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Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature

“Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life”

Nam June Paik, Artist (1932 – 2006)

There’s a saying in the technology world which asks “What would Google do?”. When I’m confronted with a problem, I’d rather ask “What would nature do?”. Why? Well, if you believe Google have the answer then you’re immediately assuming that modern technology – in some shape or form – is the solution. More often than not that’s the wrong place to start.

I recently sat on a panel at the Aspen Environment Forum which focused on the use of social media in the environmental movement. (You can watch the video here, or read my summary of whole the event here). Many people had already made their minds up that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on were ‘the’ answer, before really thinking through what they were really trying to do, what their message was, or who the different audiences would be. That’s also the wrong place to start.

Asking what nature might do immediately pulls us away from looking for a modern, high-tech solution and more towards a simpler, low-tech (and potentially more appropriate and sustainable) one. It also encourages us to think entirely out-of-the-box.

So, if you were to ask “What might nature do?”, what kind of solutions might you come up with which you otherwise might not have?

1. Elephants

Some of my earliest mobile work back in 2003 was in Southern Africa where I was asked to help understand and apply modern communications technology to local conservation efforts. One of the bigger problems people were trying to tackle back then was human-elephant conflict – elephants ‘encroaching’ on farmland and destroying livelihoods literally overnight. In response, some farmers resorted to poisoning or shooting elephants. Not a good conservation outcome.

All kinds of modern technology solutions were proposed, and many trialled, to try and solve the problem. Electric fences, RFID tagging, sensors and live-GSM-tracking among them. Few proved as successful as hoped, or particularly replicable or affordable.

So, what might nature do?

It turns out that elephants run a mile when they encounter bees. According to this BBC article, early research in Kenya indicates hives can be a very effective barrier, so much so that 97% of attempted elephant raids were aborted. Where satellites, RFID tags and mobile phones failed, humble honey bees might just be the answer.

2. Pigeons

Each summer, as tennis players battle it out on the lawn courts at Wimbledon, the authorities do battle trying to stop pigeons interfering with play. All manner of modern technology is available to deter birds – lasers and radio controlled aircraft to gas guns and ultrasound emitters. Again, each have varying degrees of success and many can be expensive.

What would nature do?

Wimbledon’s answer doesn’t involve anything more high-tech than a bird of prey. A few laps by Rufus around the tennis courts are enough to scare the hardiest of pigeons away. No batteries – or lasers, or sound emitters – required. Simple, sustainable and replicable.

3. Wasps

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the grandly-named “Waspinator” was a little black box with wires, buttons and flashing lights. No doubt there have been attempts to develop high-tech wasp deterrents in the past, but the Waspinator isn’t one of them. In fact, if you saw one you’d likely be a little disappointed. This particular solution looks like nothing more than a brown paper bag. But don’t be fooled – nature has very much influenced its development.

According to the website:

The Waspinator is a fake wasps nest. Wasps are very territorial and will aggressively defend their nest against wasps from another colony. When a foraging wasp sees another wasps nest it will rapidly leave the area for fear of being attacked by the nest’s defenders.

Wasps have a very long range of vision and when they see a Waspinator they think it’s an enemy wasps nest and quickly leave the area for somewhere safer, leaving the area around the Waspinator completely free of wasps

It couldn’t be simpler. And no moving parts (if you exclude the wasps).

So, drawing on these examples, what five lessons does nature teach us?

1. Understand the context of your target audience/user.
2. Use locally available materials wherever possible.
3. Low-tech is not poor-tech.
4. Keep it simple.
5. The answer is likely already out there.

Next time we look to develop a technology solution to a problem, we might be best asking what nature might do before turning to the likes of Google, or any high-tech solution provider for that matter. Mother Nature usually knows best.

48 comments

1 Sitaram Shastri { 08.18.11 at 12:27 pm }

Brilliant! RT @stephanierieger What elephants, pigeons & wasps teach us "Appropriate tech: Lessons from nature" http://t.co/lHs18bF @kiwanja

2 Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature | Global Health Hub { 08.18.11 at 3:46 pm }

[...] View original post here: Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature [...]

