More than Human Centred Design


Econundrum: Visualizing the Climate Impact of Dietary Choice through a Shared Data Sculpture

Food production and transport have a big impact on the planet: a quarter of all man-made carbon emissions are associated with the food system. However, for many people this connection between climate impact and the food they consume every day, is not clear or obvious. To help people understand this connection, we designed Econundrum, a shared physical system that visualizes carbon emissions as a result from dietary choices. Econundrum allows people to indicate on their phone what food types they ate that day, which will be visualized on the physical installation. Every disk represents the impact of one person, and its elevation indicates the level of impact: higher is less carbon emissions, lower is more carbon emissions. The highlighted food types visualize how the ‘foodprint’ of each person is composed. Finally, the different sized circles within the disks show the impact ratio of the different food types, which could be used for choosing alternatives to decrease carbon emissions. Our three-week field study shows how Econundrum helped people (i) understand the climate impact of various food types, (ii) reflect on the environmental impact of their food choices; and (iii) discuss the relation between climate impact and food consumption with others.

Who is the target audience and why design for them? Climate change is something that affects us all and therefore it is important to engage people collectively, as only the actions of many will affect environmental issues. Furthermore, it is easier to understand one’s personal impact when compared to direct peers. Econundrum attempts to make this ‘compare to peers’ idea tangible and visual so that it can be used in many different contexts. Our full paper describes how it was deployed for three weeks in a shared workspace with a small community of eight co-workers. We chose a university workspace as the deployment site as it concerns a type of community who spend most of their days together and know each other well, but might involve people who have very different food consumption patterns and/or views on the topic of sustainability. However, Econundrum could be scaled up or down depending on the context its placed in. Therefore, it could also be suitable for schools or could be placed at public events so people can compare themselves to other visitors.

What were the challenges or limitations encountered in this project? Our main challenge was how to design for sustainability and create a system that shows food consumption and its connection to climate change. For example, Econundrum applies ‘carbon footprint’ as a unit of measurement, as it has a broad application area. However, carbon foot printing is highly subjective and by estimation only, so it was important to provide informative cues while not going into too much detail. Therefore, we used existing data on carbon emission equivalent per serving to create a simple visual language and introduced the ability to compare to peers to create a meaningful frame of reference. Another challenge was how to meaningfully extract carbon emissions from personal food consumption. There was a trade-off in the data collection, which was self-reported and with a limited number of food categories. Therefore, when entering composed food like pizza, this does not fit into any specific category, making the submission open to interpretation and allowing for ambiguity in the calculated climate impact. Lastly, regarding the material implications and energy usage of a system as Econundrum, future work could explore how to quantify sustainable behavior as a result of these systems to evaluate if the e-waste is offset by the behavioral outcomes.

What are the opportunities and next steps for this project? With the Econundrum system we evaluated one approach of visual language. However, a more systematic approach of evaluation could be taken to further extract what visual aspects inform people the most effectively to overcome the challenges of adapting sustainable behavior. The current visualization of Econundrum had an informative and educative character, which was meant to elicit environmental awareness and collective reflection. However, different approaches for visualization could be investigated further. For example, rather than letting people provide input and reflect on the impact in hindsight, they could actively choose their desired climate impact beforehand. Another way to facilitate further action would be to provide more actionable constructive feedback on what exact products would need to be bought in the supermarket to reduce impact. Lastly, future work is necessary to further examine the ethical implications of such shared physical systems and how they perform in different deployment settings and across a wider range of sociodemographic groups. It could be further examined how systems such as Econundrum could be adapted for different scales of interaction - e.g. education, public spaces, or events - and for different deployment times - e.g. immediate awareness or dedicated use of the system over time.

To the Demo Visitors: To explore this topic further, we are looking for feedback and perspectives on: (i) New ways of constructing visual and physical vocabularies to help communicate, in an easy to understand representation, how personal reflection and behavior changes the impacts over time. (ii) Expanding the social frame of references to different bubbles or circles to allow people to compare across different groups. (iii) Explore different physical and/or digital representations that are consistent and can be used interchangeably. For any comments and feedback, please be in touch at https://padlet.com/kimsauve/econundrum The main take away message of this work is that there is a need for novel ways of engaging and activating individuals, social groups and the public at large, to address a complex topic such as climate change. Econundrum is another step and approach towards designing for sustainability, and it demonstrates how a visualization allows people to contextualize sustainability to their personal lives and build environmental awareness. Therefore, we encourage further research to translate the concepts and problems around sustainability into design solutions.