Sustainability with Dr Michael Stead

Dr Michael Stead

In the lead-up to COP27 in November, and with the imperative climate emergency, we thought we would speak to some of the talented minds at Lancaster about their areas of research within sustainability, and what they would like to see focused on in this wide-reaching topic.

This week, we have spoken to Dr Michael Stead, a Lecturer in Sustainable Design Futures.

Can you give me a brief overview of your role at the University?

I am Lecturer in Sustainable Design Futures at Imagination, the University’s School of Design. My current research critically and creatively interrogates the evolving relationship between emerging so-called ‘smart’ data-driven technologies like the Internet of Things, Digital Fabrication and Artificial Intelligence and key sustainability goals Net Zero 2050 and the Circular Economy. I teach design theory and practice on undergraduate programmes at Imagination and supervise postgraduate research and taught Masters students.

What areas of sustainability are you currently focused on in your work?

I aim to develop new design methods and prototypes in collaboration with communities, industry and policymakers, which can help support societal adoption of more sustainable and equitable data-driven technologies and related practices.

Over the past year, I have been working with partners The Making Rooms, Blackburn’s public makerspace and creative hub for digital innovation, on the IAA EPSRC ESRC funded The Repair Shop 2049 project. Together, we have been exploring the Right-to-Repair of smart devices like fitness trackers, wireless headphones and home voice assistants. Using the idea of a future high street ‘Repair Shop’ as its lens, the project has sought to challenge both manufacturers’ penchant for planned obsolescence which leads to increases in electronic waste, and the limited Right-to-Repair legislation which currently does not support the repair of smart devices. We have worked with different stakeholders including makers/repairers, council leaders, consumers and technologists, to start to prototype future pathways that could empower ordinary citizens with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to increase smart device repair directly within their community.

I have also been collaborating with BBC Research & Development on the EPSRC PETRAS-funded Edge of Reality and Edge of Tomorrow projects. The tsunami of data being generated by our everyday use of smart devices and online services is often considered to be harmless because we cannot see it, but our data is actually having a growing impact on the planet’s climate and resources. The constant creation of smart data across vast computer networks contributes to ICT's overall carbon footprint which is now around 4% of global CO2 emissions – nearly as much as the aviation industry. For our Edge projects, we designed interactive ‘choose your own adventure’ games which aim to make the illegible consequences of data choices more legible to the public. Our games emphasise that there is a collective need to reduce our data-driven carbon emissions – just like there is to use less plastic and choose more environmentally friendly forms of travel. And that this decision-making often comes with uncomfortable trade-offs – players must negotiate between improving their data sustainability while potentially forfeiting some of their data cybersecurity.

What has been your biggest achievement this year?

Building successful research collaborations with project partners BBC Research & Development and The Making Rooms Blackburn. Both are partners on a large project which follows on from The Repair Shop 2049 – the £1.2M EPSRC Fixing the Future: The Right-to-Repair & Equal-IoT grant. It is a collaboration between researchers from Design (ImaginationLancaster), Human Computer Interaction (Nottingham), Technology Law and Ethics (Edinburgh) and the Digital Humanities (Napier). Starting in October 2022, the two-year project will see the interdisciplinary team work closely with The Making Rooms, BBC Research & Development, Which? and NCC Group, to explore the opportunities and challenges for collectively designing, building and sustaining more repairable and equitable electronic IoT devices as part of growing circular, digital economies. It is a fantastic opportunity to scale up and disseminate the research approaches which we started to develop on The Repair Shop 2049 project within Blackburn and beyond.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in the work that you do?

Having positive, real-world impact. Sustainability goals such as Net Zero 2050 and Circular Economy are vast, multi-faceted socio-technical challenges. Achieving them requires deep, long-term collaboration between a diverse range of stakeholders, disciplines and approaches. The rapid adoption of new technologies across society is adding to this complexity. By working closely with partners, institutions and the public to explore new ways for designing more sustainable technological cultures and practices, I hope my research begins to support the big, global environmental agendas.

Did you always want to work in the area of sustainability?

My research embodies my long-held interest in the relationship between sustainability, design and technology. This was first piqued while I completed my Masters in Product Design at the University of Salford in 2009/10. For my final major project, I designed a range of home energy monitoring products. After working as a designer, I joined the University’s HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and the design of sustainable futures has been the driving impetus behind my research ever since.

COP27 is in November 2022 in Egypt, what area(s) would you like to see being talked about more in order to help the climate emergency?

The unsustainable activities of Global North countries have profound and persistent impacts upon Global South nations, for example, extreme weather, agricultural damage and pollution. I would like to see COP leaders actively open up more responsible discussions on Western accountability, give Global South nations the platform to voice their concerns and provide time and space for agreements to be made on tangible, collective action.

What do you think is the role of Universities in sustainability and addressing the climate emergency?

Education is key to tackling environmental issues and transitioning societies to more sustainable ways of life. Universities can therefore play a crucial role in sustainability stewardship – both within their local communities and on a national/international level. Departments like LEC, Pentland and Global Eco-Innovation demonstrate that Lancaster is already a committed leader on sustainable change. Imagination staff are teaching next-generation designers cutting-edge sustainability theory and practice which all contributes to these wider efforts.

Explore our sustainability pages to learn more about Lancaster University's work in this area.

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