3 James Hugman { 08.18.11 at 9:44 pm }

Lessons in Appropriate Technology. From Nature. http://t.co/PWiHzvs Very much appeal to my delight in simplicity.

4 Axsis { 08.18.11 at 10:02 pm }

Technologies from Mother Nature – http://t.co/3M4XI2a

5 Steve Finikiotis { 08.19.11 at 1:13 am }

What elephants, pigeons and wasps can teach us. "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature" http://t.co/nE7csnf #innovation v/ @kiwanja

6 Alicia Arnold { 08.19.11 at 1:26 am }

RT @finikiotis: What elephants, pigeons & wasps can teach us. Appropriate tech: Lessons from nature http://t.co/93YE8Jd #innovation @kiwanja

7 Deb Mills-Scofield { 08.19.11 at 1:59 am }

What elephants, pigeons and wasps can teach us. "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature" http://t.co/nE7csnf #innovation v/ @kiwanja

8 dolbyarun { 08.19.11 at 5:19 am }

Brilliant! RT @stephanierieger What elephants, pigeons & wasps teach us "Appropriate tech: Lessons from nature" http://t.co/lHs18bF @kiwanja

9 tom serona { 08.19.11 at 6:48 am }

Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature | Build it Kenny, and …: Our life is half natural and half technol… http://t.co/REOg9Hq

10 Daraja { 08.19.11 at 7:49 am }

Great advice and great examples from @kiwanja – the most appropriate technology is not necessarily high-tech http://t.co/4xhbFC1

11 Twaweza - ni sisi { 08.19.11 at 7:53 am }

Great advice and great examples from @kiwanja – the most appropriate technology is not necessarily high-tech http://t.co/4xhbFC1

12 Pernille Bærendtsen { 08.19.11 at 8:03 am }

Great examples http://t.co/ha3ZmXb

13 Twaweza - ni sisi { 08.19.11 at 8:04 am }

Good advice passed on: http://t.co/7C2Jxxz

14 Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature | Build it Kenny, and … | AbundantKnowledge.info { 08.19.11 at 8:36 am }

[...] Visit link: Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature | Build it Kenny, and … [...]

15 Ken Banks { 08.19.11 at 8:43 am }

@alyusuph @DarajaTz I wouldn't have thought people would want hi-tech if it didn't work. http://t.co/5EjBTUP #appropriate #technology

16 Morgan Barke { 08.19.11 at 9:22 am }

Lessons in Appropriate Technology. From Nature. http://t.co/PWiHzvs Very much appeal to my delight in simplicity.

17 Ken Banks { 08.19.11 at 9:47 am }

What elephants, pigeons & wasps can teach us. "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature". http://t.co/5EjBTUP #innovation

18 Ken Banks { 08.19.11 at 9:47 am }

What elephants, pigeons & wasps can teach us. "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature". http://t.co/5EjBTUP #innovation

19 William Powers { 08.19.11 at 9:56 am }

The newest tools aren't always the answer. What one technologist learned from elephants, pigeons & wasps, by @kiwanja: http://t.co/PVuWitP

20 C. Daryl Edwards { 08.19.11 at 10:13 am }

The answer's always on the screen, sometimes it's in the stream RT @kiwanja: Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature http://t.co/ZG5unUN

21 KPMG's BraveBanana { 08.19.11 at 10:36 am }

What elephants, pigeons & wasps can teach us. "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature". http://t.co/5EjBTUP #innovation

22 Mylee Joseph { 08.19.11 at 10:46 am }

What elephants, pigeons & wasps can teach us. "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature". http://t.co/5EjBTUP #innovation

23 Éowyn { 08.19.11 at 10:48 am }

What elephants, pigeons & wasps can teach us. "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature". http://t.co/5EjBTUP #innovation

24 Josh Fenton { 08.19.11 at 11:04 am }

The newest tools aren't always the answer. What one technologist learned from elephants, pigeons & wasps, by @kiwanja: http://t.co/PVuWitP

25 Ken Banks { 08.19.11 at 12:19 pm }

@jselanikio Thanks, Joel. You might also like the one yesterday – http://t.co/5EjBTUP – Would be interesting to see a medical equivalent!

