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Programme Meta: ecodesign applied to computer science

Programme aims

This programme, conducted by young researchers, seeks to measure the direct economic impact and ethical dimensions of projects that might be designed by researchers in the fine or applied arts (contact: Brice Genre).

Business computing has grown too big to meet needs in everyday use, with complex maintenance requirements, high electricity consumption and unnecessary functions and performance levels, leading to a loss of productivity. Since its beginnings, computer science has been all about power, built-in obsolescence, expensive industrial processes and market share.

The META programme explores the uses and design of simplified, easily-reproducible formats with a view to radically transforming the use of business computer systems.

META’s environmental approach is about stripping down to essentials. By reducing the number of components in computers and using the printing process as a model for their construction (the entire computer consisting of an easily reproducible shell and a motherboard), it is possible to build computers locally (using local skills – a computer could be made of hardened leather, ceramic, rubber or aluminium) and reduce their environmental impact.

Another consequence of this approach is a very clear increase in the lifetimes of machines and servers (no mechanical wear). Simplification makes it possible to control consumption as never before. Consistency of software and hardware, where computer design and use have been considered in tandem, means they can interact far better (0 watts when off, elements shut down by the server, sharing of responsibilities...). Because they are simple, machines designed in this way can be taken apart and, crucially, repaired in situ. With traceable materials for which recycling processes are now in place, META will also ensure consistency at the end of business computer lifetimes. By making radical choices throughout the lifecycle (manufacture, use, dismantling) META has positioned itself far ahead of current processes in the sector.

In tune with the project’s overall philosophy, one of its main elements involves the development of a unique product management program - META Logiciel – that could revolutionise environmental aspects by enabling the real-time modification of a product’s ecological impact. The environmental challenges confronting products now being designed are generally solved only after the event and in static terms: assessments apply only to environmental impact such as carbon footprints. The main stakeholders (producers and consumers) are currently unable to assess complex products, while even simpler products require in-depth analysis: a study on the environmental impact of transportation has shown that a pot of strawberry yoghurt produced solely in Germany travels 7857 kilometres (to consider only transport issues) before reaching the French consumer. Until now, the sole response to these problems has been to solve them in the most transparent way possible, by compiling contradictory experiences and data, starting from a concrete, developing case in order to optimise it by multiplying viewpoints and calling on experts from opposing camps. So while products evolve (better modes of transport, changing energy sources, altered uses, etc.), there is no tool that can provide a dynamic overview. There are many analytical programs (often based on tested methods, e.g. PLM - Product Life Cycle Management / Value analysis / Reporting), and their numbers will continue to grow. But they all have the disadvantage of providing a static vision (analysis), without taking account of product evolution.

META also aims to design a dynamic decision support tool. In practical terms the first phase will consider the overall ergonomics of the software and how to represent the data it will generate and compile. The focus on use, which led to the design of the first prototypes of the META computer, will be pursued in this context. The ultimate aim will be to integrate eco-design into industry-based workflow design.

Planned outcomes, Doctorates, post-docs

With support from the Midi-Pyrénées region and STARS endowment fund, in 2010 we were able to finance our first post-doc, whose work notably included identifying new technological bottlenecks that could provide new doctoral research subjects by extending the defined methodology to new components and products. This work is conducted through regular workshops for doctoral students and in partnership with the enterprise META- IT.



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