Sue Thomas

life nature technology

Technobiophilic design challenges for developers

I’ve been hoping that someone would come up with a technobiophilia app or, even better, a wearable. Something to enhance our digital lives by connecting us to nature, or sharpen the pleasure of the outdoors by connecting us to the internet. Something that clearly demonstrates the level of well-being to be gained from a technobiophilic lifestyle. And how about applying technobiophilic design to software and hardware? More natural materials and colours please!

Technobiophilic Hackathon Challenge, Rio de Janeiro, 2014

Below is the text of the Hackathon challenge I set to Brazilian developers for the 2014 SESI Cultura Digital in Rio de Janeiro. If you’re not in Brazil but you’d like to have a go any time, do get in touch. I’d love to see what you come up with.

SymbioUpdate: Here’s an article I wrote for The Conversation describing the outcome of this experiment, including the design of Symbio, which came 2nd in the competition. Talking to houseplants might make them happy, but one app calls for a deeper connection.

TECHNOBIOPHILIC DESIGN: new kinds of apps and wearables

Nature soothes our connected minds


Research shows that contact with nature reduces stress and improves well-being. Heart rate and pulse slow down when people are in green spaces with trees, grass and plants e.g. parks or forests, or in blue spaces where there is water e.g. beaches or lakes. Similar results appear even if the subject is just looking at images or videos of such places.

There is evidence that individual performance improves after time spent in nature, and many companies are finding that their employees work better if they have access to natural spaces. Schools, hospitals and prisons are also finding that views of the natural world are calming and restorative.

The internet is full of nature metaphors: bugs, spiders, the mouse, fields, rivers, streams, clouds, surfing and many more. In 2006, I set out to find out why. I spoke to engineers, designers and users; explored hundreds of websites, books, software packages and apps, and looked at thousands of nature images in wallpapers, screensavers and photo sites.

I discovered that there is a word for our love of nature: ‘biophilia’, coined by biologist E.O. Wilson for ‘the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes’. Biophilia is driven by our very earliest experiences of surviving in the wild. Architects and designers use biophilic principles to apply ‘biophilic design’ to buildings, interiors, and urban planning.

I invented the word ‘technobiophilia’ to describe the way we took biophilia into the new wilderness of cyberspace. I define it as ‘the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology’.  Equally, ‘technobiophilic design’ could apply biophilic principles to hardware and software development.

In my book ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ (Bloomsbury, 2013) I suggest that technobiophilia is a deeply unconscious behaviour which soothes our connected lives and creates digital well-being.

Reader comments:

“It is the first book that I have really seen that uses the Biophilia Hypothesis as a starting point to thoroughly examine nature’s influence on technological design. If you are a UX designer, this may be a point of interest and potentially full of new ideas to take onboard.”

“This provocative book examines how nature is our grounding force even while we race away from it towards the newest and best technology.”


1. TECHNOBIOPHILIA Apps and wearables

There are many apps which measure heart rate, blood pressure, and other body functions. But is there a way to collect and cross-reference this data about the user’s physical well-being with information about the environment they’re in? For example, how does my heart rate change when I go from my office to sitting in a green park, walking in a forest or relaxing on the beach? Could I measure and analyse physical and locational parameters to generate a scale of my well-being and track it over time? Can I share and compare the results and use them to develop healthier less stressful behaviour?

Some people think the best way to a healthy life is to turn off our computers and leave our phones at home. I believe this is wrong. Our online and offline lives are increasingly integrated, which means we can have the best of both worlds and enjoy healthful digital well-being.

Wearables like UP & FITBIT focus on sports and activity, but a TECHNOBIOPHILIC TRACKER would be driven by environment and stress reduction. Apps/wearables which already do something similar are SPIRE, which monitors your breathing rate, and PIP, which monitors galvanic skin response, but as far as I know there are no apps which synthesise data related to physical environment with physiological data to help reduce stress and restore well-being through contact with the natural world.

NB There is growing concern around the world about the number of kids who focus on their computers and never go outdoors, which means a lot of demand for apps which encourage children to increase their engagement with the natural world.

We need:

  • Prototypes of software, hardware and data models.
  • Gadgets and apps need to work inside and outside. They may need to work offline then sync when connected.
  • Can you use these existing gadgets and apps in novel ways to generate data feedback loops?
  • Can you use the data gathered by these gadgets/apps in novel ways, perhaps correlating with other data sources?
  • Consider a mix of biophilic feedback, geodata and self-reported status.
  • Consider different types of users, from children to seniors, busy fit working people to rehabilitating patients.
  • In some situations it might be helpful to be able to share the data with third parties such as parents, medics, carers, or teachers. E.G. parents may wish to encourage their kids to explore the outdoors but stay in touch at the same time.

2. TECHNOBIOPHILIC DESIGN Hardware and software

Just as architects design houses with turf roofs and interior designers create water features inside buildings, we should be applying the principles of technobiophilia to the hardware and software we make. Why is there so much plastic and metal in digital culture? What about wood and other natural fabrics? Why so many straight lines? Why not curves and circles? Technobiophilic design connects our digital lives to the natural world so we can feel and perform better. See my Pinterest collection for ideas and examples. and watch Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life

Technobiophilia Resources

Thanks to Amber Thomas for her invaluable help in designing the challenge.

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