Looking ahead

XVI.2 March + April 2009
Page: 58
Digital Citation


Eli Blevis, Susan Morse

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Permaculture, urban farming, and locavorism—all are newly familiar terms that we define in this month's forum and that are implicated in sustainable lifestyles. All denote opportunities for interaction designers [1]. By opportunities, we mean not only potential applications of interactive technologies to help where no interactive technologies have been previously applied, but also the potential use of interactive technologies to more broadly distribute the cherishable wisdom of those who practice simpler, more sustainable, more natural heirloom and traditional forms of food culture and land use.

Much has been made of the digital divide as a condition that groups us into IT haves and have-nots. High-profile projects such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and NIIT's Hole-in-the-Wall (also known as minimally invasive education) are targeted at providing interactive information technologies to those who would otherwise be on the "wrong side" of the digital divide. Such projects are not only admirable but also controversial—perhaps the topic of another edition of this forum. Another, perhaps more thoughtful, conception of the digital divide is one that sees interactive technologies not so much as a treasure to be shared by affluent cultures with less fortunate ones, but as a two-way mediating and knowledge-sharing technology between the natural world treasured by certain cultures and the increasingly complex digital world of others. To put it another way, we in the industrialized world might be better off learning about conservationism and simple living than conceiving of social equity as something attainable only through the industrial-world consumption of digital technologies.

To be sure, not everyone who is poor lives simply and in harmony with nature. The global situation is much more complex than that. What we are advocating is the conception of interactive digital technologies as a means for sharing knowledge between cultures and as a multidirectional conduit. One thing worth sharing is knowledge of food and affinity for the natural world and its sustainable use and preservation. Such knowledge appears to be highly distributed and oftentimes rare.

The motivations for learning about and practicing sustainable food and land-use culture are manifold: ensuring a secure local food supply, living according to an ethos of sustainability, bridging the digital divide by developing an affinity for stewardship of the natural world rather than the export of digital materialism, and finding meaning outside of the world of material cultures.

back to top  Forms of Alternative Food Practices

Before we can delimit the opportunities for interaction designers, we should define a number of practices relateded to alternative land use and food culture.

Permaculture. The practice of designing land for sustainable, agricultural use–the idea of permaculture is not just about food, but also about sustainable use of the land. The permaculture movement appears to trace back to Australians Mollison and Holmgren [2].

Urban vegetable gardens and urban farming. It is nowadays not uncommon for people to transform their lawns and outdoor space into urban or suburban farms, whether to grow food for personal use, to sell in local markets, or both. Just as owning a hybrid electric car is more fashionable than owning an SUV in many circles, having a lawn full of vegetables may one day become more fashionable than having a manicured lawn.

Locavorism. A food ideology that denotes a preference for local foods over imported ones. The sustainability implications of consuming locally produced foods rather than those that travel to reach consumers are obvious.

Food co-ops. Food cooperatives are not a new phenomenon, but they represent a community-owned alternative to supermarket chains. Member-owned and governed cooperatives ascribe to seven principles endorsed by the international cooperative community: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community. The National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA; http://www.ncba.coop/abcoop_food.cfm) cites that there are nearly 500 cooperative retail food businesses in the U.S.; and the Cooperative Grocer directory (http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/coops/) lists 307 members.

Plant a row for the hungry. The practice of planting extra food in a garden for the less fortunate is an important alternative food behavior. One can imagine interactive technologies being used to promote such practices and to match growers with those who need food [3].

Local organic farms. As an extension of locavorism, the idea of buying your food from a local organic farm even at greater cost than imported foods has some traction among certain people.

Organic garden services. In many communities, services that offer to tend a garden on your property or teach you how to grow your own food are on the rise. My Farm, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) organization, is one example of such a service. In exchange for sharing a harvest, the group prepares, plants, and maintains a vegetable garden on your property. The harvest of this property is then split amongst all the participants. Even those without yards can enjoy the bounty and support the effort through purchasing a "share" and receiving a weekly delivery of fresh produce grown by people in their community. Additionally, the group maintains on-site compost, develops and maintains a watering system for each garden, and hosts backyard dinners hosted by local chefs [4].

Slow food. Targeted at undoing the harms of a culture that consumes fast food, the slow food movement has seen an uptick in recent years. The website www.bigpicture.tv has several worthwhile videos that address the concept of slowness and the slow food movement [5].

back to top  Interactive Technologies for Food, Issues and Opportunities

We can imagine a number of interactive technologies that may improve local food production or promote more sustainable land use. Some of these technologies are now available or in development. Still others are just ideas that represent opportunities for innovations in the use of interactive technologies to promote organic food and land use practices.

Tracking food. Interactive technologies may be used for tracking the origins of foods. This may be important information for consumers, and it is vital information for organic growers who want to certify that their products are organic.

Garden sensors. Garden sensors that help people manage their planting better by allowing measurements of soil pH or temperatures or other aspects of the garden can be tied to computer applications that provide advice about what can be planted and when, and other helpful information [6].

Online communities. Like other aspects of online culture, Web-based communities can serve the needs of people who are interested in learning about gardening, urban farming, and permaculture from one another. The advantage of online communities in this context is that people can share their knowledge and interests and create community with others who are not physically collocated. Nonetheless, it is also a particularly important opportunity for bridging digital divide in a bi-directional way, since knowledge of agricultural is a resource that can be shared from poor to rich as well as from rich to poor.

Grower management software. Several grower management software programs exist. Some are targeted for use at personal scale to track progress in a personal garden. More are targeted for large-scale use, as is the case for local organic farming operations.

