Environmental Sustainability

Broadly, our research in environmental sustainability explores social aspects of communication around eco-feedback technologies. Another aspect of our research focuses in on problems around energy consumption faced by low income and renter households. Take a look at the sub-projects below and contact us if you have overlapping interests, or are interested in working on some of the projects listed.

This project contains the following sub-projects:

  • Environmental Sustainability, Socioeconomic Status and other Demographic Factors
  • Footprints | Stepgreen
  • Broader topics in sustainability


  • Environmental Sustainability, Socioeconomic Status and other Demographic Factors

    While much of the research in eco-feedback either implicitly or explicitly focuses on relatively affluent homeowners, there are many unique problems that arise when looking at low-income communities, tenants and landlords, children, and diverse cultural groups. Some of our research projects have explored these issues.
    • Empirical environment and behavior research has found that empathy improves environmental attitudes and behaviors. Emotionally persuasive icons (EPIs) show promise for creating empathy and for the design of effective eco-feedback technologies, particularly among children. Yet studies using these icons have focused on adults, with little research devoted to eco-feedback design for children. We explore the affective reactions to EPIs among children ages 9–11. To understand which types of EPIs generate the most empathy, we vary them in two dimensions: (1) metaphorical versus literal representations and (2) animal scenes versus environmental scenes. Our findings suggest that the impact of EPIs extends beyond metaphorical or literal images; to improve eco-feedback technologies that employ EPIs, designers must link the causes and effects of climate change to concrete, tangible actions that are associated with personal experiences, which could lead to stronger engagement and emotional responses among children. These results are consistent with the construal level theory of psychological distance, which is the cognitive and affective perception of how close or far something is. We extend this theory to sustainable HCI and contribute a space for future eco-feedback design among children.
    • An increasing number of researchers are using social engagement techniques such as neighborhood comparison and competition to encourage energy conservation, yet community reception and experience with such systems have not been well studied. We also find that researchers have not thoroughly investigated how different households use these systems and how their uses differ from one another. We explore these questions in a 4-10 month field deployment of a social-energy monitoring application across 15 households, in two distinct locations. We contribute results that describe conditions under which these techniques were effective and ineffective. Our results imply that understanding factors such as a building, or community's layout, context knowledge of community members, accountability and adherence to social norms, trust, and length of residence are key for future design of social-energy applications.
    • Deep Conservation in Urban India and its Implications for the Design of Conservation Technologies

      Shrinivasan, Y., Jain, M., Seetharam, D., Choudhary, A., Huang, E., Dillahunt, T., Mankoff, J.
      Rapid depletion of fossil fuels and water resources has become an international problem. Urban residential households are among the primary consumers of resources and are deeply affected by resource shortages. Despite the global nature of these problems, most of the solutions being developed to address these issues are based on studies done in the developed world. We present a study of energy, water and fuel conservation practices in urban India. Our study highlights a culture of deep conservation and the results raise questions about the viability of typical solutions such as home energy monitors. We identify new opportunities for design such as point-of-use feedback technologies, modular solutions, distributed energy storage, harnessing by-products and automated load shifting.
    • Energy use in the home is a topic of increasing interest and concern, and one on which technology can have a significant impact. However, existing work typically focuses on moderately affluent homeowners who have relative autonomy with respect to their home, or does not address socio-economic status, class, and other related issues. For the 30% of the U.S. population who rent their homes, many key decisions regarding energy use must be negotiated with a landlord. Because energy use impacts the bottom line of both landlords and tenants, this can be a source of conflict in the landlord/tenant relationship. Ubicomp technologies for reducing energy use in rental units must engage with landlord/tenant conflicts to be successful. Unfortunately, little detailed knowledge is available about the impact of landlord/tenant conflicts on energy use. We present an analysis of a series of qualitative studies with landlords and tenants. We argue that a consideration of multiple stakeholders, and the power imbalances among them, will drive important new research questions and lead to more widely applicable solutions. The main contribution of our work is a set of open research questions and design recommendations for technologies that may affect and be affected by the conflict between stakeholders around energy use.
    • It’s Not All About Green: Energy Use in Low-Income Communities

      T.Dillahunt, J. Mankoff, E. Paulos, S. Fussell
      Personal energy consumption, specifically home energy consumption such as heating, cooling, and electricity, has been an important environmental and economic topic for decades. Despite the attention paid to this area, few researchers have specifically explored these issues within a community that makes up approximately 30% of U.S. households – those below the federal poverty line. We present a study of 26 low-income households in two very different locations – a small town in the Southern U.S. and a northerly metropolitan area. Through a photo-elicitation study and directed interviews, we explore the relationship between energy saving behaviors, external factors, and users’ intrinsic values and beliefs. Most of our participants are committed to saving energy for non-financial reasons, even when not responsible for paying bills. Challenges to saving energy include safety and lack of control over the environment. We discuss how Ubicomp technologies for saving energy can address some of these challenges.
  • Footprints | Stepgreen

    The Footprints project leverages social networking to reduce individuals’ ecological footprints. StepGreen is a website that allows individuals to commit to environmental sustainable behaviors and report when they make their commitments. Footprints is an umbrella project, which includes several investigations into ways to sense, detect, and motivate environmentally sustainable actions.
  • Broader topics in sustainability

    We propose a framework for assessing the sustainability of interactive technologies. Our goal is to initiate steps towards a common standard of measurement for sustainability in the HCI community. This could help motivate green competition, raise consumer awareness, and acknowledge environmental leadership. In this paper we summarize our methodology, our results, and discuss how the framework can be integrated for testing within the HCI community.