I’m honoured to be invited to speak in the Fostering Connections with Nature webinar series organised by The Biophilic Cities Project. The project conducts research and policy work on biophilic cities, both domestically and internationally, by Professor Tim Beatley and his team at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. Its principal aim is to advance the theory and practice of planning for biophilic cities, through a combination of collaborative research, dialogue and exchange, teaching.
Technobiophilia: soothing our connected minds and easing our wired lives May 6th 2015, 17.30 GMT / 12:30pm EST Register here In her 2013 book Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace, Sue Thomas interrogates the prevalence online of nature-derived metaphors, and comes to a surprising conclusion. The root of this trend, she believes, lies in biophilia, defined by E.O. Wilson as ‘the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes’. Working from the strong thread of biophilia which runs through our online lives, she expands Wilson’s definition to the ‘innate attraction to life and lifelike processes *as they appear in technology*’, a phenomenon she calls ‘technobiophilia’. Attention to technobiophilia and its application to urban design offers a way to make our digital lives integrated, healthy, and mindful. In this talk she outlines the key elements of the concept and shows how, even in an intensely digital culture, the restorative qualities of biophilia can alleviate mental fatigue and enhance our capacity for directed attention, thus soothing our connected minds and easing our wired lives.
Art, landscape and health event – Biophilia Film Channel & Drawing Inspiration 27th January 2015, 15-30 to 17-30 Lecture Theatre, Education Centre, Dorset County Hospital, Williams Ave, Dorchester, DT1 2JY, UK
Entry is free but please RSVP via Eventbrite
I’ve been invited to give a short talk about wired well-being at this event dedicated to two projects by Arts in Hospital and Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Both showcase in different ways the relationship between landscape, art and wellbeing at Dorset County Hospital. See some of the films on show, hear from the curator Dr Richard Povall, editor of Digital Creativity Journal and listen to a short talk from me, then take a look at the Drawing Inspirations exhibition, followed by tea and cake in Damers Restaurant,
Films on show in the new channel include works by Sue Palmer, Ivon Oates, Robert Golden, Dave Young (Pod Films), Sam Stewart, Stephen Banks, Matt Stockman, Ben Symonds, Geoff Dunlop, Phil Bambridge / Nathan Filer, Ted Evans, Matt Stockman, Michael Jenner and Alex Murdin.
I’ve written about this innovative project before (see How to bring nature into your digital world: 1.) but the Biophilia Channel takes the idea one step further by inviting artists to create works specially designed for streaming to patients in certain wards. I look forward to seeing them.
I also look forward to the Drawing Inspiration exhibition, which takes a closer look at landscape-inspired art to encourage people to look at the landscape from a new perspective and tell us about the cultural, physical and social changes that have shaped how we live today.
If you live close by, please do come along. It promises to be a very enjoyable gathering. It’s free, but sign up via Eventbrite
How good are you at caring for your houseplants? Come to that, how good are you at caring for yourself? Symbio, a new app still currently in development, will connect your well-being to that of your plants and ensure that all of you thrive.
The story of Symbio began in 2014 when I was invited to speak at Sesi Cultura Digital in Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, though, I couldn’t get to Brazil at that time, so instead the organisers invited me to add technobiophilia to their hackathon themes, something which connected nature with technology to create devices which helped support wired well-being. I wrote two design challenges for them to consider.
The winner, Gaivota (Seagull), is a collaborative network of weather data built with Arduino, an open-source electronics platform, which enables users to monitor their own customised weather station. It’s a great idea but my personal favourite, since it deeply connects us to the plants in our lives, is the second placed Symbio, which was specifically designed to address my technobiophilic brief.
Symbio is comprised of a wearable device, a mobile app, a glass jar with a plant, an irrigator, a light bulb and sensors. The kit acts as a technological medium designed to activate the intrinsic relationship between people and nature. The wearable device uses pulse and light sensors to monitor the daily activities of the user so that water and food can be released to the plant via the app, but only if the user fulfils some positive daily activities such as taking in a healthy amount of sunshine (good for vitamin D) or taking in some air in an open space.
