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Envisioning alternative relationships with the environment through computational design

Envisioning alternative relationships with the environment through computational design

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Tags: Human computer interaction (HCI), Sustainability

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The creation story of the indigenous Haudenosaunee people tells of Skywoman, the first human who fell to Earth from her home in the sky. As an immigrant to this world, she brought nothing but a handful of seeds that she reached for as she fell. Out of sheer kindness, the animals she met on Earth went to great lengths to help her make a home here, and she, in turn, gave back to them by tending to her seeds and growing plants for all beings to benefit from. The Western creation story, on the other hand, casts humans apart from nature, as Eve is banished from the Garden of Eden for enjoying its fruits. Ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer juxtaposes these creation stories in her book Braiding Sweetgrass in part to illustrate the point: "Look at the legacy of poor Eve's exile from Eden: the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It's not just the land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land" [1].

To repair this "broken" relationship and leave behind the colonialist, Western perspective that we have inherited, I believe we need to seek new lenses to radically shift how we perceive humans relative to the environment. Kimmerer provides one such lens, intertwining the dual perspectives of indigenous wisdom and botany to offer an alternative vision for our relationship with the environment. Through my master's research, I am attempting to form another lens: using sensing and design to reframe our everyday relationship with our surrounding ecology, with a starting point of simply re-learning to notice our surroundings.

I am starting to explore research that shows how qualities of birdsong are impacted by a number of factors including noise pollution, air pollution, and weather [2] (see Figure 1). I envision materializing these indicators in birdsong through a design artifact and visualization, making them legible to humans—and perhaps even further, shifting our everyday awareness of these natural indicators that are always present, if we are only willing to notice them. From a data collection and analysis perspective, this is a very difficult problem to solve, so I am treating it as a naive entry point that will give way to a more feasible project. For example, designing a visualization and analysis tool that will help improve my ability to identify bird calls and recognize variations. Because my work is at very early stages, I will give a more personal account of my approach to bringing together the fields of design, computation, and ecology, as summarized in Figure 2.

back to top  Designing Relationships

I decided to become a designer because, to me, design is the piece of the research process that can build and change human relationships. It is the bridge that brings science and technology to everyday people and can even orient the direction of future research. In reference to the work of Neri Oxman, curator Paola Antonelli emphasizes "the importance of [designers] mastering technology and connecting with other scientific fields, from biology to physics, in order to speculate on firm grounds… to propose ideas and solutions that are plausible and imaginable, however far-fetched" [3].

Designers are allowed to dip into different disciplines, collecting, connecting, and distilling based on an empathetic understanding of what people feel and value. I think of it as a humanizing filter through which science passes to enrich peoples' relationships with each other, with themselves, and with their environment. By constantly throwing ourselves into other domains, designers benefit from a naive outsider's perspective, as we are one of the few who can ask uninformed but imaginative questions as starting points—often those that domain experts would not have thought to ask.

In The Art of Noticing, Rob Walker advises his students and readers to "practice paying attention," both for the sake of creative discovery and "to provoke them into thinking about what they notice, what they miss, why it matters, and how to become better, deeper, and more original observers of the world" [4]. I go on walks and try to look at the world around me as a child might, curious about everything that I pass every day usually without questioning or fully understanding. Why do the birds suddenly start singing after sunset? How does the ivy know where the wall is? These are the small, naive questions I start from as a designer of human-ecological relationships.

On top of being an empathetic bridge to human desires and curiosities, design carries the power of communication. It makes insights from other domains more perceptible by channeling them into visuals and artifacts that people can see and hold in order to understand. I hope it's safe to say that most of the world is aware that human activity impacts the environment. But it is the nuance of that impact, as well as our day-to-day responsibility, that is much more overwhelming to grasp.


The more plausible visions we have for a healthier human-environmental relationship, the better chance we have of repairing what is broken.


