I’ll be heading off to Stockholm in August to present a paper at the 2nd International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Sustainability (ICT4S’2014). The theme of the conference this year is “ICT and transformational change”, which got me thinking about how we think about change, and especially whether we equip students in computing with the right conceptual toolkit to think about change. I ended up writing a long critique of Computational Thinking, which has become popular lately as a way of describing what we teach in computing undergrad programs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with computational thinking in small doses. But when an entire university program teaches nothing but computational thinking, we turn out generations of computing professionals who are ill-equipped to think about complex societal issues. This then makes them particularly vulnerable to technological solutionism. I hope the paper will provoke some interesting discussion!

Here’s the abstract for my paper (click here for the full paper):

From Computational Thinking to Systems Thinking: A conceptual toolkit for sustainability computing

Steve Easterbrook, University of Toronto

If information and communication technologies (ICT) are to bring about a transformational change to a sustainable society, then we need to transform our thinking. Computer professionals already have a conceptual toolkit for problem solving, sometimes known as computational thinking. However, computational thinking tends to see the world in terms a series of problems (or problem types) that have computational solutions (or solution types). Sustainability, on the other hand, demands a more systemic approach, to avoid technological solutionism, and to acknowledge that technology, human behaviour and environmental impacts are tightly inter-related. In this paper, I argue that systems thinking provides the necessary bridge from computational thinking to sustainability practice, as it provides a domain ontology for reasoning about sustainability, a conceptual basis for reasoning about transformational change, and a set of methods for critical thinking about the social and environmental impacts of technology. I end the paper with a set of suggestions for how to build these ideas into the undergraduate curriculum for computer and information sciences.

1 Comment

  1. Sustainability and longer term “survivability” of humans on this planet is definitely a tricky problem. We’ve nearly done ourselves in times before, especially not that long ago during the Cold War. I’m reminded of Errol Morris’s “The Fog of War” with Robert S. McNamara remembering back to the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara was the Fountainhead of statistical analysis, data based decision making. In the movie Fog of War he compiles a list of the ‘rules of war’. Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us, http://nothingbuttherain.com/2013/08/12/lesson-2-rationality-will-not-save-us/, talks about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the high stakes of that confrontation and that fact there was no “second chance” to learn from a nuclear confrontation. Sustainability, survivability, longevity however they are pursued is very dependent on the actions, thoughts of a diverse range of people (not just folks in North America) and is global in scope. Technology, Rationality will not save us per se that’s true. But all of us together, there’s nothing we cannot do. It’s ALL our planet.

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  3. Pingback: Teaching computational thinking | Mark Higgins

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