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Software, Sustainability and Diversity


Birgit Penzenstadler became somewhat unexpectedly a computer scientist, got a PhD in software engineering, and ended up in Sweden after a few years in the USA. Birgit has always been interested in sustainability and the interest started with her close relationship with nature. She once coined the term Software Engineering for Sustainability and her research includes sustainability in human well-being.

How often do we think of the great impact of software on our society?

Birgit Penzenstadler
Birgit Penzenstadler coined the term "Software Engineering for Sustainability" somewhere around 2012.
Photo: Fritz Penzenstadler

- My background is an old-school German MSc degree in computer science, which I only started because I didn’t get into art school, says Birgit Penzenstadler. This was at the Technische Universität München, not far from my home town Erding in Germany. The reason for my choice was an interesting course I had found in media design, which turned out to be part of a computer science programme.

- The computer science programme also included a course in software engineering which in many ways became decisive for my professional life. The course got me interested in the non-technical processes involved when creating the systems that actually run our world. Software Engineering can be beneficial for any discipline and any application domain - whether you are interested in design, in people, in animals, in creating products, in nature, in art or in philosophy, everything is supplemented by software these days and so software engineering can be a helpful science to all of those and beyond.

An early interest in environmental issues

- Since I was a kid, I have always been out in nature a lot and that is still the environment where I thrive best. I love being in the mountains or at the ocean and I want to protect all these environments.

- I did get a diploma in computer science, and then a PhD in requirements engineering, but I always thought I need something more than “just” software engineering. I wanted to contribute to environmental sustainability - so that meant either putting the PhD on the shelf and going to work for an environmental NGO, or to turn my research towards that. And because stubborn Germans tend to stick with what they already have, I went for the second route. So I have been researching Sustainability from the perspective of Software Engineering for the last decade.

How can IT contribute to increased sustainability?

- As our world runs on and via IT, it is a key discipline to help transition towards sustainability. I think many people in the IT area underestimate the responsibility that comes with the power they have by the role they play in designing this world.

- Like the philosopher and software developer Grady Booch said: "Every line of code has a moral and an ethical implication." With knowledge comes responsibility. It includes all the positive as well as all the negative effects that a software system can bring: environmentally, economically and socially.

- I sometimes get software engineers questioning that, claiming “I just do what the customer tells me” and that is just ducking out of that responsibility – but they are the ones implementing it. Having the opportunity to make a difference is also a responsibility.

"Software Engineering for Sustainability"

- Looking at it from a different angle, not in the responsibility for negative impact, but looking at the potential for transformation, we can say that software engineers can change this world for the better within a very short period of time. Somewhere around 2012, I coined the term Software Engineering for Sustainability, which has since become an accepted concept. That requires us to think through what a software system’s impact on sustainability may be, and if that’s what we want to implement. To that end, we have developed the Sustainability Awareness Framework, SusAF.  It is a lightweight assessment tool that uses a set of guiding questions and visualisation diagrams to explore the potential impacts of a system under consideration in five dimensions of sustainability: environmental, individual, social, economic, and technical. The workbook for self-guided application is available on Zenodo for download.

Greater diversity is needed in the IT area!

- Another sustainability aspect is that I believe IT would benefit tremendously from having a greater diversity among those who work in the area. We need more women, more people of colour, more nationalities involved, and also a larger representation from the LGBTQIA+ community than we have today.

- Why? Software systems run our world, and that includes a large diversity of people, which means that the people who develop these systems should be equally diverse.

Leave no one behind

The latest big interest in research: individual sustainability

- I would describe my research as interdisciplinary! My research is in many ways based on the interest in sustainability - I always have always tried to combine my passion for sustainability with what I happened to be studying for research.

- I am still a software engineer, but one of my latest major interests in research is the field of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is about our brain being able to reshape throughout life. My interest in the brain is in many ways related to the fact that I have been practicing yoga for about 20 years and I have been a teacher in yoga for five years.

- Many of the software developers, researchers, teachers, and students I meet are always stressed and I can see there is an increasing need for individual sustainability. In my latest research I look into how we can use neuroplasticity practices, especially breath-work, to lower our stress, to increase our mental and emotional resilience and to increase our long-term well-being.

- For me, individual sustainability is a very important component. If we cannot take care of ourselves, it will in the long run be difficult to take care of anything else. I have been doing yoga for a long time both as a practitioner and a teacher, I am still learning so much and I am convinced that most people can benefit from these practices if they are willing to try. I don’t want to convince anyone to meditate who doesn’t want to - I can only say that it has helped me tremendously work through stress, anxiety, and any triggers that may come up.

- For individual sustainability and in response to the mental health challenges during Covid19, I conducted a study from September to December 2020 with participants from all over the world. The study used specific breathing exercises as intervention to increase the participants’ well-being, perceived productivity, and self-efficacy. This breathing practice triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and thereby gets us into a deep state of relaxation, which is beneficial to forming new neuronal connections – neuroplasticity – that help retain knowledge, learn new skills, and form new habits. The positive results led us to run a replication from January through March 2021. You find information via YouTube and also on the Student Portal.

Reflections on the more prominent role of information technology during the covid19 pandemic

- Information technology is a tool. On the bright side, the technology enables us to continue education and at least allows us to talk to each other. On the dark side, we seem to be brushing over the fact that people feel isolated, that we are formally connected but don’t really know how things land or how someone feels. Mental and emotional health problems have been strongly on the rise this year and despite us making the best of the situation, we need to avoid falling for the idea that IT effectively replaces in-person interaction and connection.

- From a research perspective, we have kept many things running, and from a creativity perspective we are missing serendipitous encounters and ideas springing from random conversations as we interact with people throughout the day.

- Consequently, we will need a lot of activity to increase mental and emotional health as well as strengthening social connection and helping people feel like they belong.

Great commitment to the students' sustainability week "Act! Sustainable"

- In 2019, we got a question from GMV if we in the IT Faculty were interested in contributing something to the Act! Sustainable Week. We were a handful of people with sustainability ideas who got together – the group consisted of Jennifer Horkoff, Alice Srugies, Mafalda Samuelsson Gamboa, Francisco Gomes and me. We came up with the Design Jam idea around creating a system or ideas for a system that would contribute to sustainability, ideally in relation to the sustainable development goals.

- 2020 has been the second year with the “Act! Sustainable Design Jam” and the students really seem to really enjoy the event. We have had good turnouts both times, even though this year it was only online, which can take away from the excitement, but on the other hand we had remote participants from international universities this time.


Text: Catharina Jerkbrant, 2021

Birgit Penzenstadler

Assistant professor
Division of Software Engineering
Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Computer Science and Engineering is a joint department at University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology