Forget AI, it's all about EI (Ecological Intelligence)
I spent many years working in carbon and energy in the built environment for public sector, corporate and startups. At the outset, it was all about individual efficiency projects or discrete annual reports, but towards the end of my time it became increasingly focused on being part of the Smart Cities zeitgeist.
Making a city smart meant using technology to connect fundamentally disconnected spaces in the built environment, if not physically then via the relevant data, in ways that allowed us to make them more efficient. The aim was to reduce inputs, costs and carbon emissions, while making them healthier places to be. All good, clean fun.
After a while, I began to think about the spaces in between the buildings we were working hard to make more efficient: they’re already connected, nature’s already “smart”, and they’re are essential to improve the health of a city for its people and wildlife alike. Moreover, having high quality green infrastructure (not the loveliest of terms) has been shown to improve a city’s overall resilience, reducing temperatures, shading buildings, helping manage rainwater runoff and improving biodiversity. These spaces really matter and can have a massive impact on our quality of life.
The problem is, while the value of these spaces is being increasingly recognised, the ability for government, planners, developers and other organisations to directly manage spaces is limited by the fact that up to 50% of a city’s green space is private. And given we’re losing public green space here in the UK, the role private green infrastructure will play in future is becoming vital to improving and maintaining the health of a city’s ecosystem.
This need for people to engage with their green spaces is key to imby’s reason for being. Fundamentally, imby (In My Back Yard) is looking to reveal nature’s intrinsic connections in an urban environment, presenting these to a city’s residents in a way that provides an understanding of the world around them while providing the tools needed to engage.
Imagine if you could pick up your phone and learn about the environment around you. What species of wildlife are in the area, what kinds of plants, what environmental challenges are being faced by your community, and how you fit into the complex and important ecosystem that surrounds where you live.
Now imagine if you were able to receive advice and recommendations about what actions you can take to improve your local ecosystem, or invitations to support and be part of local community initiatives, or warnings about how environmental events and changes might impact on.
Whether you have access to a garden, a window box, or a local park, imagine if you were able to understand how you were part of the community of animals and plants that make up a city biome, part of a connected, whole ecosystem where the actions of each individual add up to provide benefits to all.
When it comes to the data, we want to look at how individuals and communities can provide data on plants and wildlife which, combined with other publicly available datasets such as climate, weather, soil, and air quality along with new sources of data such as IoT devices mounted in parks and back yards, can be used to analyse and improve the environment at the level of the individual.
Some examples of how this might provide useful insights for how people engage with their green spaces include:
- Wildlife – learn about the wild mammals, birds and bugs lives in your neighbourhood, help record sightings, and take actions to support them.
- Weather – plan ahead to garden on a sunny day; get reminded to water if it hasn’t rained; reminders to prepare for upcoming frosts.
- Air quality – not just air quality warnings, but recommendations for how the plants a person chooses to plant in their garden could help mitigate the problem.
- Fruit tree pollination – know what fruit trees are planted in your community so you can increase the chances of pollination.
- Community groups – learn about the community groups in your area which are actively engaging with green spaces to take part in their activities.
The idea is to use this data to work with the top down, planning and development-led approaches, complementing it, but ultimately ensuring that everyone is working together to achieve the shared outcome, creating better places to live, work and play.
Most importantly, imby’s aim is to provide agency to people in the community: an understanding that they can contribute to a better world around them and help bring nature back into our urban environment.
These ideas formed the basis of a recent presentation we gave at the Chelsea Fringe Festival 2017 event, “GardenTech: future urban green space”. GardenTech brought together a panel of academics, charities, corporates and start-ups all working in London with NGO’s, developers and volunteers to improve the quality of the urban environment through the intersection of technology and urban green spaces. Moderated by Prof Kate Jones from UCL, panellists from imby.bio, Intel, the Peckham Coal Line and Green Lab led a discussion exploring new approaches to engaging with urban green space.