XXX.1 January - February 2023
Page: 30
Digital Citation

Living-with and Designing-with Plants

Oscar Tomico, Ron Wakkary, Kristina Andersen

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During the past five years, the first author has been transforming his home—a flat in the city center—into the place he wants to live [1]: an entanglement of technologies, plants, humans, and others; a place where plants and humans can coexist, inhabit, and coshape the space they share [2,3]. At the moment, the human, nonhuman, living, and technological actors involved consist of up to 250 plants, the physical infrastructure and adapted furniture for the plants to live in, the IoT infrastructure for the plants (assemblage of smart lighting, humidity, and watering systems), furniture and decorative art pieces for humans, a human or two living there, and the occasional guest.

back to top  Insights

Living-with/designing-with through cohabitation as a form of first-person research allows us to experience the hybridity existing in our natureculture.
Cohabitation allows us to take a posthuman design approach by looking at what we are living-with/designing-with as relational infrastructural arrangements.

To achieve this, off-the-shelf technologies were hacked and combined to create a programmable IoT system: eleven interior water irrigation systems with a one-minute automated electric pump and a nine-liter water container each; three sets of six 50 cm linear modules with 10-watt full-spectrum LED grow lights (for the studio plant wall); four 30 x 30 cm 110-watt full-spectrum and infrared LED grow lights (for the interior balcony plant walls); and three 100 cm 300-watt full-spectrum and infrared dimmable LED grow lights mounted vertically with an aluminum support (for the living room and the bedroom). The system is complemented by a WiFi-enabled programmable humidifier (for the interior balcony) and a WiFi-enabled smart watering system, including a light and humidity sensor (for the terrace).

We see this as first-person research [4] into a posthuman design [5] exploration of cohabitation in a multispecies context. Cohabitation remains the goal and the way to rethink how we live with other living things—for example, plants—and coshape "our" personal everyday behaviors and private space accordingly [5]. The following draws on the formats of diaries, first-person vignettes [6], and field notes. Through this we focus on the first stages of the process of designing-with/living-with through cohabitation: setting the stage for cohabitation to occur, finding what living-with/designing-with plants through cohabitation means, and experiencing the implications of being part of the ecosystem. The goal is to illustrate the shifts of attention, frictions, and transitions behind the process and present an alternative to anthropocentric understandings of designing technologies that shape our environments and our everyday lives.


back to top  Setting the Stage for Cohabitation to Occur

Cohabitation breaks the imaginary plant and human divide. It lets us experience being part of our natureculture in our everyday lives [7]. By looking at plants as companion species [7] cohabiting together, plant and human living conditions blend. Cohabitation requires, on the one hand, commitment, care, and personal responsibility [8]; and on the other, acceptance of shared space and resources. It implies reconsidering personal choices and balancing personal needs with those of the plants.

Reflection 1: Buying plants requires a personal commitment. I bought some big plants and now I have to allocate and manage time to place, water, feed, and design support structures. The question is: Where do I take the time from? Sports? Leisure travel? I decided to stop going to my parents' holiday home for the weekend. I see taking care of plants as a form of escapism mixed with meditation practice, with an effect similar to going away for a few days. Through developing "my garden," I started looking at improving personal well-being to justify the choices I made.

Reflection 2: Giving the plants the perfect environment (when I'm not there). A flat has limited spaces where plants can grow, and even fewer where they can thrive. Red/blue spectrum grow lights allow me to create plant walls in the studio and have trees in the bedroom and the living room. A smart lighting system with grow lights as a supplemental light source to incoming daylight compensates for low exposure times and/or low brightness in these rooms. This kind of plant lighting is not comfortable for human habitation, creating a divergent need between humans and plants. Working in-person at the university allows eight-plus hours of plant-lighting time, five days a week. In effect, the plants and I take turns.

Reflection 3: Sharing the same space and resources. During lockdowns, my work self has to cohabit with my plants from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with red/blue spectrum grow lights on. Negotiating the times and schedule between my being there and the plant lights being switched on is a challenge. Each room during weekdays and weekends requires a different schedule to accommodate six hours of continuous lighting, sometimes involving space rearrangements. The most delicate situation is working full time in the studio. I close the doors to the adjacent bedroom to avoid getting a headache from the overexposure of light straight into my retinas. Since changing the laptop stand to avoid screen glare, I am able to leave the grow lights from the plant wall behind the desk on for a few hours while I'm working.

ins02.gif Photos of the living room, studio, bedroom, interior balcony, exterior balcony, and terrace.
ins03.gif Evolution of the adapted modular scaffolded shelving units in the interior balcony over time.

Reflection 4: Being with my designs, plants, and other guests. It is easy to control everything when you live alone. When there are two, however, the situation changes. The way things work for me suddenly stop making sense. I had programmed the motion detectors and light schedules based on my movements and activities. When I have a guest, keeping six hours of continuous lighting for the plants means forcing my guest to live with the grow lights on or spending most of their time on the back terrace. In the end, I'm continuously rearranging schedules for the lighting and switching lights on or off from work when needed, in order for my guest to cohabit comfortably.

back to top  What am I Living-With/Designing-With?

