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Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature

In this installment of Digital Diversity we take a temporary departure from mobile phones to look at how nature can be used to inspire some of our own modern day technological solutions. Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – can be used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Ken Banks

“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?


Keepers protect the hives. Photo credit: Save the Elephants

 

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

Image credit: Waspinator

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.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.