Observing eco farmers could guide sustainable information technology innovation

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. – In recent years, the latest agricultural technology has advanced, introducing innovations from self-propelled tractors and laser scarecrows to robotic bees that aid in pollination.

But are these innovations useful and accepted by farmers around the world? And, perhaps more importantly, does its impact on global climate make communities and the world a better place? What could technologists learn from alternative farming movements like permaculture and eco-farming that seek to redefine the relationships between humans, non-humans, and land?

Penn State University of Information Science and Technology Researcher Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell Set out to answer these questions and do ethnographic field research in Shengou Village (深溝 村), an experimental ecological farming village in the rural Yuanshan Township of Taiwan’s Bread Basket in Yilan County. There they observed the community’s backlash to industrial innovations and the resulting climate crisis. What the researchers found was a sophisticated alternative approach to agriculture, in which the exchange of goods, money, and labor was not geared towards creating wealth, but rather towards maintaining a desirable way of life.

Demonstration of the sun sensor

Shaowen Bardzell watches an agricultural technologist in Taiwan conduct a demonstration of a sun sensor.

“There are a number of practices, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, that have resulted in unsustainable modes of being that are now creating an environmental crisis and an existential threat to humanity,” said Jeffrey, professor and assistant dean of undergraduate and graduate studies at the college from IS. “Our research seeks to do cross-disciplinary computing and farming in different places where people are strategizing to reduce some of the unsustainable practices we depend on.”

Jeffrey and Shaowen, ethnographers and human-computer interaction (HCI) and design experts, set out to discover and identify specific methods that these farmers are using as alternatives to industrial agriculture, in the hope of potentially transferring these practices to their fields .

“Typically in HCI you identify a domain and say,” How can we use technology to support people in that domain? Saowen, a professor at the College of IST, said Shaowen, “But this project is the other way around. It’s about finding out what technologists can learn from organic farmers that could tell us about our design redesign project.”

The concept of redesigning the design is the researchers’ attempt to better align the design with the long-term needs of humans on the planet – namely, survival.

“We [as humans] seem to be trying so hard to build systems without really thinking about the implications, “said Jeffrey.” And that poses a kind of dilemma, namely, we want to be designers in order to redesign design, but what breaks is design. “

Shaowen pointed to a hypothetical situation where robotic bees populate the world, replacing the actual bees that have been killed by pesticides, which in turn has affected flowers and other pollinators.

“It’s like solving a problem with pesticides, but that creates another problem that you can solve with another man-made solution,” Shaowen said. “Part of what these Taiwanese organic farmers are trying to do is stop this kind of cascading problem, have a problem that creates a new solution, that creates a new problem with a new solution, and so on.”

Taiwanese orchard

A scene from a Taiwanese orchard, part of Bardzell’s ethnographic fieldwork.

In their field research on over a dozen farms in Shengou Village, they observed the practices of a new generation of farmers, many of whom left professional careers in the city (including architecture, engineering, chemical informatics, political science, and cultural anthropology) in A number of industries are trying to get into small-scale farming to experiment with alternative techniques and principles to counter the ever-increasing harmful environmental impacts. Farmers each had their own approach to their craft, contributing to a more symbiotic community and a more resilient agricultural ecosystem.

“Often times, these issues, especially those related to environmental justice or concerns, are dire problems that technologists cannot solve on their own,” Shaowen said. “And so we use ethnography as a material for thinking. By understanding the specific practices of farmers, we want to make the potential for alternative solutions visible. “

One farmer experimented with the concept of an abandoned farm that was planted in such a way that the farm could self-regulate and ultimately produce crops without further human intervention. Another devised a system to attract and trap invasive slugs to replace the tedious alternative previously used of removing them by hand to avoid pesticides affecting not only the slugs but also the shrimp, frogs, and clams kill other organisms would live in the environment.

“Farmers seem to be developing prototypes for an alternative way of producing food. You have created an alternative economic system and set of alternative values, alternative relationships with the community and alternative practice for the actual growth of food and the distribution of food, ”said Jeffrey.

In addition, the researchers found that many of the farmers they observed were not open to new technologies.

“There are so many innovations in Ag technology,” Shaowen said. “And if people on these farms decide against this innovation, in the long run there will be a digital divide and people who are structurally disadvantaged.”

From their observations, the researchers make three remarkable contributions to future research. First, they suggest that technologists should more specifically design resources that can be shared by everyone – including humans and non-humans – in a given space. Second, they recommend that as a field, HCI should make full use of its own resources to support thriving biosystems, rather than viewing information as disembodied and displaced. Finally, the researchers note that HCI researchers and designers should consider land use and species relationships when considering IT development and deployment.

“Our work really seeks to use different disciplinary perspectives to address some of the underlying causes of the climate crisis and change them from within with minimal disruption,” concluded Shaowen.

Jeffrey and Shaowen worked with Ann Light, Professor at the University of Sussex and Malmö University. They presented their work on the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems, CHI2021, the international flagship conference on human-computer interaction, which took place virtually from May 8th to 13th. The work is supported by the National Science Foundation.