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Talking about CHI and Sustainability

One of our goals for CHI2019 is to start making CHI more sustainable.

There are hard questions we all must face if we care about our planet, its ecosystem, and the impacts humanity is having (and vice versa) [1], [2], [3]. As academics, educators, human beings, what role do we play in our work and in our practice as a community of conference goers? In our SIG at CHI last year, we pledged to start this conversation at CHI. We’re grateful to the general chairs who have, for the first time, created a sustainability role for us to make a start on addressing these important questions.

There can be no doubt, making a conference sustainable is not easy: by far the most carbon intensive thing most of us will do is utilise air travel, yet this has become an essential part of modern careers and lifestyles. Tackling this will require thinking again about the very existential notions of conferences as we know them. This year, a virtual PC meeting, went some small way towards offsetting this as far fewer people travelled than would normally. The conference venue (SEC)’ ‘trees for life’ programme, which aims to offset some of the venue’s footprint by planting new forests, will also help. However, we should not fool ourselves into thinking CHI 2019 will be entirely sustainable!

We will however make as many adjustments that benefit environmental sustainability as we can – some of which will impact you as attendees! Concretely, we are:

Targeting a reduction of single use plastics and hard to recycle paper. A conference like CHI can create a large amount of plastic and hard to recycle paper waste such as our name badges, disposable cups, and promotional materials. For CHI 2019, we aim to reduce the amount of printed leaflets and promotions, including the ones that were handed out in previous years as part of the package attendees received at the registration desk, and minimize the amount of disposable cups at the venue. For this year, this means:

  • No bag by default. We have decided that there will be no conference bag by default for attendees on the grounds that these are often discarded in any case, and we have long since moved past printed proceedings. Instead we are exploring an option to buy a high quality long life bag if you need it. If you have one, why not bring a bag from a previous CHI? – the earlier the better!
  • Hydration stations. There will be water coolers where you can refill your own bottles, so please do bring one if you have one.
  • Reusable lanyards and badge holders. We will be moving to more generic lanyards that can be reused year on year.
  • Shared transport options. There are excellent public transport links to the venue, for instance, we’re close to Glasgow train station, and there are local bike hire schemes with cycle parking at the venue. We’ll be working to provide more information on this in coming weeks.

Beyond these changes, we are aiming to:

Benchmark the overall carbon footprint of the CHI conference. To help target reductions of the carbon footprint of CHI on an ongoing basis, we must first understand where the opportunities for reduction lie. For CHI 2019 we have been working closely with SEC to promote their green and low carbon initiatives (“the SEC team has implemented over 15 initiatives to aid the goal of achieving zero waste to landfill by 2020”) and their carbon offset programme supporting Scottish Forestry (Trees of Life), as well as gathering primary data on the energy used for our conference. Look out for our reports on our 2019 benchmarks in a future blog post.

Working with caterers to providing sustainable food. We are pushing for locally sourced, healthy and sustainable food choices during breaks and at catered events. By reducing the number of food miles (e.g. the mileage that the food has moved through supply chains), rethinking the amount of high carbon ingredients (e.g. red meat, imported fresh fruit and vegetables) in the menus, and asking for sustainable sourcing, we are aiming to reduce the impact of CHI’s food where feasible.

For the future, we will:

Identify challenges in the of planning CHI.
Some of the potential barriers that we have identified are:

  • Cost. Often, more sustainable choices are more expensive. To help drive a sustainability agenda for the CHI conference we need to frugally plan how to enable sustainability without passing additional costs onto attendees.
  • Reducing food waste. Due to issues around food safety it can be hard to donate “waste” food to local charities.
  • Varying International Policy and Sustainability Commitments. Given the varying cultural interpretation and commitments regarding sustainability, food and the environment we expect to face a different array of challenges as CHI moves from host to host.
  • Timelines for change – perhaps naively, we came into this process thinking we could change everything! As some of you may suspect, organising a conference as large as CHI takes around 2 years (and many of the decisions, such as the selection of venue takes place even further in advance). The Sustainability Chair role at CHI was created at the kick-off meeting in July 2018 (roughly 13 months into the process of organising CHI 2019). We now realise, that this ship will take longer to turn! A number of commitments have already been made which impose certain constraints regarding sustainability years before any single event. There are also very real budgetary constraints and associated practical trade-offs. We will be documenting this to help factor sustainability decisions earlier into the planning cycles.

For 2020 (and beyond) we look to:

  • Work closely with caterers, venues, and logistics plans to help build deeper sustainability roots for CHI
  • Elect one (or more) Sustainability Chair(s) who are local to the venue, and can provide local, community and cultural contexts for sustainability and green initiatives and challenges
  • Engaging with the PC process to assess the viability of more interactive remote participation at the CHI conference, as well as supporting our telepresence attendance options
  • Producing documentation, guidelines or whatever for next year’s Sustainability Chairs – ensuring that there are 2 chairs who overlap each year for knowledge and network transfer
  • Develop a communications plan for displays and promotional materials

Who are we anyway? We are just volunteers from your community, helping raise the profile of sustainability. Sustainability has been driving our work for the last 8 or so years, focusing on various aspects of everyday life including reducing domestic energy demand, sustainable design, promoting sustainable food choices, and sustainable last-mile logistics. We invite you to join us in helping make a difference to CHI and beyond!

We are, Adrian Friday (Professor of Computing and Sustainability at Lancaster University), Oliver Bates (Chair of the SIGCHI Community on HCI and Sustainability), Christian Remy (Assistant Professor, Aarhus University), and Mike Hazas (Reader, Lancaster University).