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Spimes: A Multidimensional Lens for Designing Future Sustainable Internet Connected Devices

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Published
Publication date10/06/2020
Number of pages247
QualificationPhD
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Advisors
Publisher
  • Lancaster University
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

There are numerous loud and powerful voices promoting the Internet of Things (IoT) as a catalyst for changing many aspects of our lives for the better. Healthcare, energy, transport, finance, entertainment and in the home – billions of everyday objects across all sorts of sectors are being connected to the Internet to generate data so that we can make quicker and more efficient decisions about many facets of our lives. But is this technological development completely benign? I argue that, despite all their positive potential, IoT devices are still being designed, manufactured and disposed of in the same manner that most other ‘non-connected’ consumer products have been for decades – unsustainably. Further, while much fanfare is made of the IoT’s potential utility for reducing energy usage through pervasive monitoring, little discourse recognises the intrinsically unsustainable nature of the IoT devices themselves.

In response to this growing unsustainable product culture, my thesis centres on the role that sustainability can potentially play in the design of future IoT devices. I propose the recharacterisation of IoT devices as spimes in order to provide an alternative approach for facilitating sustainable Internet-connected product design practice. The concept of spimes was first introduced in 2004 by the futurist Bruce Sterling and then outlined further a year later in his book Shaping Things. When viewed simply, a spime would be a type of near future, internet-connected device which marries physical and digital elements with innate sustainable characteristics. Whereas the majority of sustainable design theory and practice has focused on the development of sustainable non-connected devices, a credible strategy for the design of environmentally friendly Internet-connected physical objects has yet to be put forward. In light of this, I argue that now is the right time to develop the spimes concept in greater depth so that it may begin to serve as a viable counterpoint to the increasing unsustainability of the IoT. To make this case, my thesis explores the following three key questions:

• What are spimes?

• Can we begin to design spimes?

• What does spime-orientated research mean for unsustainable Internet-connected design practice?

I outline how, in order to explore these important questions, I utilised a Research through Design approach to unpack and augment the notion of spimes through three Design Fiction case studies. Each case study concretises different key design criteria for spime devices, while also probing the broader implications that could arise as a result of adopting such spime designs in the near future. I discuss the significance of reflecting upon my Spime-based Design Fiction Practice and how this enabled me to develop the spimes concept into a multidimensional lens, which I contend, other designers can potentially harness as a means to reframe their IoT praxis with sustainability baked-in. The key aspects of my process and its outputs are also summarised in form of a design manifesto with the aim of inspiring prospective designers and technologists to create future sustainable Internet-connected devices.