; they do not need to backup their data regularly; they do not need to buy new hard disks when they run out of storage; and so on. On the other hand, they do need to change their habits and attitudes. In particular, they have to reconsider what "trust" means for them. There are many open questions connected with moving to the cloud: 'Is my data safe?' 'What will happen to my data if the cloud malfunctions?' Is my private data really private?' Younger people seem to have concepts of trust and privacy that differ from those of older people like me and, thus, seem more willing to make the transition to the cloud. Last but not least, the environmental impact of moving to the cloud is still unresolved for me...

What is replaced when products are transformed into services? Firstly, it is the business model and customers' habits and attitudes. Secondly, less efficient solutions, which are – hopefully – replaced by more efficient ones, leading to an overall environmental gain. In a sense, transmaterialization looks like a harbinger of the following strategy, informationalization: Our data has become more or less virtual for us in the cloud...

Informationalization

In the words of Shedroff (2009), "informationalization is all about sending the message, the recipe, the data, whenever and wherever the physical thing itself can be replicated at the destination." He cites Coca-Cola as a successful and well-known example of the recipe strategy. Instead of distributing bottles to every corner of the globe out of Atlanta, USA, around the world, Coca-Cola sends its original, secret recipe to factories all over the world, which replicate and bottle Coca-Cola for sale locally. He mentions email as another good example of informationalization: "While we can't send everything through email that we once sent via physical mail, most of what we communicate doesn't require physical material – especially business correspondence where sentiment isn't as important – opening the opportunity to communicate digitally at a vastly lower environmental impact." Email has indeed dramatically changed the way in which we work and do business.

Thus, with informationalization, I have finally arrived at what the title of this article refers to: replacing physical objects with virtual or digital ones. As I write this sentence, however, I realize that this is not quite a correct description of what actually happens. A more precise formulation would be: Replacing physical objects with informational – analog or digital – representations. In simple terms, I might say that we "replace objects with information" and might also modify Shedroff's original statement to: "Informationalization is all about transmitting the information about a physical object instead of the object itself."

Shedroff's highlighting of the "message" aspect and his recipe example make it evident that he attributes the environmental gains from the reduction strategy of informationalization primarily to the savings made with respect to transportation and distribution. However, you can also apply this strategy to storage. I will discuss why and under what conditions below.

 

More on Informationalization...

I will now take a closer look at the reduction strategy of informationalization and ask where its gains eventually come from and why the strategy can also lead to gains with respect to storage.

Digression to Media

Before I can answer these questions, I need to digress a little. Among the things that have been successfully "informationalized" are transient sensory data like sound, speech, music, static images, and dynamic visual scenes. Initially, I was puzzled about why and how the strategy of informationalization can be applied to something that is already information (or data). I solved this puzzle by considering that, in this case, the new information does not replace the original, transient information directly – it replaces the physical instantiations of the original information. Over the millennia, humans have invented numerous ways of "capturing" – or representing – auditory and visual sensory data, and these techniques have become an indispensable element of our civilization. Many offer the additional benefit of allowing humans to capture, distribute, and store – even for future generations – their "internal" data (thoughts, ideas, and visions, and so on). For the sake of simplicity, I will collectively call all these physical instantiations of sensory and internal data "media". Interestingly, many people do not even distinguish between media and information, for example, between the physical object "book" and the information that it contains.

I should perhaps replace the term "physical objects" with the term "physical entities" in the definition of informationalization so that it reads: "Informationalization is all about transmitting the information about a physical entity instead of the entity itself". This would better accommodate media in the definition and make it more general.

Where Do the Savings Eventually Come from?

According to Shedroff, the savings gained through informationalization relate to the savings made during transportation. Sending the recipe for rebuilding an object consumes significantly fewer resources and energy than sending the object itself. The recipe example also suggests that the savings are, to a large degree, derived from dematerialization during transportation. However, these savings need to be balanced against the cost of reconstructing the object at the location where it is to be used. And even information like a recipe needs some physical or energetic medium to reside, be distributed, and stored in. It does not vanish into nothing... This also holds for information like sensory and internal data, which is instantiated in media. The following example suggests that for media, too, the savings originate from dematerialization for the sake of transportation and distribution. However, here, the savings also extend to storage:

  • Even a traditional phonograph record is much smaller and more easily transported, distributed, and stored than an orchestra of several dozens of musicians who travel by bus or airplane and need to live somewhere.
  • This applies much more so to a compact disk, and even more so to an mp3 file, with the latter being transmitted over the Internet and stored on a private computer's hard disk or even in the cloud.

This example also suggests that additional savings and, thus, environmental gains arise from the more efficient informationalization achieved by newer media in comparison with older media. This is were the digital revolution comes in, because it repeatedly changes the media that we use. But perhaps more importantly, it also changes our attitudes and behavior towards them, as I will briefly discuss below. By the way, the mp3 file is also an example of where we can employ existing devices to use and store information, leading to even greater savings.

