Internet of Natural Things

Researching tech's potential to strengthen our link with nature.

Grid of glitchy birbs
Project details
StudioObvious Things
SkillsResearch, prototyping, product, app, design, UX and UI design
One of my favorite [examples of technology as a sidekick for personal application] has been new research from my friend Simon Collison. He’s focusing on what he calls 'The Internet of Natural Things', meaning ways to use technology to enhance and deepen our connection to the natural world. All of his recommendations have been wonderful.

This self-assigned research project led to a popular newsletter, numerous articles, a touring presentation, and R&D projects. But what does 'Internet of Natural Things' mean? Well, throughout history, societies have collectively reinvented their image of nature, so it’s logical that we are now defining a new image of nature for the post-digital age. And with that comes a new and more authentic idea of beauty that designers can embrace.

The research has many strands. I'm exploring biophilic thinking in art, design, architecture and emerging tech. There's great overlap with mental health and wellbeing. I'm particularly interested in the ways data and social media help us track animals, invest in them, and crowdsource their stories. I'm fascinated by how all of these strands coalesce to influence culture and aesthetics.

I want to understand how nature can play into a better relationship with digital technology, and how technologists and designers can work with, not against, the natural world. The guiding idea is not that we need less technology, but that we need more nature.

R&D projects

The project includes prototyping tools and UX that better supports our everyday lives. I started thinking about our relationship to operating systems. The OS is the soul. Embryonic. Everything flows through it. It’s a huge influence on our mood.

The OS is my sandbox, and I work inwards from there, finding smaller things to bite off and work with. It all starts with Context.

Animated diagram for the Spaces concept.

Take the concept of 'Spaces'. You’d cycle through to find the Space you need, or the device could trigger the appropriate Space automatically as you move through environments. Spaces Compatible apps enhance what you see and do in certain Spaces. When you are in a Space, you are immersed in it; involuntary distractions from elsewhere in the OS are completely removed.

Prototype for cycling through OS Spaces.
Early prototype for the OS Nature space.

Bill Buxton, a pioneer in human–computer interaction, has recently been discussing this too. He talks of “place-onas”, an awkward word and cousin of “personas”, where we put places at the heart of UX and work out from there.

IoNT presentation

The first year of research was concluded for a broad presentation aimed at digital design and technology audiences. I presented the talk from late 2017 and throughout 2018 at events in London, Bristol, Munich and several other cities.

View The Internet of Natural Things on Notist.

IoNT presentation, circa June 2018

The talk covers the "new image of nature" and the idea of "a new beauty" brought about by closeness and visual authenticity of living things. I looks at the science behind the ways the outdoors stimulates our wellbeing and ability to work more efficiently. I also dig into ideas for a better operating system to support the way we live, and principles for technology that work in sync with the spaces through which we move.

There isn't a video to go along with the final version of the talk, but the DotYork 2018 video on my Speaking page has some relevance.

IoNT writing

My research and experiences have led to a number of related articles. Here are a few favourites:

Data watching: part one

The digital trail led me to an electricity substation near Walmart, and my first encounter with its globetrotting tenant. In documenting the moment, I joined a community of far-flung onlookers crowdsourcing her story. Read

Data watching: part two

In part one, I wrote about the digital trail that led me to an osprey named Shana and the community crowdsourcing her story. Part two follows her action-packed migration, and considers her legacy. Read

Junco’s, the tiniest pub in Newfoundland

How reality TV exposes nature’s life cycles, and why a whole province found delight in an unscripted anthropomorphic soap opera. Read

Altered images

I’ve been whispering about “a new image of nature” recently. I first encountered this concept while studying land art two decades ago, and it’s nothing new. Read

Outdoors, indoors

It’s an easy mistake to assume that going outside—actually out of the door — is the only way to reconnect with the natural world. Read

Little goat of the air

There it was again: a mysterious humming vibrato piercing the silence, then gone. Whatever the source, it was close, and moving at high speed. The twilight made these sudden whirrs seem unnerving yet also fascinating, a puzzle to be solved. Read

Existing in four dimensions

The expansive views from the hard-won summit deserved my full attention, but cognitively I was elsewhere; present in multiple locations by way of a weak but welcome signal. Read

What's next?

I’ve found “nature” to be an awkward word for many in tech, seen as irrelevant to our bold shiny future. For now, my research continues in private. I'm looking for opportunities to fund a more structured commitment to the work, and hope to shine a light on new findings and ideas soon.