As the designers explain it:
If the user takes the total healthy dose of sunlight for her body, the plant will also receive the light it needs for its growth. If the user visits two open space leisure places per week, the plant will also receive during the course of the week the nutrients it needs.
This relationship of the plant with the user creates an emotional link, making her change her daily habits so her Symbio can survive. If the user keeps herself healthy, she will automatically keep the plant healthy.
So if you lead a healthy life, your plant thrives. If you don’t, it dies. Now there is an incentive to take the stairs instead of the elevator.
The designers of Symbio are research interns at the Nucleus of Art and New Organisms, a trans-disciplinary hothouse of artistic and engineering talent in Rio de Janeiro where they research and develop technological, organic, and sensorial hybrid systems. Each of the designers bring different skills to their hybrid projects: Filipi Dias de Oliveira is a student of design; Iane Cabral Mello studies drama and clothing; Aroldo Mascarenhas Neto is a telecommunications engineer, and Leonardo Nunes Guimarães Costa works in electronic engineering.
Dias said that before the hackathon the team had already designed projects using plants, bees, sound and the body, so when they read about the concept of technobiophilia they realised its relevance to their work. “We brainstormed on the first day of the hackathon and decided to create a technological bridge between people and nature.” This, of course, led to various designs and the final product.
Planting the idea
The app isn’t the first to monitor the health of plants. The Parrot Pot caused quite a stir at this year’s CES 2015, the first big tech show of the year. It is being promoted as the most advanced connected plant pot available to date. It uses a database of 8,000 plants and sensors to provide up to a month of smart, autonomous irrigation, keeping your plants happy and healthy until you return.
Connected plants are going to be a popular item in the next couple of years, but I’ve seen nothing else as ambitious as Symbio, which doesn’t just connect your geraniums to the water supply, it also connects them to you.
In May 1995 I was teaching creative writing in the English Department at Nottingham Trent University when, quite unexpectedly, I fell into the internet. That moment redirected the course of my life, and the most instrumental part of that change was the birth of the trAce Online Writing Community.
trAce was born at the cusp of a new world. The Internet was 26 years old by then but the World Wide Web was still very new.
I set up the CyberWriting project, later to become trAce, in May 1995 at Nottingham Trent University, England. The idea was to explore writing on the internet. trAce’s first-ever publication was in paper, a word-processed photocopied booklet, and it was produced by Simon Mills, at that time a student on the MA in Writing. To collect the information, Simon spent his summer vacation online trawling the net for links. He surfed through hundreds of sites, sorted the best of them into categories, and wrote a short review of each. That October in 1995 he collated his results and photocopied them in booklet format for internal distribution to writing students and faculty. It formed the basis of the first trAce website, launched May 1996, and here it is. I wonder how many of the sites are still live?
What had begun as a personal quest had grown into a very promising research project, and by May 1996 Simon had taught himself HTML and uploaded the booklet into trAce’s first website.
Now, 2015 marks the anniversary of the first year of what would turn into a decade of collective innovation for trAce members around the world. To commemorate their fantastic creativity, I’ve set up a Facebook groupwhere writers, artists, coders, and other members of trAce can share memories of that hectic time. I hope you’ll join us there. I’m going to post something from trAce every month, starting this month with The Noon Quilt, a gorgeous project which still shimmers with beauty wherever you click.
The Noon Quilt is an assemblage of patches submitted by writers from around the world. Together they form a fabric of noon-time impressions. The two quilts were made over a period of approximately five months during 1998-1999. They were designed,’stitched’ and maintained by Teri Hoskin from an idea by me. Ali Graham wrote the perl scripts needed to frequently update the quilt.
In 1999 we built the Eclipse Quilt http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/eclipse-quilt/scripts/eqQuilt.html We created the three trAce quilts in close succession, then later the British Council commissioned two more, both of which were sadly lost when the Council moved its website to a different server. The Dawn Quilt was made for participants in South Asia, and the Road Quilt was made for Russia.
