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Workshop on Co-designing joyful nature technology

Aurora Borealis and forest

The evolution of computation towards lighter, portable, and even wearable forms opens new opportunities for implementation in myriad areas of human life. One of them is our activity within nature, particularly in forests. Designing technology for natural spaces opens exciting opportunities, but it also comes with challenges. As part of the GamiFOREST 2022 program, we decided to organize a co-design workshop to explore this exciting design space. We called the workshop: Co-designing joyful nature technology.

In particular, our workshop tackled one of the grand challenges of nature technology design: by bringing tech into the forest, we risk focusing too much on its capacity to instrumentalize nature and our activity within it. While making our nature activity more efficient may on occasion be desirable, people’s relationship with nature should arguably be far more than productive. It should also be caring, mindful, and fun—stimulating at times, calming at others. Our workshop built on the idea that, to truly enrich people’s experience of nature, designers should transcend the bounds of techno-solutionism—that is, they must pay careful attention to the social, cultural, emotional, and environmental implications of technology design.

At the workshop, ​​we creatively explored how technology may and may not add value in nature. Instead of designing “by default”—i.e., inheriting the utilitarian inertias of the tech industry—we encouraged participants to engage in-depth with the idiosyncratic character of nature and sought meaningful ways for tech to play its part. We looked at fun and joy as values that could be embraced more in nature-related technology innovation, imagining how technology might support nature experiences that are socially, culturally, and emotionally rich. By repurposing tech towards the celebration of nature, we collectively wondered: How can we design tech that helps us to find joy in our engagements within nature, in ways that contribute to surfacing and strengthening the inherent playful potential of nature activity?

Screenshot of the Miro board used to facilitate the workshop activities.
Screenshot of the Miro board used to facilitate the workshop activities.

During the week before the workshop, we reached out to participants with an invitation to go to nature, experience it, and reflect on different ways in which nature activity brings them joy. They did that asynchronously, on their own, at the time that suited them best, and for as long as they saw fit. To facilitate that process, we provided materials (instructions, provocations, props, etc.) to help participants to document their lived experiences.

At the workshop, we began by inviting the participants to share those lived experiences by making a one-page collage with them on the Miro board. We then facilitated a conversation about those lived experiences and discussed how some of their underlying mechanisms might be valuable inspirational material for imagining future nature technology that builds on values of joy and fun. By uncovering those underlying forms of joyful nature experience, we gave ourselves a potent source of inspiration, which we then combined with findings from our prior research to ideate speculative human-nature interaction technologies.

An example of a technology idea that emerged from the workshop is a device that creates an audiovisual experience for connecting past and future climbers (in particular, climbing trails) by allowing them to carry each other’s virtual cargo to peak. The workshop ended with a reflection on the broader idea of what it might take to design nature-related technology building on joy and care as guiding principles. Using the speculative design ideas as a point of departure, we discussed interesting future directions for this field and reflected on how taking people’s lived experiences as a point of departure can help to ground the design work more on people’s idiosyncratic needs and desires.

Screenshot of the section of the Miro board where a group of participants developed and presented the speculative design idea.
Screenshot of the section of the Miro board where a group of participants developed and presented the speculative design idea.

Overall, we believe that the workshop brought about several interesting outcomes: First, we collected, shared, reflected on, and creatively analyzed a set of joyful lived experiences within nature, which can be used as inspirational material in future nature tech design projects. Second, we produced a series of speculative technology ideas that open rather novel and interesting directions for nature technology design. Finally, we engaged in a broader methodological reflection around how people’s own tangible, contextual, and even visceral lived experiences within nature can be used as core design material in nature tech innovation.

We plan on synthesizing the ideas, inspirational materials, and methodological reflections in future academic publications, to continue to shed light on and give structure to the rather new and emergent field of human-nature interaction technology design. We aim that our efforts will turn into knowledge that will guide future researchers and designers regarding how to conduct research activities for/within nature, how to develop technologies related to this sensitive context, and help us in our endeavor for developing joyful, playful, and caring artifacts.

Text: Ferran Altarriba Bertran, Oğuz ‘Oz’ Buruk, Velvet Spors, Tampere University

GamiFOREST opened connections between games and forest researchers

GamiFOREST, the first symposium of UNITE, took place online on April 29, 2022. Hosted in the context of the 6th GamiFIN international conference, GamiFOREST brought together participants from around the world.

GamiFOREST served as an opener for further dialogue and collaboration opportunities between games and forest researchers, facilitating knowledge exchange both during the live sessions and the online platform for discussion. As one participant mentioned: “… [the conference]… gave precious insight into elements of my own reflection. I also took a lot of notes concerning the very, very varied methodologies, especially cooperative ones.”

While most of the presentations and discussions had an optimist, hopeful tone, participants also brought forward several cautionary tales about how nature is to be appreciated and how technology could be a double-edged sword. Game researchers can be pioneers in facilitating nature-technology connections through understanding how to engage people and fill their fundamental needs in terms of self-efficacy, relatedness, and meaningfulness. However, while future-oriented research design is important, we must be realistic in terms of what is applicable in near future and what is the most important thing in forests to ‘regular’ people: being in nature without any screens or distracting modern technology.

Text: Georgina Guillen-Hanson. GamiFIN 2022 organizing chair.