Designing the Technosphere for Life

Peregrine falcons are back in New York. They were inhabitants of Big Apple for many decades until DDT closed their fate. After DDT was prohibited, there were intensive efforts at restoring natural populations, and so citizens can again enjoy living together with the animals in what was originally designed as a purely human habitat, part of the technosphere. Urban habitats are rich in wildlife, and there are forms of wildlife that coevolved even genetically, such as feral pigeons. These observations motivate the question, can we design the technosphere for life? This idea has been ventilated for long, such as in the concept of biophilic cities. In a previous post, I have suggested the term ‘technosystem services’ complementing ecosystem services referring to this reverse flow of benefits from technosphere to biosphere.

As a member of the EU-sponsored HORIZON EUROPE project COEVOLVERS (Grant Agreement No.101084220), I enjoyed the privilege to present a keynote to the conference ‘Contemporary Umwelt Analysis: Applications for Culture and Ecological Relations’ held in Tartu on April 18/19 this year. My topic was the artful design of NBS, which we currently work on in COEVOLVERS. I was intrigued by another keynote given by Martin Ávila on a related topic, design for co-habitation of humans and other living beings. Martin presented fascinating examples of his own work on designing artefacts that are multi-functional and semiotically rich, that is, meaningful for different species and supportive of their ways of living. One example is a deceptively simple cane-like structure to grow passionflowers while hosting carpenter bees (for pictures, visit his website here). This artefact, in the language of the Tartu biosemiotics group, creates affordances for several species to draw benefits from the flower. It can be installed on balconies. For the insects, one of the crucial services is creating pathways in the urban maze that are short enough for their various activities, so that larger populations become sustainable.

In this context, another example is the Oslo bee highway where urban roofs are designed to host bee populations in often even artfully designed beehives. This iillustrates designing green roofs and other aspects of urban architecture to remove the obstacle of distance that is often detrimental for the survival of smaller animals or animals that lack a certain capacity of moving, such as flying.

This approach has been labelled ‘interspecies design’ by the Australian designer Stanislav Roudavski. His lab has done both path-breaking theoretical and experimental work on developing design approaches that enable humans and other species living together in urban environments. One of their projects is building owlhouses for the birds who increasingly explore urban areas for nesting since their surrounding natural habitats are deteriorating. Although citizens are curious and even welcome the birds, there are also potential tensions. Therefore, apart from offering functional units for nesting, the artful design of the owlhouses can also be attractive for citizens in beautifying their neighborhood.

Interspecies design is one of the key means how humans can tame the technosphere, in a sense reversing the idea of taming wild animals: We must domesticate the technosphere running wild, which does not mean to subordinate it to human needs, but make technological artefacts co-habitants of the home that we share with all living beings, our planet Earth.

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