Looking over the landscape I could see an old tree standing frozen and seemingly dead, its branches coated with icy rime. Around it, mossy grass and small rocks lay beneath a coating of snow and in the distance glistening waterfalls tumbled down the sides of whitened mountains. It looked like the wilds of Ireland in wintertime, but the view existed only in my phone. My task, using a handheld biosensor called PIP, was to bring summer to this deeply cold outdoor scene by the powers of mental relaxation.
The device – the brainchild of developer Daragh McDonnell, who started work on it in 2004 at Media Lab Europe (the ill-fated European partner of the MIT Media Lab) – connects to your phone or tablet via bluetooth and works by sensing electrical changes at the surface of the skin which indicate stress levels. This data is then passed by Bluetooth into The Loom, a mobile app that uses biofeedback to help you measure, understand and manage your stress levels.
The more you relax, the faster the landscape moves from winter to summer on your phone or tablet. In my case, this process took between five and nine minutes, but a friend managed the transformation in as little as two.
Environmental psychologists know that images of nature can relax us and reduce stress. As long ago as 1971, a research project involving patients recovering from gall bladder surgery showed that those placed in a ward with a window view of some fairly ordinary trees required less pain relief and recovered faster than similar patients in a ward where the windows looked out onto brick walls. This experiment has since been repeated in offices, schools, and prisons, with similar results.
The app takes a departure from the usual terrain of digital well-being – Californian beaches and mountain ranges – favoured by an industry where style is lead by US West Coast culture. Instead the “loomscape” I experienced was made up of photographs taken in different parts of Ireland. So if you’ve visited Massey’s Wood, Glen of the Downs, Devil’s Glen and Tomie’s Wood in County Wicklow, or Connemara in the west of Ireland, you might recognise some of the slivers of their verdant panoramas which have been woven together to create this fictional game-like landscape.
PIP has also worked on other apps linked to the power of relaxation such as Relax and Race where your stress level is used to determine your speed in the race – the more you relax, the faster you go. And new loomscapes are in the works for 2015.
Both PIP and Relax and Race use games technology to promote new kinds of well-being and stress reduction. There are many apps, of course, that promote relaxation as an end in itself or as insomnia and meditation aids and training. And there is an increasing amount of evidence that some video games have a relaxing effect, but this biosensor may be the first instance of the player entering into an active feedback loop and causing changes to the game itself. It would be interesting to see how far this goes in the future.
The new social network, Tsū, is banded with a clear and vivid green. Its hue is reminiscent of aspects of nature: the sea in winter, the stripes on certain kinds of leaves, the colour of chrysanthemums and orchids.
In contrast to the dull office blue of Facebook, the icy whiteness of Google+, and the foggy grey of Ello, Tsū offers users a warm and vibrant colour scheme which is soft on the eyes and somehow friendlier.
Can a simple design choice make so much difference to the attractiveness of a social network site? It seems that the biggest sites go for blue: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Foursquare all favour it. And that choice is reflected in a general worldwide preference in all kinds of situations. Blue connotes intelligence, communication, trust, efficiency, duty, and logic, giving an overall sense of competence and security. It makes for a pretty safe choice.
Red however, is seen as arousing, exciting, and stimulating. It’s generally associated with activity, strength, and being up-to-date. Google+, YouTube, and Pinterest all feature red teamed with white (sincerity, purity, cleanness, simplicity, hygiene, clarity, peace, and happiness).
The only established social network coloured green is Vine where users share videos for six seconds or less in a short-lived, always-on culture of almost organic constant flux. But now there’s Tsū, a lighter and slightly bluer green than Vine, and offering a very different kind of experience.
Google Alerts are the digital equivalent of your ears burning when someone’s talking about you. They’re not very reliable, it’s true, but when an alert does penetrate the fog of cyberspace with news that you’re part of someone else’s day it’s always worth following it up.
So what does he think of it? Google brought me only one alert but he’s mentioned the book in three blog posts so far so it can’t be in the bin yet. He started off by trying to use it to get to sleep (!), then picked it up again a couple of days later on a train, and a few days after that it accompanied him home from Oslo. Then I lost sight of it.
Has he still got it? Did it totally send him to sleep in the end? As he travels from gig to gig, I’ll keep an eye out for further appearances via Google’s inconsistent whispers…