Sister families. One idea to promote simpler ways of living as an alternative form of bridging digital divides is to connect families from different countries and cultures—"sister families" who can share knowledge, resources, and stories to create stronger understanding of cultures and practice, especially where food and land use practices are concerned.

Food exchange. In some communities, people share produce by barter system, and such systems could be facilitated by digital technologies, by more broadly identifying who in a community has which produce and is willing to participate, or allowing for some kind of credit-based exchange. Such a system allows certain participants to specialize in particular crops, the need to minimize the risk of encouraging monoculture land use notwithstanding.

Organic and fair-trade footprint calculators. Like the now ubiquitous carbon footprint calculators that populate the Internet, organic and fair-trade footprint calculators could allow motivated individuals to see their impact on others in terms of fair wages and responsible land use.

Food-source monitoring. Like other retailers, local food co-ops need to comply with food source monitoring regulations as a matter of food safety. Such information may be equally interesting to consumers who might like to know how local and organic the food they eat is.

SimOrganicFarm. Like its city-building counterpart SimCity, SimFarm challenges gamers to build and maintain their own digital farm, complete with weather, pests, and problems that all threaten the endeavor to become a successful farmer. The notion of SimOrganicFarm is the same idea and opportunity for the urban farming and permaculture movements.

Satellite images, time-lapse imaging, and GIS. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are widely available, but current forms, such as Google Earth, present a relatively static view. A more dynamic view, which shows changes in land use over short periods of time—weeks versus years—could greatly inform and motivate the urban-farming and permaculture communities. Such information could lead to communities being able to advertise their progress in terms of increasing permaculture and other forms of sustainable land use, making their towns seem more attractive as places to live.

back to top  The Story of the Urban Mushroom Farm

Michael and Luane have been practicing permaculture in the form of mushroom farming for more than 25 years. But this is no traditional farm: It occupies their front and back yards, in an affluent residential area. They have transformed their property into an efficient growing environment for shiitake mushrooms, which they sell to their local cooperative grocery.

Over the years, the natural areas surrounding their neighborhood have been developed. What was once a cattle farm to the east now houses hundreds of apartments, a retirement center, a variety of chain stores, restaurants, and a cinema complex. Pavement runoff has created flooding to the south and is becoming a problem for low-lying floodplains.

As the area around them transformed, Michael and Luane grew closer to the earth. Their yard is distinct from their neighbor's. They have little grass, with a worm-powered compost bin stationed outdoors. Inside they use a wood-fired furnace to heat their home. Much of their knowledge comes from trial and error. While they are happy to share their knowledge with others, don't expect them to be posting their techniques and secrets to mailing lists: Their lone computer is on a dial-up modem. and it is rarely powered up.

How could interested parties learn from these practitioners? One potential option would be to leverage the technologies used by the local Center for Sustainable Living as a means of outreach to the larger community. Such organizations recognize the benefit of using technology as an efficient mode of communication. Many communities are making a focused effort to document oral histories of their older citizens. Similarly, efforts can be made to document traditional farming techniques. Through the use of video and audio recording, podcasts, YouTube, or online permaculture networking sites, permaculture and farming techniques are being shared across the world.

back to top  Acknowledgements

This article is informed by interview-based research carried out under IU IRB Study #08-13473. Many thanks to the participants of that study, as well as to the interviewers in addition to the authors, namely Rajasee Rege, Xi Zhu, Feixing Tuang, and Brandon Stephens. Many thanks also to Shunying Blevis, Kristin Hanks, Qian Huang, Dasen Hu, Lee Jones, Dale Jones, Richard Beckwith, and Tad Hirsch for their discussions with us on these topics.

back to top  References

1. This edition of Sustainably Ours advances some themes uncovered in research by the permaculture research group of the Sustainable Interaction Design Research Group (SIDRG) at Indiana University-Bloomington, namely Susan Coleman Morse, Rajasee Rege, Xi Zhu, Feixing Tuang, Brandon Stephens, and Eli Blevis.

2. Mollison, B.C. and D. Holmgren. (1978). Permaculture 1: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements. Hobart, Australia: Environmental Psychology, University of Tasmania.

3. There are many such programs, including: http://www.hhfoodbank.org/plantarow.html.

4. http://myfarmsf.com/about.htm

5. Economist Manfred A. Max-Neef describes the notion of slowness as a healthy alternative way of being in this delightful video clip: http://www.bigpicture.tv/videos/watch/e56954b4f. Erika Lesser also describes the slow food movement in these video clips: http://www.bigpicture.tv/videos/watch/42a0e188f, http://www.bigpicture.tv/videos/watch/3988c7f88, and http://www.bigpicture.tv/videos/watch/013d40716.

6. An example is: http://www.microgrow.com/greenhouse-control-application-chart.html

back to top  Authors

Eli Blevis serves on the faculty in the Human-Computer Interaction Design program of the School of Informatics at Indiana University, Bloomington. Dr. Blevis' primary area of research, and the one for which he is best known, is sustainable interaction design. This area of research and Dr. Blevis' core expertise are situated within the confluence of human computer interaction as it owes to the computing and cognitive sciences, and design as it owes to the reflection of design criticism and the practice of critical design. Dr. Blevis has published more than 50 articles and papers and has given several invited colloquia internationally on sustainable interaction design and the larger context of notions of design.

Susan Coleman Morse is a master's student in Human Computer Interaction Design at Indiana University. Her interests include small scale biodiesel production, local food networks and leveraging design to support sustainable living practices.

back to top  Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1487632.1487646

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. An organic farmer's market.

UF2Figure. A mushroom urban farm—vermiculture worm composting system (Foreground) and mushroom growing logs (Background).

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