Connecting with nature through technology


7 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

Connecting with nature through technology

All too often digital technology is positioned as being in opposition to nature. In this article I’m choosing to explore another view. How are our digital technologies contributing to and enhancing our interactions with nature?

I was spurred to pursue this theme for two reasons. Firstly, I recently spoke at the Landscape Institute’s 90th Anniversary conference about how the ways in which people experience the world around them can be expanded by technology. Secondly, Bristol has just celebrated the city’s Festival of Nature – an event which included a talk from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) on ‘Using technology to help wildlife conservation’. 

The ZSL both tracks animals using tech for conservation purposes and their ZSL Instant Wild app empowers members of the public to contribute to conservation research by identifying animals from thousands of images and videos captured. This not only aids vital conservation, but also connects users with some of the world’s wildest places. 

Digital tech such as this can help us to forge deeper connections with nature. But why is this so important?

Sparking interest in the natural world – at any age

Over the years, various research projects have demonstrated the positive impact that accessing nature through technology can bring. It can have a calming effect on prison inmates. It can make us generally happier. And by using tech in a physical natural location, our experience can definitely be improved. 

There are plenty of ways that digital technology is being used to enhance people’s understanding of and engagement with their natural environment. Here are some examples:

While more and more people are spending time outdoors, 38% of British adults get out into the natural environment less than once a week. For young people aged 16-24 this figure comes down to 36% – and is lower still at 30% for children. For some, getting out into nature isn’t as simple as walking through the door. But for those who are able, apps and technology can provide a fantastic incentive to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. 

Ecosia - Bristol Festival of Nature
Just one of the projects showcased at the Bristol Festival of Nature

The Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Days Wild app, for example, allows users to pick one of 101 activity cards at random. Tasks include things like watching the way a creepy crawly moves or spotting newborn animals – with the ability to take photos in-app and logging activities on social media.  

The RSPB has developed its own Giving Nature a Home app, with quizzes, species fact files and simple garden activities to inspire excitement for nature, while the Nature Passport App is designed for use by both families and teachers, and “uses simple games and lessons to encourage kids to think, move, observe, collaborate and create in nature.” Nature reserves and zoos also have the option to work with Pocket Pals, who offer AR trails to educate and engage children with their surroundings without detracting from experiencing the site itself. 

It’s not just children who are being encouraged to get outside with tech, though. The 2019 City Nature Challenge saw 159 cities across the globe compete to see who has the most nature-engaged residents. Via the iNaturalist app or website, challengers were asked to find, photograph and share photos of animals and/or plants in their city to track and document urban biodiversity. (We’re proud to say that Bristol and Bath ranked 19th overall, too!)

Education is just as important for piquing adult interest as for children, too. Cornell University’s Merlin Bird ID is a bird identification app, whereby a user can either snap a photo to discover close matches, or answer a few simple questions about a bird they’ve seen to find out what it is. LeafSnap is a similar tool for trees, while Cicada Hunt allows users to hunt the calls of the UK’s only native cicada, the New Forest Cicada, the last unconfirmed sighting of which was in 2000. 

Cicada Hunt has the added bonus of supplying scientists and researchers with invaluable species information – and it’s not the only one…

Distraction or opportunity? Using citizens for research and data collection

There’s also another, more tangible, set of benefits.

The Cicada Hunt app detailed above gamifies species research, making a sport out of establishing whether the New Forest Cicada still exists. The eBird app has similar benefits: when users share information about their bird sightings, it enables Cornell University researchers to fulfil a range of applications, from ornithological and ecological research to advancements in AI. 

The gamification element also applies to projects such as The Danube Delta Scent Pilot. By taking pictures of AR creatures hiding in sites of important environmental interest, participants can compete with their peers to earn points. Plus, they’ll also collect important information about soil conditions and changes in land cover and land use. 

Understanding a change in our environment is vital to work out how best to preserve our natural landscapes in the years to come. But some apps are taking a different tack, and actually rewarding users for taking better care of the natural world in which they live.

Rewarding environmentally friendly activity

What better way to connect nature, people and technology than by offering rewards for taking care of our environment? Litterrati does just that: encouraging users to pick up, track and document litter via the app. It incentivises litter collection by showing users just what their impact on their environment is as a result of their activity. 

In Italy, tangible rewards are on offer to those who use green modes of transport. Bella Mossa (literally “good job”) uses GPS tracking to monitor user journeys. Each walk, cycle or journey by public transport adds points to the user’s total – points which can be redeemed for rewards like cinema tickets, ice cream or beer. 

Enhancing connections with places – the Calvium way

Here at Calvium, we’ve also worked on a variety of projects that enhance people’s connections to their immediate, natural location. The Bristol Parkhive app, for example, educates Bristolians about, and encourages them to visit, their city’s green spaces. Using GPS to identify parks in a user’s vicinity, it also gives information about the park’s facilities – toilets, play areas, cafés and more – opening up new areas of the city to explore, and ensuring that these urban green spaces are enjoyed by as many as possible. 

And at Chalkwell Park in Southend-on-Sea, visitors are able to get back to nature while also immersing themselves in a cultural environment – and with free WiFi to boot. To some visitors, the park is just a beautiful green space in which to relax. For others, thanks to the NetPark app that we created with Metal, it’s a place to explore a series of digital artworks and corresponding located stories, triggered through the app via GPS. 

NetPark Digital Art Park - Calvium

While some will enjoy apps designed to be used while out and about in the natural environment, others may feel that they distract from the experience itself. Yet, as the above examples show, blending people, technology and nature doesn’t necessarily take the focus away from the location itself. Tech-based solutions that encourage people to get outdoors, that aid vital scientific research or that reward more environmentally-friendly behaviour are becoming more and more prevalent – inspiring both children and adults to learn more about the natural world, share their experiences, and even take better care of our planet. 

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