Business 2.0, Design, Sustainability

Digitally connecting to nature

I recently spotted a short doco/interview piece where Sir David Attenborough meets US President Barack Obama for a short interview on Sir David’s 89th birthday (the full interview is embedded below).

One part of the exchange caught my attention. At around 14:15, Sir David says:

Well, it is an extraordinary paradox isn’t it, that the United Nations tells us that over 50% of the human population on the planet are urbanised, which means that to some degree they are cut off from the natural world. And after all some people are totally cut off, they don’t see a wild creature from dawn to dusk unless it’s a rat or a pigeon. And yet at the same time, mass media can inform those people what the natural world is … if they don’t understand the workings of the natural world, they won’t take the trouble to protect it. That’s one of the roles that the media should have. Of maintaining a link between the population and understanding what goes on the natural world. Because why should they give up money, or taxes come to that, to protect the natural world, unless they actually care about it.

And later (~16:30) , President Obama indicates:

…what we’ve been doing is trying to initiate ways to get more children and young people to use the [national] parks, and as you said, so many of these kids are growing up cut off. They’re sitting on the couch, playing video games. If they experience nature its through a television screen, and just getting them out there so that they’re picking up that rock and finding that slug. They’re seeing that bird with colours that they’ve never seen before.

The discussion continues along these lines, the gist being that we need kids to get out into the natural world, discover it, to regain that connection to the natural world. And, I would suggest, to rediscover the connection between our individual actions and the impacts they have. For example, we flick on the switch to use power from burning coal a long distance away, creating pollution etc. If we had to burn that coal in our house for our energy use, we’d very quickly understand the ramifications. But we are so removed, this impact is barely even considered.

However, I’m not sure that expecting young people, or even older members of the population, to “get out into nature” is the only response. As Attenborough notes, right now, a majority (54% in 2014) of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and this is tipped to grow substantially according to the UN:

Today [2014], 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa…

I’ve seen suggestions that cities are more sustainable at supporting a larger human population than other models of living. Is it realistic to expect this growing population to “get out into nature”? If the answer is no, does this mean that “nature on screens” is the only way this can be achieved?

There’s been a lot of interesting work being done in eco-visualisation in recent years that attempt to make a strong connection between domestic/urban resource use and impact. Some great examples that come to mind:

As part of the IBM/Fast Company Biomimicry Challenge, Smart Design put together a short but illustrative video about how the biomimicry principles of feedback loops could be made manifest in an urban environment:

Another example is a cute campaign concept by WWF regarding paper towel usage (more information at Inhabitat and Ads of the World):

A paper towel dispenser which visually highlights the impact on forests.

And some of my favourites come from STATIC, highlighted in the Visual Voltage exhibition—specifically their Flower Lamp, which “wilts” the more energy that is used:

A lamp that 'wilts' as it uses more electricity

And the Power Aware cord, which glows brighter the more energy that’s consumed (this is the image at the start of this post).

An electricity power board whose cable glows brighter as more electricity is used

(Hat tip to Flowing Data for first bringing these ideas to my attention.)

These examples all make visible the invisible, and reconnect our actions, conceptually at least, with the impact they’re having in the world.

On this basis, I can’t help but think digital technologies have great potential to play a positive role in responding to Obama’s question. To harness our seemingly insatiable drive for new technology in a way that re-instates this sense of connection between action and impact. And no, the irony—using digital tech to emulate a connection to the natural world—is definitely not lost on me!

I wonder what opportunities would emerge in responding to the design question:

How might we engender a meaningful connection between an urban dweller and their impact on the natural environment through ambient mechanisms that link resource consumption to environmental health?

And what would the business model look like?


Also published on Medium.

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