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.

Waking up in unexpected places

There’s a school of thought which asserts that our background and family upbringing largely define us, rather than our biology – a theory known more widely as the nature vs. nurture debate. Although elements of this apply to all of us to varying degrees, sometimes I sit back and wonder how on earth I got to where I am today. I don’t just mean geographically, but spiritually, too.

As a child, this is where I spent most of my early years. Twenty-five years of it, to be precise. I often stop and ask myself – how did I get from here…

… to here?

One thing I do know. Whatever happened, and whatever happens next, we should never forget where we came from. Or the person we once were.

Could this really be the “coolest thing in conservation”?

A new partnership has recently been announced, designed to tackle the age-old problem of how to attach ‘value’ to the environment, or to ‘ecosystem services’, however posh you want to make it sound. Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) are collaborators in what’s become known as the Natural Capital Project.

Described by Carter Roberts – President and CEO of WWF – as quite possibly the coolest thing in conservation today, the Natural Capital Project, in its own words, aims to “make nature a regular column in our spreadsheets and cost-benefit analyses”. It may not sound that cool, but attaching value to a forest, river, mountain range, savannah, swamp, insect or whatever will take some doing.

Take the humble honey bee, for example. Their value to a bee keeper in Tanzania is undisputed – without the bee there’s no honey. But for a coffee farmer who relies on the same bees for pollination, a shift in population might instead ‘just’ effect his crop. It might not destroy it, but 25% less yield could be the difference between feeding or not feeding his family. So, using bees as our example, a healthy bee population, supported by a healthy forest home, is a key issue. For the bee keeper or the coffee grower, it’s in their interests for the forests to remain intact. What the Natural Capital Project hopes to do is attach some financial ‘value’ to this forest. As they readily admit, however, “putting a price tag on ecosystem services won’t be easy”. Clearly, if it was then someone would have probably managed to do it already.

It’s worth remembering at this point that we already have monetary values for the very services that this project seeks to value. A mahogany tree, for example, is worth several tens of thousands of dollars; a chimpanzee as a pet perhaps a couple of hundred dollars. But these are prices with the ‘ecosystem service’ removed from the ecosystem – not the price to keep it there. This is the key difference.

The problem will be, of course, in convincing as many parties as possible that it’s in their interests to keep forests, rivers, swamps or whatever intact, however many dollars or pounds appear in the financial columns. If the coffee grower owns the forest, then that should be relatively straightforward if you can present the sums, aided, of course, by that spreadsheet. But when external, third parties have vested or varied interests then the value could vary dramatically, down to quite literally zero. Attaching ecosystem value could well help at policy level – which is where the Natural Capital Project is pitching – but it won’t stop illegal logging from outsiders, or ‘travelling bushmeat traders’, or unscrupulous companies or corrupt government officials. It’s in some of these areas where the most pressing barriers to conservation perhaps lie.

This is a brave project which will be quite literally judged on its results. Success – however that is measured – needs to be turned into something tangible, with real results on the ground.

After all, this is where the actual conservation takes place.