Computing Within LIMITS

What if computing was serious about the fact that we live on a finite planet? The Computing within LIMITS community, including ISR Prof. Bonnie Nardi, explores this question in two ways. First, LIMITS examines how computing itself can use resources more efficiently and produce less waste. Although computing consumes only about 2% of the world’s electricity, the voluminous e-waste it generates is dangerous to human health (and other forms of life), and is growing rapidly as devices proliferate. The second, and more important, way the community engages planetary limits is to apply computing to broad problems such as manufacturing, food production, communication, and transportation—so that we can achieve a society that is not dependent on increasing use of finite resources and increasing need for waste sinks—at some point more increases will be thermodynamically impossible.

Keynote speaker Prof. Miriam Diamond.   Photo by Prof. Bill Tomlinson.LIMITS researchers have, for example, considered how to reconfigure food production to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. (Modern industrial agriculture generates 28% of all emissions.) It turns out there is a subdiscipline of ecology called “agroecology” that has pioneered truly sustainable methods of food production, but these methods have not scaled because a great deal of local knowledge is needed to implement them. LIMITS researchers are working on systems based on “computational agroecology” that would gather and provide detailed local knowledge so that anyone could sustainably grow food almost anywhere, from city rooftops to suburban backyards to commercial farms.

A broad theoretical idea from LIMITS is “disintermediation,” that is, using computing to simplify systems so they don’t use as many resources. The goal is to eliminate “middle men” whose services require resources. Any simplification potentially reduces resource use and adds to the robustness of a system which may falter under the weight of too much complexity. A big, overall goal is to get as much of our energy from the sun as possible since, in the end, it’s the only reliable, safe energy source we have. Humans relied on the sun until only a few hundred years ago. With technology we can do the same, collecting the sun’s energy in new ways. Agroecology, for example, is oriented to using simple machines and human labor, relying on the sun as the main energy input. In a world with so much labor and so little fossil fuel (we are already turning to fracking and tar sands since the easy oil is largely gone), this long-term orientation to human well-being is a driving force of LIMITS thinking. 

Prof. Bonnie NardiThe changes the LIMITS community envisions will require political and economic change. The community thinks people are more ready than ever to think seriously about such change. “Several of us submitted a paper to CACM on the LIMITS work,” said Nardi, “and we were surprised when the reviewers came back and said we had not considered the role of capitalism in thinking about how to deal with planetary limits! Our revised paper (still under review) was forthright in suggesting new forms of economy such as the ‘steady-state’ economy. We think that now is a good moment to be promoting LIMITS ideas given the urgency of the problems science keeps reminding us of, for example, in the recent “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” (November 13, 2017).

The LIMITS agenda has been developed through three workshops (2015-2017) convened by the LIMITS community (the latter two in cooperation with ACM). The first two were held at UCI, and the third at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, with funding from the two universities as well as from Facebook and Google. Participants came from institutions in Abu Dhabi, Canada, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the US, consistent with the global nature of LIMITS concerns and research. The 2018 workshop will be held in Toronto, co-located with the Fifth International ICT4S Conference (Information and Communication Technology for Sustainability). Prof. Nardi is a co-chair of LIMITS 2018 along with Professor Jay Chen of NYU Abu Dhabi. Nardi has been a lead organizer and served on the program committee since the inception of the LIMITS workshop in 2015. Prof. Debra Richardson has also been on the program committee for all the Workshops and continues to provide guidance.

LIMITS 2018 paper submission deadlines are in early February. See the workshop website for details:

The 2018 keynote speaker will be Professor Alan Borning, a computer scientist at the University of Washington.

Several papers published in mainstream conferences and multiple research grants have been co-authored by LIMITS participants, sparked by discussions at the Workshops.

At LIMITS 2017, two ISR graduate students presented papers on their research. Maruf Zaber presented “A Study of Hashtag Activism for Raising Awareness about Riverbank Erosion in Bangladesh,” which is co-authored by his advisor Prof. Bonnie Nardi and Prof. Jay Chen. Samantha McDonald presented “Political Realities of Digital Communication: The Limits of Value from Digital Messages to Members of the US Congress,” which is co-authored by her advisor Prof. Bonnie Nardi and Prof. Bill Tomlinson, Victoria University, NZ. Both papers were well-received and the authors are building on the ideas in their graduate work.

The workshop papers are available at the following URLs:

LIMITS 2017:

LIMITS 2016:

LIMITS 2015:

For additional information, contact Prof. Bonnie Nardi.

This article appeared in ISR Connector issue: