Sustainable UX: Asking Big Questions About the Internet’s Role in Climate Change

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Speakers at Sustainable UX, the first-ever online conference covering digital design and climate change, asked some big questions during their presentations:

  • How can the web design community make a measurable difference in the world?
  • What is UX’s role in combatting climate change?
  • How do the tools and processes we use every day impact usability and energy efficiency?
  • How can we transcend race, culture, and socio-economic barriers to make the internet accessible and more sustainable for all?
  • Can we power the internet with renewable energy and if so, how?

With the carbon impact of the internet exceeding that of many countries and measuring in at nearly a billion annual tons of CO2 and the environmental impact of producing billions of mobile devices each year rising rapidly, it is time to think seriously about how to scale the internet in the most sustainable way possible. This conference explored many ways by which we can do just that.

By all measures, this first-of-its-kind online experiment was quite a success. Co-chairs James Christie and Jen Briselli expected to sell about 50 tickets and corral just a few speakers to present. By event time, Sustainable UX had sold 418 tickets and featured 15 speakers from across North America, the UK, and Japan who presented on various topics ranging from driving green behavior through apps to building a more holistic view of sustainability through digital project planning.

Presenters explored how designers can be agents of change, how they can be more carbon-conscious in their daily work, and how open source and accessibility affect sustainability. Attendees tuned in from countries all around the world. More importantly, organizers estimated that they saved about 800 tons of CO2 by holding the event virtually rather than at a conference center.

Here is just one of the many presentations you can watch on the Sustainable UX channel on YouTube.

A More Holistic Approach to Digital Sustainability

Where in our UX process do we not only figure out how the products we’re designing are made ethically, but even whether or not we are trying to solve the right problem? Where do we step back and say it’s not the product that’s broken, but the entire premise?

— Bernard Yu, Content Strategist, Green America

In his presentation, Building More Holistic Views of Sustainable: Digital Project Planning at Green America, Mr. Yu of Green America asked UX designers to think more holistically about about the entire lifecycle of the products we create, not just their effect on end users. Through moving case studies that covered issues of class, welfare, and race, he urged us to move “beyond servers and programming languages to think about the socio-economic, cultural and regulatory stack that let’s us do our work.”

It’s a moving and thought-provoking presentation that gets to the heart of important issues surrounding our exploding digital economy. 

For more presentations from the conference, check out the Sustainable UX channel on YouTube.

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Tim Frick founded Mightybytes in 1998 to help mission-driven organizations solve problems, amplify their impact, and meet business and marketing goals. He is the author of four books, including Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services from O'Reilly Media. Connect with Tim on LinkedIn.