Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

IT, Resource Productivity, Environmental Preservation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

S2.0: Mitigation versus Adaptation

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Source: Tomlinson et al. (2012)

I had an insightful conversation with Bill Tomlinson last week at UC Irvine about shared research interests.

One thread that emerged was the difference between the use of information systems to mitigate environmental harm by enabling us to do more with less (efficiency) versus the use of IS to enable us to live in a potential future with severe resource constraints (adaptation).

As described by Bill and his colleagues M. Six Silberman, Don Patterson, Yue Pan, and Eli Blevis:

Collapse informatics focuses on the difference in availability of resources and infrastructure between when systems are designed and when they may be used. These systems are designed in times of relative abundance in many places around the world, building on the wealth of resources and expanding infrastructures brought about by fossil fuels and globalization.

One example of an application in progress is the Climate Change Habitability Index:

The idea of the CCHI is to allow ordinary individuals—rather than just climate scientists—to understand the state of the world in terms of habitability at particular places. In the face of climate change, individuals will need to be able to use the CCHI and other measures to answer questions such as: (a) can I continue to live where I am living, (b) where can I move if I can’t continue to live where I’m living, and (c) how many people can the place where I live sustainably support, if where I live continues to be habitable? The CCHI needs to be stated in a way that is as easily understood by ordinary people as other summary reporting such as weather forecasting.

Source: Tomlinson et al. (2012)

Under “application ideations and context scenarios” the authors discuss local smart grids:

A great deal of research has explored the use of smart electrical grids for increasing energy efficiency, and tracking energy usage for a variety of other purposes. However, the bulk of this research focuses on centralized grids used by large-scale institutions such as power companies or universities. Despite this focus, many of these advances may be able to be applied to local power contexts such as off-the-grid communities and self-sufficient survival retreats. These contexts tend to have much more stringent constraints on power; as such, they would benefit greatly from intelligent power tracking and management. This project would explore how sensing, measurement, and control techniques developed for large smart grids may be adapted to help local smart grids address canonical concerns in renewable energy such as the intermittency problem, in which energy sources such as solar or wind power vary dramatically based on cloud cover, time of day, etc.

Where will this research stream lead? In particular, how might it influence and shape actual systems that real people use? I look forward to seeing how this research stream develops, in particular, development of design principles for collapse informatics.


Tomlinson, B., Silberman, M.S., Patterson, D., Pan, Y., and Blevis, E. “Collapse informatics: augmenting the sustainability & ICT4D discourse in HCI,” in: Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, Austin, Texas, USA, 2012, pp. 655-664.

Author: nigelpm

Associate Professor of Information Systems, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan - Helping organizations to navigate digital transformation.

One thought on “S2.0: Mitigation versus Adaptation

  1. Prof. Nigel,

    An ‘unintended?’ application of smart grid in large industrial scale power systems might be in preventing systematic and endemic leakage of power (ref. quote below on India’s electricity market).

    “India’s power sector is a leaking bucket; the holes deliberately crafted and the leaks carefully collected as economic rents by various stakeholders that control the system. The logical thing to do would be to fix the bucket rather than to persistently emphasize shortages of power and forever make exaggerated estimates of future demands for power. Most initiatives in the power sector (IPPs and mega power projects) are nothing but ways of pouring more water into the bucket so that the consistency and quantity of leaks are assured…”
    [- Deepak S. Parekh, Chairman, Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation, September 2004]

    Thanks for sharing this meta-framing of ICT4D, Sustainability and Collapse Informatics.


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