26 Tweeted Times Top { 08.19.11 at 7:14 pm }

Appropriate technology: Lessons from …: http://t.co/xpLibTC most discussed on @tw_kur/bop (http://t.co/gGO4ZFu)

27 salbertson { 08.19.11 at 9:21 pm }

RT @TopsyRT: Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature http://t.co/qK4h902 Great stuff from Ken Banks at kiwanja!

28 Monica { 08.21.11 at 3:29 am }

AWESOME READ –> Appropriate technology & your audience: Lessons from nature http://t.co/MhF5kz0 via @kiwanja

29 TJ Thomander { 08.22.11 at 5:04 pm }

Instead of asking, "What would google do?" to solve a tech problem, ask "What would nature do?" http://j.mp/oRXYBT Great thoughts @Kiwanja

30 Alex Batko { 08.22.11 at 11:35 pm }

RT @TopsyRT: Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature http://t.co/sbN1OIK

31 Chris Future { 08.23.11 at 4:51 pm }

Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature http://j.mp/oRXYBT

32 Jenna Crowder { 08.24.11 at 2:09 am }

Instead of asking, "What would google do?" to solve a tech problem, ask "What would nature do?" http://j.mp/oRXYBT Great thoughts @Kiwanja

33 TechChange { 08.25.11 at 4:02 pm }

Instead of asking, "What would google do?" to solve a tech problem, ask "What would nature do?" http://j.mp/oRXYBT Great thoughts @Kiwanja

34 Ken Banks { 08.25.11 at 4:57 pm }

Thanks! R/T @TechChange Instead of asking "What would Google do?" ask "What would nature do?". http://j.mp/oRXYBT Great thoughts @kiwanja

35 majaliwa { 08.25.11 at 5:21 pm }

Thanks! R/T @TechChange Instead of asking "What would Google do?" ask "What would nature do?". http://j.mp/oRXYBT Great thoughts @kiwanja

36 Paul Polak and team { 09.01.11 at 4:00 pm }

WWND: What Would Nature Do? http://ht.ly/6gRpK via @kiwanja -kf

37 lucasgonzalez { 09.01.11 at 4:06 pm }

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38 Ken Banks { 10.16.11 at 12:10 pm }

@oldsmith @stringfellow I love this stuff, too. Check out my "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature" post. http://t.co/69LFBLTh

39 Steve Pike { 10.16.11 at 12:12 pm }

@oldsmith @stringfellow I love this stuff, too. Check out my "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature" post. http://t.co/69LFBLTh

40 RJ { 10.16.11 at 12:13 pm }

@oldsmith @stringfellow I love this stuff, too. Check out my "Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature" post. http://t.co/69LFBLTh

41 Guillaume du Toit { 01.31.12 at 7:20 am }

Biomimicry enables Appropriate Solutions. Article : Lessons from Nature. http://t.co/to9nrhe7 #AppropriateTechnology #Biomimicry

42 Ken Banks { 01.31.12 at 12:46 pm }

Where better to turn for examples of innovative design? "Appropriate Technology: Lessons from Nature". http://t.co/69LFBLTh

43 CAFOD Policy { 01.31.12 at 1:09 pm }

What would nature do? RT @kiwanja "Appropriate Technology: Lessons from Nature". http://t.co/IAQMAg9n

44 lovisa { 01.31.12 at 1:10 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Where better to turn for examples of #innovative design? "Appropriate Technology: Lessons from Nature". http://t.co/cHkhEDLU”

45 umwiza { 01.31.12 at 1:58 pm }

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46 MadeGood { 02.04.12 at 9:59 am }

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47 Andre James { 02.07.12 at 9:28 am }

Biomimicry enables Appropriate Solutions. Article : Lessons from Nature. http://t.co/to9nrhe7 #AppropriateTechnology #Biomimicry

48 Pedro Santiago { 02.09.12 at 12:55 pm }

RT @TopsyRT: Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature http://t.co/JcOR2BBI

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