Finally, I need to answer the question of what happens if information is transmitted through the air, the vacuum, or the Internet. In this case, the physical entities "dematerialize" into energy (this looks like the opposite of what I described as "materializing energy" in my previous article...). This does not mean, however, that the environmental impact of this process falls to zero – it is just much harder to grasp and sometimes also a lot more difficult to calculate.

Dimensions of Informational Representations

The practice of replacing physical objects with informational representations has a long history. The story actually began with analog representations – construction drawings and phonograph records are two such examples. Representations become digital when information is stored in a digital format or – in simple terms – as numbers. For example, loudness values can be sampled and the numbers digitized and stored on a computer (this is called an analog-digital conversion). Digital representations are increasingly replacing analog representations, particularly because they can be easily used and manipulated in computers.

Another distinction is the one between symbolic (or descriptive) and iconic (or depictive) representations. The latter are also called pictures or images in the visual dimension and auditory pictures in the acoustic dimension. Symbolic representations can be considered as "descriptions" of objects or "instructions" for doing something (for example, for recreating an object), whereas iconic representations try to capture the object itself without any description or interpretation (this should not be taken too seriously, however). For example, text-based descriptions are "symbolic" representations, whereas a photo or an analog music recording is a "picture" of the object.

Analog representations are based on physical properties such as length, size, lightness, loudness, warmth, and so on. Digital representations are based on numbers, particularly binary ones, which are stored as "ones" and "zeros" in a physical device like a CD or as bits on a computer, either in the RAM memory or on devices such as hard disks. Thus, text is considered as a symbolic analog representation when it appears on paper, whereas it turns into a symbolic digital representation when it is stored on a computer. The table below provides an overview of the dimensions and lists examples of the four cases that I have described:

Coding Analog Digital
Symbolic, descriptive Text on paper Text on computer
Iconic (picture, auditory picture), depictive Photo on paper, music on tape or disk Photo on computer, music on CD, music on computer

Table: Dimensions of representations, with examples

Efficiency of Informational Representations – The Role of Digital Compression Techniques

Why is it important to look at the different types of representations in the context of sustainability? The answer is that representations differ in their effectiveness and efficiency. First of all, the purpose determines which type of representation is chosen for the sake of effectiveness and efficiency. This subject has been intensively discussed in the relevant literature, and further discussion would exceed the scope of this article. However, representations also differ with respect to their environmental impact or efficiency, particularly in terms of the physical medium used. A simple example is an early phonograph record compared with a modern CD – actually, I am unsure about which one really is more environmentally friendly in terms of production, distribution, and storage.

I would like to further illuminate this point with the example of digital compression techniques. Both symbolic and iconic representations can be captured in analog media like books or in digital media like CDs or computer memory. In the following, I will take a closer look at digital media. As a general rule, symbolic representations are much more efficient from a storage point of view than iconic ones – think of a simple textual description like a recipe, which may consist of only a few hundreds bytes. Iconic representations, on the other hand, usually consume a lot of storage space. This leads me to the role of digital compression techniques in influencing the efficiency of representations. Compression means that the amount of storage space is reduced, and there are basically two ways of achieving this:

  • Lossless compression: Keeps the information integer; achieves compression rates of about 1:2
  • Lossy compression: Tries to keep the "sensory impression" of the information integer; achieves compression rates of 1:10 and significantly higher, depending on the desired output quality

Since symbolic information such as a text or the content of a computer's hard disk is extremely sensitive to changes, it can only be compressed losslessly, whereas iconic information can also be compressed with losses. Here, the compression rate and, thus, the amount of lost information that can be tolerated, depends on the purpose and the quality that one wants to maintain. Thus, to a certain degree, the inefficient storage of iconic information can be compensated for by using more efficient lossy compression techniques and higher compression rates.

Compression techniques are a good example of how new informationalization techniques are changing human behaviors and attitudes. The recent mass adoption of photo, music, and video-sharing sites would not have been possible without the respective advances in digital compression techniques for iconic representations.

How Informationalization – and Our Behaviors – Changes Over Time

Having traced the path from types of informational representations and their efficiency to the role of digital compression techniques for efficiency, I have suggested that there is a relationship between ever-changing informationalization techniques and the corresponding human behaviors and attitudes. I would like to substantiate this relationship with two more examples: computers and music. The computer example shows how human behaviors change as more media become informationalized, whereas the music example demonstrates how advances in the informationalization of one medium – music – affect human behaviors.

