Sustainability through Computation

Azam Khan, Kasper Hornbaek

Computation for Humanity – Information Technology to Advance Society


This chapter describes how computation can support individuals, groups, and societies in living sustainably. By sustainability, we refer primarily to the Earth’s capacity to support human, animal and plant life while sustaining our planet’s existing climate and biodiversity. We argue that measuring a system’s sustainability by characterizing status quo, quantifying the effects of an intervention, and comparing decision alternatives will lead to greater overall sustainability. The chapter first discusses why it is difficult to obtain measures about sustainability. On the one hand, sustainability is a complex issue, drawing on multiple disciplines. On the other hand, sustainability may be described at varying levels of scale, each with a very large number of variables, assumptions, and interactions. Next we turn to computation and discuss its use in analyzing sensed data and simulating sustainability. We describe strategies for computing sustainability and for handling multiple models, simulations, and parameters. Finally, we present several visions for using computing and simulation to improve sustainability. Pursuing these visions will help us effectively deal with our exponential population growth and also, we argue, help improve sustainability.


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