Cohabitation means living with the ecosystem you are designing with. This draws on Ron Wakkary's concept of designing-with, which refers to a relational and expansive practice of designing in which humans are neither central nor exceptional but rather are ecologically interdependent with the nonhuman world [5]. The outcomes of cohabitation as a process of designing-with are relational infrastructural arrangements [8] based on interdependence and cooperation. You can't separate your daily actions from your design actions. Everything you do plays a role, directly or indirectly. This hybridity drives us to think and act more responsibly to design in more ethical ways [9], recognizing and valuing diversity.

ins04.gif Transition from red/blue to full-spectrum grow lights in the studio (above) and living room (opposite).

Reflection 5: A new technology disrupts the current multispecies arrangement. Getting full-spectrum grow lights has made me rethink and completely redo all that I had done. Reprogramming the lights is necessary to maximize lighting time for the plants and create new light experiences for me. Now I can share the same space with the plants that had the grow lights on. In most situations, it is a significant change. I call it "the feeling outside" effect: It's like I'm waking up with natural sunlight, having breakfast outside, or working on a porch.

Reflection 6: When improving plants' healthcare, also improve your own. Sharing other resources like temperature-controlled spaces (the bedroom and the studio) or filtered water allows me to create healthy routines. Setting the room temperature to 25 or 26 degrees Celsius at night helps the plants have the required changes of temperature between day and night; it also improves my sleep. Using activated carbon-filtered water from a big container for the plants means that I, too, can drink water with decreased levels of metals, chlorine, and organic compounds that affect its taste and smell. It has changed my habit of drinking water straight from the tap.

Reflection 7: Growth as a new variable to live-with/design-with. Plants continuously outgrow their spaces. Trees outgrow their pots; climbing plants need support to grow on; trailing plants need to be kept from touching the ground. There are different measures I can take, but all revolve around pruning plants, rearranging where they are placed, or changing the "furniture" they inhabit. I decided to let the plants grow without pruning, which means continuously changing pots, supports, and trellises, and rearranging the placement of the plants in my flat. Designing-with through cohabitation means designing in a state of permanent change.

Reflection 8: Allowing others in intentionally and unintentionally is the start of an ecosystem. With every new plant, the chance of getting new pests increases. Also, due to the proximity between plants, spider mites, mealybugs, whiteflies, and thrips can freely spread and colonize other plants. As it is impossible to eradicate all the pests with just pesticides, I've found ways to cohabit with them. I started moving spiders and ladybugs that I found around the home to where most of the bugs were and I'm planning to purchase predatory mites. At the same time, this situation opened the door to look at my house as an ecosystem. I've started using fertilizers with microorganisms for orchids, added earthworms to the soil of some of the pots, and looked at yellow houseplant mushrooms as indicators of overwatering and possible root rot.

back to top  Being Part of the Ecosystem

Cohabitation promotes symbiotic encounters [10] in an ecosystem through engagement, attunement, and expansion in a form of collaborative survival [11]). Living-with/designing-with through cohabitation never ends. A stable system doesn't exist due to continuous changes in the environment and of the living actors involved. You can't detach yourself, physically or digitally. The agency that you have in the ecosystem goes beyond actively interacting directly with the plants or other technologies you set up to take care of them, allowing you to be responsive in an unimaginable number of ways. Cohabitation supports the growth and evolution of the ecosystem, taking into account that multispecies means living with different agendas and temporal patterns.

Designing-with through cohabitation means designing in a state of permanent change.

Reflection 9: Everyday activities support new variables to become self-evident. When I came back after being away for a week in summer (with high temperatures and most of the windows closed), the atmosphere inside the house was warm and musty. After opening windows and doors, the situation improved dramatically. At that moment, I realized that air circulation and temperature need to be controlled too and that I'm already doing it for my own comfort. By being there, my everyday actions serve as a humidity- and temperature-control system for the plants. Air circulates through windows and doors when opening and closing them.

Reflection 10: Accepting we are in symbiosis. I'm part of the system. The IoT system supports and repeats tasks that I previously did myself but it can't adapt continuously to the changing weather and growth stages for each plant. After summer ended, some orchids that needed less water at the beginning of the summer died due to the unintended "programmed drought" set to prevent root rot. A technical response could have been to get humidity sensors for the soil and the environment. I've chosen to be there instead.

Reflection 11: Reusing materials is easier when you have "other than humans" around you. Building plants' infrastructure requires all kinds of physical resources. For instance, plants need soil, pots, and support structures. Instead of buying them, I started looking for waste that I was going to recycle that might be suitable for the purpose. Elastic bands used to hold a bunch of asparagus are great for keeping three stakes together. The metal wire used to close packaged mini-toasts is perfect for supporting plants on a trellis. Used coffee grounds become part of the soil mix I'm preparing for aroids.