To begin with, computers were purely "symbolic" devices. People regarded them as "number crunchers" (I programmed my first computers – what else was there to do with them?). Later, thanks to the respective software, computers also became "word processors" but were still seen in the symbolic domain. This view was also reflected in the ways people interacted with them – think of command-line user interfaces. Gradually, however, iconic representations found their way into computers, which, thanks to photo, music, and video editing software, now also transformed into "image processors", "music editors", and more. On the interaction side, this trend started with classic graphical user interfaces (GUIs) about 25 years ago and still continues with the appearance of increasingly sophisticated user interfaces boasting advanced visual and acoustic effects. Today, computers have turned into flexible media machines that allow us to use all kinds of media – only very few people still program their computers. But, as I have already mentioned, without substantial advances in digital compression techniques for iconic representations, the recent mass adoption of photo, music, and video-sharing sites would not have been possible. Technical and behavioral changes go hand in hand.

Music is another good example for illustrating how the techniques for informationalizing a specific medium – and also how our behaviors and attitudes toward it – have changed over time:

  • If you wanted to hear music in the 19th century, you had to attend a live performance (though music automata did already exist).
  • In the early 20th century, you could go to a shop and buy a phonograph record, which had been brought there by rail or road. Later, analog disks were shrunk to digital compact disks, but the basic distribution process remained the same.
  • At the beginning of the 21st century, mp3 and other digital audio compression formats made a separate physical medium for music obsolete: People purchased music in online stores and downloaded it to their computers or music players. Note that the new distribution model also required new (lossy but adequate) compression techniques.
  • These days, many people don't even store music on their computers; instead, they stream it to their computers from the cloud as and when they need it.
    Note that a similar principle already existed at the beginning of the 20th century: broadcasting. However, the key difference was that the radio stations determined which music was played (but you could record it and store it on a tape or cassette).

What comes next? Ask the visionaries! For example, take a look at Bruce Sterling's book, Shaping Things, (read the review) for possible options...

Finally, I should shed some light on why I have chosen to discuss the relationship between ever-changing informationalization techniques and the corresponding human behaviors and attitudes. I will do so in the concluding section, which is devoted to informationalization in the workplace.

 

Informationalization in the Workplace

Finally, it is time to discuss at least some aspects of informationalization in the workplace. Informationalization has been happening in the workplace for decades already, and one might be tempted to ask whether any potential actually remains. However, anyone who has experienced how dramatically the work environment has changed over the last 10 to 20 years will be confident that this revolution will continue.

Savings in the Workplace

On a global level, savings through informationalization in the workplace have been achieved in the areas of production, transportation (distribution), and storage, and this will remain so in the future. Primarily, the savings relate to dematerialization effects, as already described in this article. In the production sector, which has not yet been covered here, resources can be saved, for example, because documentation is no longer supplied on paper. There can also be positive side-effects in the production sector, for example, when toxic or other dangerous materials no longer need to be used. In the case of a software company like SAP, the production aspect may not be as important as in the producing industry. Nevertheless, software presents another possible application of informationalization: It can be sold online and distributed over the Internet – geographic distance no longer plays a role here. The next step is already on its way. The software of the future will no longer be stored on local computers: It will remain in the cloud instead – with customers renting it as a service. Global companies may also benefit from the "recipe" strategy internally – by distributing instructions between locations instead of the physical objects.

On a more concrete level, which has greater relevance in the context of this article, I would assume that companies benefit from informationalization primarily in the media sector. For example, the aforementioned introduction of email resulted in a dramatic reduction in physical mail, both in-house and external. Email has indeed become one of the most frequently used communication tools in the business world. However, the sheer volume of email and chat traffic in companies also causes negative side-effects, to which I will briefly turn below. Email is a special kind of groupware and, as I already stated at the beginning, all groupware can be regarded as a kind of informationalization that, for example, allows employees to take part in global meetings that would otherwise have required travel and thus consumed significantly more resources and energy.

Manuals and other documentation have also been "informationalized" in the work environment – and not only there. These materials are now distributed in PDF or other electronic formats and are rarely printed out. The next step would be to "informationalize" books within companies. This would, however, require new licensing models and a substantial change in the willingness of employees to read longer texts online, which is still not the preferred reading style.

Employee self-services and e-learning (which I regard as a sort of self-service) are another area that I would consider as a form of informationalization. Instead of being able to benefit from the services of dedicated colleagues, employees are required to use self-service applications and an electronic workflow. In the case of e-learning, they watch instructional videos instead of listening to teachers in the classroom, and they gather all the missing information over the Internet, instead of consulting books and manuals.

Some Caveats

In some ways, it would seem that informationalization is the solution to many of our sustainability issues. But appearances may be deceptive, because there are also some caveats and side-effects to consider. I would like to present a small collection of them below.

