The internet is energy intensive. Its pervasion, intangibility and flexibility have brought about both challenges and opportunities for minimising our carbon footprint. From Low Tech Magazine, powered by a balcony solar panel to Google’s trial of carbon-intelligent computing platform, we see the outline of a possible sustainability-oriented protocol: a carbon-aware internet.
Yet, the internet is not only shaped by the giants but also by everyone who is using it. Ultimately, it is consumer behaviour and demand that define how the idea of a carbon-minimised internet could develop and scale.
Back when only the sun would light up the room and the wind belly out the sails, people lived with a variable energy supply and developed a whole culture around it. The Industrial Revolution came, and people got used to the easy life without knowing what energy means—until tremendous emissions became a threat. Then a boom followed: renewable energies that are, by nature, intermittent.
Again, energy and time have become relevant, now in the name of carbon intensity.
As designers, from now on we should work with engineers to bring carbon-aware websites and applications to life. It is our responsibility, moreover, to make them intriguing, beautiful and easy to embrace.
Here are five principles that I have learned from my pursuit of designing for carbon-aware digital experiences.
1. Provide information on carbon intensity
First and foremost, we should make the information on carbon intensity accessible to internet users so that they are empowered to change their behaviour with a “sustainable internet” mindset.
To provide accurate and real-time data on the carbon intensity of each website and online application, we need to ensure that the server providers are onboard. Yet before that happens at scale, in some cases it’s reasonable to make guesses through the current available open sources. If we know where the servers are based, we may estimate the carbon intensity from the grid data.
The indication of carbon intensity should be designed to be always visible, while how quiet it should be would depend on the expected weight of carbon in the users’ decision making process.
Onlign OS is a concept operating system designed for a holistic carbon-aware digital experience. The features are designed to visualise the internet carbon intensity as primary information. There’s a clear visual difference in the home screen launcher between the high carbon time and the low carbon time. The status bar shows the carbon intensity of each application throughout the day.
This interface design is based on the assumption that the applications in the same categories have similar carbon intensity patterns. For example, most of the content delivering data centres for entertainment apps have a large component of wind energy.
2. Help the user schedule according to carbon intensity forecast
Hourly weather forecasts have largely influenced how people schedule their daily life. If you know it’s going to rain after 5pm on Saturday, you can book the tennis court for early afternoon and plan the dinner at your second favourite restaurant which is close to your house.
What if by looking at the weather report, you also know how you can use the internet? This is a question that I asked the participants in an experiment called Nature Controlled Internet.
The participants “hated” the fact that their videos would become laggy when the wind is not blowing. But interestingly, some participants differentiated this feeling from what they experienced when the internet connection was “somehow” bad in their current life. “You can complain to the infrastructure company, but you can’t really blame nature,” said one participant. “If it was the future, surely I would learn to adjust to it. When my internet was cut off, I might not be annoyed, but feel less in control compared to today.”
In fact, people are able to reschedule or adjust their internet use in many cases. But we don’t want to see them feel confused, frustrated or out of control. To build a seamless digital life that aligns with the carbon intensity of the internet, we should equip the users with an easily accessible carbon intensity forecast and get them prepared before the carbon intensity is too high.
I designed a Chrome extension to try out some ideas. During setup, the users get a forecast of general internet carbon intensity throughout the week. They can choose at what time (ideally for what kind of activities) they commit to minimise their internet carbon footprint. The next step is to think about some low data intensity activities that they feel like doing. Hmmm, on Wednesday and Thursday evening it’s going to be high in carbon intensity, so you know you will be reading an article from your favourite column instead of watching those funny videos on YouTube.
3. Nudge people into low data alternatives when carbon intensity is high
Sometimes the users have already started the data-heavy activity when it’s entering a high-carbon time. The Chrome extension will start sending notifications to remind them to change to those websites in the low-data favourites.
While browser notifications might not be a clever move, the idea is to make the alternatives ready to hand. To make it timely, the extension (or softwares in other forms) should step in when the user’s current activity comes to a possible end. It’s easier to distract people before they start a new episode than in the middle.
In Onlign OS, I tried something more interesting. When the carbon intensity of the video streaming apps is high, a Navigation Lottery appears on the home screen or at the intervals. Before swiping left or skipping it, the user can play with the lotto. The ball dropping in front of the eyes takes the user to a favourite low-data app, for example, a new episode from a familiar podcast channel.
4. Make the alternative and the low carbon mode appealing and fun
Low-data interactions or activities don’t necessarily mean undesirable experience. On the contrary, thoughtful low-data modes could bring about playfulness and digital wellbeing that people appreciate.
Our digital activities are often elastic and context-based. Think about video calls. If we could either help the users seamlessly avoid unnecessary streams, or fulfil a sense of connection, turning off video might be more inviting to them.
Here’s a simple example from Onlign. This Onlign OS default video telephony app runs on solar power. Under the low-data calling mode, instead of seeing each other’s face, the callers transmit the touches over the internet. This visualised virtual touch provides an alternative evidence of presence and, potentially, it connects the loved ones better.
With sustainability and user experience in mind, it’s also a good time now to rethink intelligence and data. What if smart assistants also complied with the availability of low-carbon energy?
Imagine a day with a moody smart speaker. During sunny hours, the speaker listens to your voice command, reads aloud messages and analyses your emotion to provide better customised response. Near sunset or on a cloudy day, it only responds to some common commands and doesn’t “care” about your emotion. When there’s no sun, it stops listening and functions purely as a music player. You can still record schedule reminders manually, but they will be only synchronised at the next sunny hour.
“Yeah, when I’m tired, why am I interested in your privacy in those sentimental nights?” says the speaker.
More ideas awaiting exploration include an offline social media content reservoir that fulfils mindless scrolling during high-carbon time, a language learning scheme that pushes the users to make progress during internet high-carbon time ……
5. Give the user systematic and meaningful feedback
Finally, feedback on behaviour change and its impact should be provided, which would reinforce the carbon-aware digital routine. People would like to receive feedback with emotional affiliations. If the feedback can gamify what achievements have been accomplished, it is even more powerful.
In Onlign OS, I articulated how CO2 is being reduced by using a tree as a metaphor. It takes a 10-year-old tree 24 hours to remove the CO2 emission difference between streaming one-hour Netflix(HD) during a high carbon hour and a low carbon hour. By aligning their internet use with the low-carbon energy, each user grows a virtual tree that breathes in the amount of CO2 they save.
Besides, there’s also immediate feedback following those “saving” moments. When you pick up a low carbon-activity ball from the Navigation Lottery, switch to the low-data calling mode or make other aligned decisions, a green dot drops on the status bar. Those dots then integrate into the virtual tree.
About the author
Lu Ye is a multidisciplinary designer. Through design experiments and human centred research, she explores the relationship between people, activities and the environment. She received her Bachelor in Industrial Design at Zhejiang University and is completing her final year of MA/MSc in Innovation Design Engineering at the RCA/Imperial College.