Sustainability, SAP, and Design...

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – July 7, 2011 • Original article

Sustainability has been a prominent topic in the "real" world for decades, but has also become more visible in the HCI community in recent years. For me, however, sustainability is a fairly new topic in the context of UI design: My recent review of Nathan Shedroff's book Design is the Problem constituted my first encounter with it. The review was also the very first article on the SAP Design Guild Website that was devoted to sustainability. With this more personal article, I would like to continue my sustainability engagement in the UI design field on the SAP Design Guild. I will start the article with listing a number of sustainability activities at SAP and at SAP User Experience, in particular. I will continue with some remarks about the coverage of sustainability at HCI conferences and finally look for an orientation in which to range the work that is presented there. Such an orientation would also be useful for assessing other sustainability activities in the UI design field.


Sustainability at SAP

Peter Graf

Figure 1: Peter Graf, Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) and Executive Vice President of Sustainability Solutions, SAP

At SAP, sustainability has become a firm ingredient of the company philosophy and culture. As an example, Peter Graf was appointed Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) and Executive Vice President of Sustainability Solutions, SAP, in 2009. Graf is responsible "for developing sustainable solutions that best serve the needs of SAP's global customers, while also driving sustainable operations within SAP," as he states in his biography on the company Website.

Moreover, a network of "sustainability champions," the Sustainability Champions Community, is currently established at SAP company sites all over the world, consisting of already more than 120 SAP employees from manifold teams. Its objective is to help transform SAP into a role model for sustainability, which is one of SAP's two sustainability goals. SAP's second sustainability goal is to be an enabler by leading the market in providing sustainability solutions. These are intended to empower its customers to:

  • Employ best practices in sustainability performance management, including risk management and strategy management
  • Reduce compliance costs and business risk (people, health, and safety; product safety and stewardship; environmental compliance)
  • Reduce risk and compliance costs for recycling administration
  • Optimize energy and natural resource efficiency (by using an advanced metering infrastructure, among others)
  • Provide greater transparency in carbon management efforts
  • Establish Green IT practices
  • And more...

For details on SAP's sustainability strategy, please visit the sustainability section on the SAP company Website. There you will also find a link to view SAP's sustainability report for 2009. This is already SAP's third annual sustainability report and is reported to "set a new standard for reporting and tying sustainability to business goals." The two previous reports from 2008 and 2007 are also available from the report's site.


Sustainability at SAP User Experience

There are also a number of sustainability activities going on at SAP User Experience. The most prominent of them, at least in the public, are probably Dan Rosenberg's keynotes on sustainability topics that he held at various conferences (Rosenberg is Senior Vice President of SAP User Experience):

Dan Rosenberg       Janaki Kumar

Figure 2-4: Dan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President, SAP User Experience (left), Christine Ronnewinkel, SAP User Experience (center), and Janaki Kumar, SAP BusinessObjects User Experience (right)

Recently, a team dedicated exclusively to sustainability in the context of UI design and led by Janaki Kumar, SAP Labs, Palo Alto, USA, was established at SAP BusinessObjects User Experience. In addition, Christine Ronnewinkel and Janaki Kumar will jointly chair a session on sustainability titled "Sustainability: Future Roles, Responsibilities, and Opportunities for the HCI Profession" at the DUXU 2011 conference. DUXU 2011 will be held in Orlando, FL, USA, under the umbrella of the HCI International 2011 conference and will be organized by Aaron Marcus (Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A)), who will probably also participate in the sustainability session. Marcus is active in the sustainability field himself and currently focuses on the question of how to motivate, persuade, educate, and lead people to reduce their energy consumption. For investigations in this direction, Marcus and his company AM+A created a concept prototype of a mobile phone application, the "Green Machine." For more information about the "Green Machine," watch Marcus' presentation at Stanford University.

Last but not least, the SAP Design Guild team plans to accompany the sustainability session at DUXI 2011 and publish a number of sustainability-related articles, which may be compiled in a highlight topic afterwards, provided that a sufficient number of articles is available.


Sustainability at Design Conferences

As the sustainability session organized by SAP UX colleagues indicates, the topic of sustainability has become a consistent ingredient of HCI and design conferences in recent years. To pick a personal example, sustainability was quite prominent at the DIS 2010 conference in Aarhus, Denmark, that I attended this year (see my DIS 2010 report), albeit not all of those presentations appeared under the label of "sustainability."

The presentations at DIS 2010 covered various sustainability aspects, but, at a closer look, one thing emerged: Most of them focused on the above-mentioned aspect of persuading people, or as I have also read, "nudging" people towards some desirable, that is, more sustainable behavior. Often, devices play a central role in these projects, for example, devices that display energy consumption in an understandable and omnipresent way (this also connects to the field of "smart metering"). At the DIS 2010 conference several such devices were presented – Marcus' already mentioned "Green Machine" is another example of this. Other persuasive approaches set out to change people's behavior directly. Yvonne Rogers reported a number of "persuasive" projects in her DIS 2010 keynote, such as embedding lights in the floor to drive people toward using the stairs instead of the elevator. Her Change project, which includes the Tidy Street project (aims at energy reduction at the street level, not at the personal level), has its intent already it its title... See the references for links to Yvonne Rogers' projects.

Energy AWARE clock    Watt Lite    Widgets for monitoring the sleep state of laptops

Figure 5-7: Devices for monitoring energy consumption easily (presented at DIS 2010): Energy AWARE clock for households, Watt-Lite for factories, and two Widgets (Coralog and Timelog) for monitoring the sleep mode on a computer


Looking for a Sustainability Framework

Having observed that at least a considerable fraction of sustainability-related conference papers focuses on changing people's behavior, I asked myself, whether there is a general framework available: one, which allows me to range conference papers and other sustainability activities and thus get a better appreciation of their relevance. After reading and reviewing Nathan Shedroff's book The Design is the Problem, I believe that I have – at least for me – found such a framework in the following distinctions that Shedroff makes:

  • Reduce – strategies for reducing material and energy impacts
  • Reuse – strategies for making solutions last longer and finding other uses when product use has finished
  • Recycle – strategies for easier product recycling
  • Restore – the need to rethink systems in order to gain positive results
  • Process, (or Politics, as I would say) – describes how sustainability can be inserted into existing development processes, how to measure results and how to communicate them

For details regarding the categories, see my review of the book.

According to this framework, most of the projects at the DIS 2010 and many other HCI and design conferences belong to the "reduce" category, because they set out to influence people to consume less, for example, less energy. Projects in this category may be relevant and effective, but they represent only a fraction of the activities that are needed to achieve our sustainability goals. Therefore, I would like to caution designers who present their projects at conferences to be modest in their claims and take into account that their approach covers only a limited aspect of sustainability. On the other hand, we can also see that the approach of persuading people offers a lot of opportunities beyond reduction: Reuse and recycle also come into play, as well as the more advanced categories of restore (a change in thinking) and process (a change in processes). It may also be useful to think about the different roles of people and their roles within those categories in order to look for more opportunities for designers. I demonstrate this idea with a matrix of categories and roles below and start with three roles: the designer to whom Shedroff dedicated his book, the engineer/manager as a placeholder for the people to build the product or service and enable its production, and the consumer, that is, who we usually call "people." Please note that this is just a first crude sketch of my ideas!

Category Description Designer Engineer/Developer* Manager* Consumer
Reduce Strategies for reducing material and energy impacts Design for lower use of resources (materials, energy, ...) Build products in ways that less resources are consumed (materials, energy, ...) Enable and support changes in the manufacturing process toward less consumption of resources and energy Change behavior toward less resource consumption and less consumption in general
Reuse Strategies for making solutions last longer and finding other uses when product use has finished Design products that last longer, have higher quality, etc. Build products that last longer, have higher quality, etc. Enable and support strategy changes toward producing longer lasting products of higher quality Change behavior toward buying quality products and reusing products
Recycle Strategies for easier product recycling Design products so that these can be recycled easily (disassembled easily, no toxic components, etc.) Build products so that these can be recycled easily (disassembled, no toxic components, etc.) Enable and support changes in the production process that make recycling easier Change behavior toward recycling waste and buying recyclable and non-toxic products**
Restore Rethink systems in order to gain positive results Think (and listen)! Listen (and think as well...)! Listen (and think as well...)! Think and listen!
Process Insert sustainability into existing development processes, measure results and communicate them See Shedroff's book on the role of the designer in this aspect – he sees designers as forerunners here... Ditto Ditto Take "results" such as sustainability certificates into account and reflect this in your buying behavior

*) More or less placeholders (the executing and leading people) and in a sense complements to the designer
**) Can be influenced, for example, through the use of sustainability certificates


A Systems Perspective on Sustainability

There is one more interesting aspect in the restore/process corner that I would like to approach using a detour. In an Interactions article from 2009, titled User Centered Is Off Center, Eric Schweikardt questions the current user-centered design approach (UCD), which dominates HCI since Donald Norman coined the term in his book "The Design of Everyday Things" (originally called "The Psychology of Everyday Things") in 1986. Schweikardt writes:

  • "User-centered design is wrong. But the current myopic view of a designer's responsibilities is not anyone's fault. I don't believe people make shortsighted decisions out of laziness, but because they lack the appropriate tools and information to make better ones. It's not trivial, for example, for designers to accurately predict the side effects of using plastic or paper wrapping on a product because the network of impacts and stakeholders involved in these decisions can be mind-numbingly dense. Not only do we suffer from a lack of design theory that takes emergent, complex systems into account, but we also lack solid analytical theories of these systems." ... "Now, after a period of intense focus on the user, it may appear that I am advocating a return to the old days of cutting costs and materials. But this is not the whole story. I am advocating a balanced design process that considers as many factors as possible instead of focusing foremost on the end users's needs. Design is by nature a series of trade-offs, and while every situation is unique, always trading in favor of the user is rarely a smart idea."

As far as I have learned, the only response that Schweikardt received on his article was from Don Norman who told him that he seemed to have misunderstood the concept of UCD. Nonetheless, I believe that Schweikardt is right in pointing to the fact that there are more aspects to design, in particular, when physical artifacts are involved, than the needs and goals of the users.

This finally leads me to my second take-away from Shedroff's book, his emphasis on the fact that we need to take a systems perspective when dealing with sustainability. "Systems perspective" simply means that for finding viable answers to sustainability questions, we need to take the whole system (and all of its influence factors) into account. This is just the opposite of simple, and more or less impossible. However, the more we strive for a systems perspective, the better our answers and solutions will be – even though they will still be incomplete. I do not want to dig deeper into this complex matter, only highlight: It is a good habit to always keep in mind that a "systems perspective" is required. For a first impression of what a systems perspective involves, it is helpful to read through some of the examples in Shedroff's book where he asks: "What is better – a paper bag or a plastic bag, a conventional car or a hybrid car, and so on?" You will quickly learn that even seemingly simple questions (with seemingly obvious answers) do not have easy answers!



My third take-away from Shedroff's book is his view of the role of the designer with respect to sustainability, which is more or less the topic of the whole book. Read my review of Shedroff's book for a first impression of his view of the designer, which I would call somewhat elitist... Nevertheless, this book is a good starting point for designers to learn more about the topic of sustainability in the context of (UI) design. So, this might be the fourth take-away in my article...

To sum up, I have listed sustainability activities at SAP and SAP User Experience, written about sustainability as a topic at HCI and design conferences, and concluded my article with looking for some orientation as to the various sustainability activities. I found this guidance in two take-aways from Nathan Shedroff's book Design is the Problem, namely the five categories of sustainability strategies and the need to be aware of maintaining a systems perspective: Do not trust easy and quick answers to even simple sustainability questions.





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