Reflection 12: There is a line of code between life and death. Cohabitation makes me cherish life and acknowledge that death is just one small mistake away. I realized how much trust I'm giving to technological systems and how much the plants living with me also became dependent on those systems. Small changes in the automations can have serious consequences, and to some extent I don't know yet the extent of my responsibilities. An incorrect adjustment of the watering system of some plants over a period of two weeks killed two of them due to overwatering. Others took a long time to recover after being repotted to get rid of damp soil and rotten roots. Even though I feel bad about the situation, death opens a space for learning, changes part of the IoT system, and allows new life to come in the form of new plants or rearranging existing ones.

back to top  Conclusions and Thoughts

Cohabitation adds to sustainability in HCI by approaching worldmaking as collaborative survival [11] through continuous engagement, attunement to everyday actions, and supporting expansion by means of growth and adaptation. After five years, cohabitation has transformed the first author's home into an indoor and outdoor garden, including plants often called "exotic" and "decorative" (aroids, ficus, ferns, cacti, palm trees, orchids, gingers, and bamboo, to name a few), "local" and "medicinal" herbs (lavender, rosemary, aloe vera, and incense), and fruit trees (passion fruit, kiwi, banana, fig, loquat, mango, and grapevine).

Cohabitation allowed us to take a post-human design approach.

Living-with/designing-with through cohabitation as a form of first-person research allows us to experience the hybridity [9] existing in our natureculture [7] and to unpack plant-human-computer interaction from a critical and ethical perspective. Cohabitation, mediated by the assemblage of smart lighting, humidity, and watering systems, has supported the coexistence of environmental conditions similar to a rainforest on an interior balcony; the ones from a tropical forest in a living room, bedroom, and studio; and the ones from a Mediterranean forest on a balcony and a terrace.

Cohabitation allowed us to take a posthuman design approach [5] by decentering the human of the design process and looking at what we are living-with/designing-with as relational infrastructural arrangements [8] based on interdependence and cooperation. Three adapted modular scaffolded shelving units are now used as plant walls for the studio and the interior balcony. Nine stools of different shapes and sizes have been transformed into garden stools for the interior balcony. The dining table, desk, nightstand, cupboards, cabinets, closets, and any other furniture have a secondary use as plant stands.

The multispecies collaborations emerging from cohabiting in an ecosystem can be considered as a series of symbiotic encounters [10], sharing space and resources, allowing us to work with nature from a bottom-up, distributed, and emergent perspective. Air-conditioning, smart lighting, and filtered drinking water are resources used in the home without discrimination between plants and humans. Moreover, new circular material flows have been created to reduce waste coming from food packaging that can't be recycled (e.g., rubber bands, metal wires).

back to top  References

1. Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S., and Light, A. Wanting to live here: Design after anthropocentric functionalism. Proc. of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2021, Article 293, 1–24; https://doi.org/10.1145/3411764.3445167

2. Smith, N., Bardzell, S., and Bardzell, J. Designing for cohabitation: Naturecultures, hybrids, and decentering the human in design. Proc. of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2017; https://doi.org/10.1145/3025453.3025948

3. Keune, S. Designing and living with organisms weaving entangled worlds as doing multispecies philosophy. Journal of Textile Design Research and Practice 9, 1 (2021), 9–30; https://doi.org/10.1080/20511787.2021.1912897

4. Desjardins, A., Tomico, O., Lucero, A., Cecchinato, M.E., and Neustaedter, C. Introduction to the special issue on first-person methods in HCI. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 28, 6 (Dec. 2021), Article 37, 1–12; https://doi.org/10.1145/3492342

5. Wakkary, R. Things We Could Design: For More Than Human-Centered Worlds. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2021.

6. Desjardins, A. and Wakkary, R. Living in a prototype: A reconfigured space. Proc. of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2016, 5274—5285; https://doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858261

7. Haraway, D. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago, 2003.

8. De la Bellacasa, M.P. 2016. Ecological thinking, material spirituality, and the poetics of infrastructure. In Boundary Objects and Beyond: Working with Leigh Star. Bowker, G., Timmermans, S., Clarke, A., and Balka, E., eds. MIT Press, 2016.

9. Forlano, L. Decentering the human in the design of collaborative cities. Design Issues 32, 3 (2016), 42–54.

10. Liu, S-Y. Bardzell, S., and Bardzell, J. Symbiotic encounters: HCI and sustainable agriculture. Proc. of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2019, Paper 317, 1–13.

11. Liu, J., Byrne, D., and Devendorf, L. Design for collaborative survival: An inquiry into human-fungi relationships. Proc. of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2018, Paper 40, 1–13.

back to top  Authors

Oscar Tomico heads the industrial design engineering bachelor's degree program at Elisava, codirects the design for emergent futures master's program in collaboration with IAAC, and is an assistant professor in industrial design at Eindhoven University of Technology. His research revolves around first-person research at different scales (bodies, communities, and sociotechnical systems). [email protected]

Ron Wakkary is a professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University, where he founded the Everyday Design Studio (eds.siat.sfu.ca]. He is also professor and chair of design for more-than-human-centered worlds in industrial design at Eindhoven University of Technology. [email protected]

Kristina Andersen is an associate professor at the Future Everyday cluster of industrial design at Eindhoven University of Technology, where she leads the Wearable Senses lab. She is a jury member for the Dutch Design Awards and leads the EU-funded TRIPS project. She is on the international advisory board for the Design Research Society and the steering committee for the DIS conference. [email protected]

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