Sir David Attenborough, during his speech at the prestigious Landscape Institute Awards 2019, said that helping people to understand that our entire world is in danger means we have to “bring them face to face with the complexity, the beauty and the importance of the natural world… They have to be allowed to see it, to understand it, to love it.”
This poses a significant challenge, given that today more than 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and this is predicted to grow to 68% by 2050.
How then do we encourage people to protect and care for the environment – when research shows that more and more of us are becoming out of touch with nature?
“The world depends on an understanding of the natural world. And where does that start? For the majority of human beings—on their doorstep, into their gardens, if they are lucky enough to have them,” as Attenborough points out. “So you have a great responsibility to bring the realities of the natural world to the understanding and the love of human beings worldwide.”
I had the honour of being the chair of a judging panel at the LI Awards 2019, and hearing these words inspired me to look at, and highlight, some of the ways in which digital technologies are enabling people to connect with the natural world around them.
Why is digital technology pivotal to connecting with nature
A recent study found that 7 out of 10 Brits feel they are losing touch with nature, admitting that they can’t even teach their children about British wildlife. I’ve written before about the deeper connections that digital technology can help us forge with nature and this article continues the theme.
While simulations of nature (e.g. documentaries, video games) have their benefits, especially for those with limited access to the real place, University of Washington psychology professor Dr. Peter Kahn points out that realistic technology, that which seeks to accurately represent nature photorealistically, may actually backfire and make people feel more alienated from nature. The key then is to make sure the two—nature and technology—work together.
“The realistic ideal is that we employ technological nature as a bonus on actual nature, not as its substitute,” he emphasises.
Dr. Patricia Hasbach also drew attention to the metrics that we need to establish in order to discern whether the “digital technologies that mediate our connection with the natural world” is supporting “the restorative benefits of our interactions with nature or potentially takes it away.”
Technology has changed the way we interact with and understand the natural world – but technology and nature do not have to be at odds. Digital placemaking sits at the intersection of people, place and technology by giving people new and varied ways to connect more with their environment.
As Yolanda Kakabadse, President of WWF International, said, “Connecting people with nature is imperative for our shared future and our only planet… How can one expect them to protect something they don’t see, understand or love? It is not easy but it is what we need to do.”
Let’s take a look at current digital technologies which seek to bring us closer to nature by encouraging us to interact with the world around us:
What’s Growing On The Greenway
What’s Growing on the Greenway (WGOTGW), a project by The Paul Hogarth Company, won the President’s Award and Communication and Presentation Award at the LI Awards 2019—and deservedly so.
In their bid to encourage more people to enjoy the outdoors, particularly the Connswater Community Greenway (a 9km linear park in Belfast), Anthony McGuigan and Darren McKinstry decided to publish weekly blog posts about the plants that grow around the park.
Their ‘Plant of the Week’ blog, written with fascinating facts and trivia, also came with a call-to-action asking locals to take photos of the featured plant and upload them on social media. Eventually, this blog generated so much interest that more and more locals went to the park, found the plants, and uploaded photos of their favourite species. The content of the blog featured in the award winning WGOTGW book, available at the EastSide Visitor Centre for purchase. This is a fantastic example of digital technologies being used to support and encourage people’s engagement with nature.
For the generation born in the smartphone age, getting them to look past their screens can prove to be a challenge in itself. A recent survey found that children are spending an average of 23 hours per week on their gadgets (twice the amount of time they spend talking to their parents).
To encourage the next generation to explore the natural world on their doorstep, the Natural History Museum launched the mobile game Naturenauts. With the help of Dippy (the museum’s iconic Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton) and Fern the Fox, Naturenauts guides kids on mini-adventures outdoors through a range of games, including Feathered Friends (identifying native bird species), Colour Hunter (finding things outdoors that match the colours on the app), and Petal Quest (comparing flower photos).
Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats)
Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats) is a “citizen science platform” that allows users to learn more about plants and animals by recording their wildlife sightings, uploading photos/videos on their multimedia journals, and connecting them with experts who are all willing to share their knowledge. They also provide support for classroom-based work, so teachers can guide students while they explore the outdoors.
Project NOAH has received several awards for their work, including the Cooney Prize in Innovation in Children’s Learning and the 2017 champion in the e-science category for the WSIS Prizes.
Image Recognition Apps
Image recognition apps give people the impetus to get outside to explore their immediate environment.
PlantSnap and Seek by iNaturalist are designed to recognise plants or wildlife with one snap of the phone’s camera. PlantSnap can recognise 90% of the known plant and tree species around the world, thanks to their AR tech. Seek, meanwhile, introduces gamification elements by letting users earn badges for uploading different types of plants and animals, as well as through participation in monthly challenges.
Both apps are available on Google Play Store and the App Store.
Technology is Not Nature’s Enemy
It’s easy to pit technology against nature, but the truth is and as we have seen, both can work together seamlessly. More specifically, the development of the former can help build awareness of and advance accessibility to the latter. Innovative digitally-enabled solutions are being used to reinvigorate people’s sense of wonder in their local environments; by encouraging them to go out into the natural world, appreciate its beauty and complexity, and realise that they are part of something bigger than themselves.
As Sir David Attenborough puts it: “The world is not there for plundering. We are part of the natural systems and if we wish to save ourselves, we have to save those natural systems.” I am convinced that technology will play a pivotal role in that mission.