Shedroff (2009) promotes informationalization with the example of "sending the recipe". However, as every amateur chef will tell you, following a recipe may not lead to the desired results (even if there is a photo in the cook book). The instructions and ingredients for reconstructing the original object need to meet certain requirements. Regrettably, Shedroff does not discuss the risks of the "recipe" strategy. It looks as if it would only work well for simple products like Coca-Cola. Even for beer, it does not seem to work reliably, probably because the ingredients cannot be controlled effectively enough. More complex objects like cameras or computers are usually still shipped around the world, while, in the case of cars, we can find both local and global production approaches. Thus, the message seems to be that each case for a possible application of the "recipe strategy" needs to be checked in both directions.

Another caveat is "hidden costs", which are often overlooked and are also hard to calculate. Examples of these are the energy consumption of computers and of the Internet, including huge server farms that are operated by search engines like Google. According to the BBC, "a recent study by American research firm Gartner suggested that IT now causes two percent of global emissions." This figure clearly demonstrates that the energy consumption of computers and computer networks cannot be neglected. With respect to the individual level, the BBC also reported on a study by Wissner-Gross, who claimed that two Google searches on a desktop computer produce 14g of carbon dioxide, which is roughly the equivalent of boiling an electric kettle (Google contradicted this claim). As a message to take home, we need to note that energy consumption through informationalization is considerable and will grow in the future. The savings from informationalization need to be balanced against these costs.

And there are more side-effects of informationalization: As I already pointed out, technological changes lead to changes in human behaviors and attitudes. For example, the "explosion" of email and chat traffic in companies can have negative side-effects. Employees are disturbed and impeded in their work if they look into their email inbox or chats too often. Some companies have even published guidelines on using email efficiently. Companies also ask employees not to print documents and emails in order to save paper. Some colleagues join in and add a remark to their emails asking the receiver to consider the environmental impact when printing the email.

In the self-service/e-learning area, we find a combined effect of rationalization, resource-saving, and – last but not least – changed habits: Employees are taking on tasks that they did not previously perform in the past and they are also more focused on their computers. This can lead to the side-effect that they perform their regular work less efficiently. In the context of transmaterialization, I also mentioned changes in human behaviors and attitudes with respect to privacy and constant availability, which are valid for informationalization as well. Overall, the quality of work, the ability to user proper language, and the ability to focus on one subject are all issues that can be affected by changes in the work environment through informationalization. They need to be taken seriously and considered in a broader context in which the positive and negative impacts of informationalization are considered from a systemic point of view.

The Role of Designers

This article series is about the role of designers in pursuing the overall goal of making a company's workforce behave more sustainably. However, when looking at the discussion in this article, it seems hard to discover obvious areas of attack for designers. It looks as if the gains attributed to informationalization (and related reduction strategies) are solely derived from technical advances. First, I would like to point out that in any of the technical areas where advances are made, designers can play a significant role in further optimizing technical solutions and adapting them to human needs. This also facilitates the adoption of new, more sustainable technologies by employees. The second aspect is related to the approach to the topic of the previous article, persuasive design. There, I presented projects in which designers explored how they could "nudge" people's attitudes and behaviors in a desired direction, namely toward more sustainable behavior. With respect to informationalization, designers can play a pioneering role, as they already do in many other areas. They can take the opportunity to experiment with new ways of replacing objects with information, confront people with new ideas and technical solutions, and explore how people engage with them. Together with people – at home, in public, and in the workplace – they can design the future. Thus, there is also enough room left for the restore/rethink aspect. And, last but not least, this prospect also answers the question of why I chose to discuss the relationship between ever-changing informationalization techniques and the corresponding human behaviors and attitudes – this is at the core of the designers' work.

 

Final Word

This concludes my tour de force through action fields for designers who are endeavoring to make a company's workforce behave more sustainably. I identified four possible action items for designers and discussed them in the article series:

  1. Designing for remote collaboration and communication
  2. Using ambient displays to support awareness of remote colleagues
  3. Using persuasive design/technology
  4. Replacing physical objects with virtual (digital) ones

I would like to add that there are definitely more action fields than those I have identified. Moreover, design solutions are only one element in the overall game – I have, for example, pointed to administrative and technical approaches that can be pursued together with or instead of design approaches. In my first article in this series, I also listed organizational issues as another action field. However, I did not discuss these any further because they lie more or less outside the designers' sphere of influence.

On the one hand, the action items I have discussed are rather divergent. On the other, I was also able to find numerous connections between them. All in all, I hope that readers have found this excursion into sustainability in the workplace both useful and interesting to read.

 

References

SAP

References

Books

  • Nathan Shedroff (2009). Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. Rosenfeld Media • ISBN: 1-933820-00-4 (Paperback + PDF), ISBN: 1-933820-01-2 (2 PDF editions) • Review
  • Bruce Sterling (2005). Shaping Things. MIT Press • ISBN: 0262693267 (Paperback), ISBN: 026219533X (Hardcover) • Review

 

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