Design artifacts such as DIY measuring tools, data visualizations, and exhibitions serve as kinder and more beautiful entry points to environmental issues, either by making them more immediate and situating them close to the individual, by distilling them into interactive visuals or by using narrative frames. As an example, I recently mapped the lifecycle of wool (see Figure 3), finding that even taking a systems view of a knit sweater reveals countless entanglements: The market demand for cashmere driving Mongolian farmers to overgraze their land in the absence of proper resource management policy; the reliance on seasonal workers for shearing in countries like the U.K.; and the rise of synthetic materials taking over the many possible uses for wool (an inherently biodegradable and fertilizing material). Distilling my research into a single visual not only clarified it for myself but gave me a tangible artifact as an outcome I could share with others.1

back to top  Computational Filters

In many of the thesis projects that come from my program in computational design, I see a pattern of using computational tools as filters through which we pass information about the world around us, translate them into another form, and then gain some insight or some new way of seeing. Sensing systems are one means of computationally "seeing" the world and processing sensor data into useful insights, through perhaps the eyes of a camera or infrared sensor, the ears of a microphone, or the skin of a thermocouple or ultrasonic sensor. Returning to my perspective as a designer for everyday experiences with technology, I consider what sensors I most interact with and am aware of in my day-to-day. For the most part, these sensors take human activity as their subject (after all I am the "consumer"). The accelerometers and GPS chip in my smartphone are used for the device to infer how far I walk or run every day, the quality of my sleep, and the places I visit. My electricity meter tracks how much energy I use every day. In some cases these perceptions do not reach me; they are purely for the sake of automation, to bill me for my energy usage, to collect personal data on the places I prefer to visit. In other cases, they provide a means for me to reflect and potentially gain insight into my behavior.

What are the implications then, of turning the subject of sensing to the environment, for everyday users to reflect and gain insight on the natural world immediately around them? Environmental sensing is not a novel application of sensing technologies—certainly not in scientific research—and we have more and more examples to refer to that bring environmental data into the mainstream experience. Superflux's "BuggyAir," for example, is a citizen sensing initiative that focuses on the individual and their relationship with sensing technology and "little data." BuggyAir empowers "what are usually 'end users' of a technology to become active participants, sense-makers, and translators of the technology" by enabling them to collect pollution data about their immediate environment. While citizens can live with and continuously use BuggyAir, more transient encounters with environmental data also have the potential to make a lasting impact on our awareness. The "Great Animal Orchestra" was an immersive visualization of ecological soundscapes collected by scientist Bernie Krause, designed to prompt visitors to reflect on the presence and interdependencies of animals in their ecosystems, of which humans are inescapably a part.

My current goal is to add to this pool of perspective-shifting examples and to propose alternative ways for humans to relate to the natural world made visible through the lens of computation. Because the more plausible visions we have for a healthier human-environmental relationship, the better chance we have of repairing what is broken.

back to top  References

[1] Kimmerer, R. W. Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 2013.

[2] Gorissen, L., Snoeijs, T., Duyse, E. V., and Eens, M. Heavy metal pollution affects dawn singing behaviour in a small passerine bird. Oecologia 145, 3 (2005), 504–509; http://www.jstor.org/stable/20062442

[3] Antonelli, P. Paola Antonelli on the future of design. MoMA Magazine. December 18, 2019; https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/211

[4] Walker, R. The Art of Noticing: 131 ways to spark creativity, find inspiration, and discover joy in the everyday. Knopf Publishing Group, New York, 2019.

back to top  Author

Malika Khurana is a designer and artist who uses technology to intertwine physical and digital experiences, often as reflections on our relationship to technology and the environment. She has worked on designing data visualizations, consumer products, and interfaces, most recently for Formlabs 3D printers. Currently, she is pursuing a master's degree in computational design from Carnegie Mellon University. She received a diploma in product design from the Royal College of Art and her bachelor's degree in engineering and fine arts from Dartmouth College. She is constantly trying to be a good steward for the near-future world.

back to top  Footnotes

1. https://malikakhurana.com/Regarding-Wool

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. A concept for a device that estimates air pollution using birdsong serves as a starting point for design research.

F2Figure 2. Design and computation operate as lenses to give new perspectives on real-world observations.

F3Figure 3. Taking a system-level view of woolen garments reveals the interconnected issues along their life cycle. Representing research as a visual map makes it shareable and accessible.

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xrds_ccby.gif This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 License.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.

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