Computing Within Limits Workshop 2018

This year marks the 4th Computing within LIMITS Workshop, which was held in Toronto, Canada, and co-chaired by ISR Professor Bonnie Nardi together with Professor Jay Chen from NYU-Abu Dhabi.

Prof. Bonnie Nardi making introductions at LIMITS 2018. The Computing within LIMITS community asks: How would we conduct computing differently if we considered planetscale limits in resource use and waste capacity in our designs and programs? Scientists in many fields are increasingly concerned about these limits and their effects on human and non-human life. Most computing work is predicated on the assumption of continued economic growth, although this is not possible— Earth is a bounded system, so the economy, as a subset of that system, must, therefore, also be bounded. Computing within LIMITS seeks to design according to those limits. There may be no limits to our creativity but there are material limits to our economic activity. As a global society, we have not been paying enough attention to them and we now find ourselves battling increasing pollution, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, water shortages, and of course climate change. Now is a good time to use computing to address these realities. Computing within LIMITS is not just about making computing more efficient but about using the powerful tools of computing to refigure manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and commerce—the big ticket items from a resource/waste point of view.

Prof. Bonnie NardiFor example, at this year’s LIMITS Workshop, David Franquesa and Leandro Navarro of the Polytechnic University of Barcelona reported on an implementation of a “Commons” based approach to recycling in their paper “Devices as a Commons: Limits to premature recycling.” Instead of individual owners deciding when to recycle, collective ownership and management of devices reside in the community or organization. The authors described “an algorithm to estimate the use value of the devices, such as laptops and desktops. When this value is too low or has no demand, the community obtains recycling permission; otherwise, a cycle of reuse begins.” This approach is important because it could scale to practically all commodities of any value. This system is in use, and has helped to reuse/recycle over 700 computers. The system also serves the purpose of building community, bringing people into contact with one another to achieve shared goals.Franquesa and Navarro: Agreements and flows during a device lifecycle.

Another paper, by UCI graduate student Meena Muralikumar, who is advised by Nardi, looked at food tracking, a technology that could allow consumers to decide on which food they buy based on factors such as sustainable production, distance traveled, and fair labor practices. She presented a technical framework that generalizes from current implementations. Muralikumar examined potential problems and possibilities for widespread food tracking.

This year’s LIMITS featured two excellent keynote speakers. The first was ecological economist Peter Victor (emeritus, University of Toronto), author of Managing without Growth: Slower by Design not Disaster (2008). Victor discussed plausible economic models that are not dependent on economic growth and that foreground well-being rather than gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is increasingly critiqued as failing to measure quantities such as environmental externalities and social inequality. The second keynote speaker was computer scientist Alan Borning (emeritus, University of Washington) who spoke about his work on the “SEED” platform. SEED stands for Solutions for Economy, Environment, and Democracy. The platform is attempting to connect various social movements that tend to be scattered but that are all aiming for broad societal well-being.

Meena MuralikumarThis was the largest LIMITS Workshop in the series, with 45 participants. Participants came from Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Germany, Abu Dhabi, and New Zealand. The Workshop was colocated with the international conference ICT4S (ICT for Sustainability) enabling more people to attend.

Several LIMITS researchers (Bonnie Nardi, Bill Tomlinson, Don Patterson, Jay Chen, Birgit Penzenstadler and Barath Raghavan) wrote a paper “Computing within LIMITS” that will appear in the October issue of Communications of the ACM. This paper lays out the main limits ideas for a broad audience.

All LIMITS papers (peer-reviewed and in collaboration with ACM) are available at The Workshop programs are also available there. LIMITS papers from 2016 onward are also available in the ACM digital library,

In addition to Nardi and Muralikumar, others from ISR who participated in LIMITS 2018 include Prof. Emeritus Debra Richardson and alumnae Dr. Nithya Sambasivan (Ph.D. 2012, advisor Bonnie Nardi, now a Sr. User Experience Researcher at Google), both of whom served on the program committee. The location for LIMITS 2019 has not yet been determined but will probably be colocated with a conference again to provide greater access. Check the LIMITS website for the latest LIMITS news.

This article appeared in ISR Connector issue: