Multilevel Perspectives Evaluation on IoT Sustainability

This project is currently under review for Design Journal with the title – “How can IoT last longer? – multi-level perspective on IoT sustainability.” I was mentored by Professor Daragh Byrne.

We started the initial inquiry on IoT sustainability based on my experiments with adapting multi-level perspective (Geels, 2002) to analyze IoT evolution. We realized that IoT will become more pervasive in our every day lives. Through the analysis of IoT ecosystem and its development, we identified the sustainability of IoT as an overarching theme that will post new challenges to the industry. As an example, in 2019, Amazon employees staged a sustainability walkout at the annual hardware event to protest the company’s carbon footprint.

An illustration of Multilevel Perspectives on transition adapted from Geels (Geels and Schot 2007)

As more IoT products enter the market year-on-year, it is becoming increasingly urgent to attend to the material sustainability of these products. we use the multi-level perspective (MLP) as a systematic framework to evaluate IoT sustainability today. Using this approach, I evaluate sustainability on each of the three interconnected levels: the niche, regime, and landscape.

MLP is applied to analyze IoT evolution, across four time periods and on the three levels. The author created this map based on literature and fact checking. Major forces affecting sustainability issues are highlighted in green. Arrows represent the influences between them. Lines indicate connections between.

The MLP on IoT suggest that to achieve a sustainable IoT system requires collaborations from multiple levels and key players from each level.

On the niche level, we conduct case studies of two products, Fairphone and Amazon’s Echo, to evaluate and contrast two current approaches to sustainability in IoT. We compared these products from three aspects – package design, assembly and disassembly process, and the material choice.

For example, for the package design, while Echo highlights its functions on the package, Fairphone uses the package to encourage users to adapt more sustainable practices. Echo and Fairphone’s packaging design decisions indicate significantly different organizational mindsets which result in two distinct product experiences.

A comparison of Echo (left) and Fairphone’s (right) package design.

In terms of the choice of materials, distinct differences in priorities are revealed in the two products. Echo’s materials choices suggest the aesthetics of design, manufacturing costs, and suitability for mass manufacture have been prioritized. This is not atypical for smart home devices: Google’s sustainability report of Nest Thermostat and Google Home suggests similar decisions play out for other mass market consumer IoT devices. In contrast, Fairphone has taken extra steps to understand and track the materials from its origin to sourcing, manufacturing, and disposal process. This systematic view prioritizes material choices that are sustainable throughout the product life cycle.

We conducted a teardown of Echo to evaluate its sustainability. Recyclable components are marked with circles. Reusable components are marked with triangles (left). We also analyzes the material composition of Echo (right)

At the regime and landscape levels, we discuss organizational and operational challenges. Findings from the MLP analysis indicate multiple leverage points that can support a transition towards a more sustainable future.

Specifically, designers are identified as a key actor. To inspire this change, we synthesize and present our findings as a manifesto for sustainable IoT design. This is intended to encourage dialog and empower designers to be responsible for sustainable design decisions, and advocate for valuing sustainability within organizations.

Three examples from the seven rules and their relationship to the case studies.

The design manifesto aims to encourage designers to take actions and make positive contributions to help the system transition into a better future. At the end, we wish designers can leverage their vital role in product development and innovation processes to help create conditions for this change and offer a manifesto to promote discourse and action towards a transition to a more sustainable and preferable future.