I’ve written before on the value of the MSc dissertation as a component of Oxford’s 1+1 MBA programme. Through my dissertation, I explored the emerging frontier of big data and environmental sustainability. Fortunately, I’ve found similar opportunities during my MBA year to research a topic I’m passionate about, namely, our connectedness with the natural world, including the strength of our physical, mental, and spiritual connections with nature, how our connectedness has changed over time (strengthening/weakening), the future outlook, and how that will shape us as a society and individually.
Big data certainly plays a role in this connectedness dynamic. I explored its role for one of our Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford (GOTO) assignments, video interviewing my dissertation supervisor, Dr. Paul Jepson. In five minutes he – on the spot – brilliantly summarized his thoughts regarding big data’s impact on nature conservation:
Interestingly, our GOTO reading includes E.M. Forster’s novella, “The Machine Stops”, which I first read almost ten years ago and still heavily influences my thinking. Published in 1909, “The Machine Stops” features a futuristic world where a Machine houses the human population. Technology enables a comfortable life for a person within a single room. Human existence simply centres on idea sharing, and there’s no desire for in-person interaction or engagement with the natural world.
The two main characters, Vashti and Kuno, differ in their views of life within the Machine. Vashti shuns human contact and finds the outside world repulsive. She loves the Machine. In this society she is normal. Kuno however, is restless and desperately seeks escape to reengage with the natural world. His mentality is rare and punishable by Homelessness, which means death by exposure to the outside air.
Forster’s futuristic world warns that, “…Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.” He’s been credited with predicting technologies like the internet and instant messaging, but importantly, he developed these ideas out of concern for our growing dependence on technology. Indeed, studies are confirming that increased interactions with technology are leading to decreased engagement with nature.
I’ve largely adopted Forster’s vision of the future as my own. As the civilization prior to the one described in the story, we, “had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people.” I see the latter trending everywhere, and this concept first got me thinking about how technology plays a role in our connectedness with the natural world.
Through my core Strategy class (Prof. Teppo Felin) and Strategy and Innovation (Prof. Marc Ventresca), Rethinking Business (Profs. Marc Ventresca and Alex Nicholls), and Global Strategy (Prof. Hiram Samel) electives, I am exploring the dynamic further. I have an opportunity to consolidate my thinking around education, psychology, conservation, sustainability, and technology through projects to assess how these fields can be merged as a means of (re)discovering nature’s intrinsic value and tackling, from the ground up, our planet’s most pressing sustainability issues.
Leveraging Oxford University’s many departments, I’ve had some great conversations with people like the Environmental Change Institute’s Dr. Allie Shenkin, who brought technological applications such as laser imagery in forests and the eddy flux technique to measure CO2 exchange to my attention.
By bringing these technologies and others together, we could, as Forster described it, bring the natural world to us rather than us to the natural world. Heeding Forster’s warnings, in addition to Paul Jepson’s, “…and that’s all cool, but there are worries about this…” we have to be mindful of how technology might disconnect us from physically engaging with nature. However, I propose that by highlighting nature’s processes via technology in a classroom setting or on a mobile platform we might provide future generations with an opportunity to engage with nature like none before, and thus construct stronger values systems for a healthier humanity and planet.
We can increasingly experience the natural world not only in its visible form, but also in forms invisible to the human eye, illuminating how it lives and supports life, and forever changing how youth grow to appreciate it.
I imagine large screens in kindergarten through grade 12 classrooms displaying a tree in a tropical forest in real time. The tree is fully ‘wired’ and ‘online’. Devices are connected to reveal its water uptake. Infrared sensing illustrates the tree’s temperature, moisture, and efforts to cool itself. Another device is measuring and revealing CO2 exchange, or in other words, its breathing. High-resolution satellite technology and camera traps reveal how the tree interacts with its surroundings, including human activity and animal movements.
When out of the classroom, students observe other trees that, while not ‘wired’ like the one on the screen, are undergoing the same processes and change that the students now cannot see, but know are at work. An understanding is created that enables new appreciations not only for the trees, their processes, and the life they support, but also for global issues like deforestation, forest degradation, biodiversity loss, species extinction, and climate change.
This is a different approach to the current one of placing youth in a natural setting to create connectedness, yet I think we can leverage technology to internalize the health of the natural world in the same way the ‘quantified self’ movement helps us to internalize our own health, creating a deep sense of ownership and responsibility that is at present lost on society as a whole.
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