This article was written by Sanjay Khanna in August 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
Human cognition, formerly harnessed to understanding habitats and bioregions, has adapted ingeniously (and perilously) to the global consumer marketplace. People around the world, even children under the age of three, recognize numerous brand-name products. Yet many of us would be hard pressed to identify five edible native plants in our respective neighborhoods. We get brand attributes, but have trouble with plant attributes -- in spite of the fact that knowledge of plants' medicinal and nutritional properties was once essential to human survival on every one of Earthís continents.
But now the world's population is more urban than rural.
Cut to the world of the nearly-ubiquitous mobile phones. Could these devices be harnessed as learning tools for urban naturalists and farmers? (According to research by Research and Markets , a Dublin, Ireland-based market research firm, 970 million mobile phones were manufactured in 2006 alone).
One idea, conceptualized by Worldchangingís Jeremy Faludi, is to
develop mobile applications and web-based services for identifying flora and
fauna. Learning about plant and animal identification in the urban context, for example, could boost interest in protecting biotopes, that is, neighborhood-level habitats. Additionally, it could have the salutary effect of nurturing a generation of environmental stewards who are comfortable relating to urban biological space.
To know what one doesn't know, turn to "The Big Here," a blog post by
Kevin Kelly, originally covered by Worldchanging here and here. This quiz asks readers to respond to 30 questions about local flora, fauna, and climatic conditions. (If they answer at least 25 of the 30 questions correctly, Kelly then asks them to write in and explain how theyíd arrived at this knowledge.)
A thoughtful and innovative exploration of the quiz in the mobile context, "The Big Here Tricorder", was blogged last summer by interaction designer Matt Jones. He describes how showing clusters of individuals taking the quiz in specific locales, and geo-tagging their physical locations, may "inspire some collaboration on getting to the 'right' answers about their collective bit of the big here."
With questions about local ecosystems in mind, Jonesí idea could be extended to include the collaborative identification of local flora and fauna to assist with constructing a collective digital memory of biological place. All that would
be required would be mapping known flora and fauna to a database, visual or otherwise, and then using geo-location-based data to display the locations and identifying characteristics of nearby plants and animals.
Knowledge of urban plants may become increasingly important for food security. As urban densification increases, possessing first-hand knowledge of plant-based sources of nourishment may become necessary over the next decade as citizens search for ways to supplement diets through an "urban food commons." A promising experiment is Garden of the Commons, "a web space for public domain edible plants," which catalogs fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs and legumes its users believe are on public property. In the not-too-distant future, initiatives such as Garden of the Commons may actually contribute to the sustenance of citizens who cannot access or afford supermarket produce.
Whether motivated by curiosity or hunger, a mobile device linked to a database-driven "digital memory of urban biological space" may help people learn what to eat -- and foster a greater desire to protect the neighborhood food web.
Sanjay Khanna is a writer and foresight researcher based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Contat Sanjay at sk AT khannaresearch DOT com
Image: Nasturtium. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Mobile Phones and an Urban Garden of the Commons is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.