From Fungal Networks to Connected Businesses

Jacob Waites
Mar 9, 2017 · 5 min read

At the CoLab, we love what nature can teach us about emerging technology. As we continue to explore technologies that hint at greater decentralization in the future, nature has some great lessons to teach us. Recently we went back to an old podcast from a source we love: Radiolab. Their episode “From Tree to Shining Tree” inspired us when we were in search of inspiration for naturally occurring mesh networks.

The podcast talks about how mycelium and mycorrhiza give plants a natural network for absorbing and sharing nutrients in soil. The fungi create connections with the rootlets of individual trees and grow further out to connect with the root networks of other plants. These networks exist in most plants just about anywhere you go, creating an “underground economy” by which trees can trade and share nutrients. This fungal mat is what allows plant roots to absorb minerals from the soil more readily, and even feed on things that have died and fallen to the canopy floor.

Mycorrhizal growth on rootlets on a piece of bark, this network of Mycelium channels nutrients from the soil to the host tree through the fungus, which feeds off of it along the way. Photo by Grzegorz Jaglarski / CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s also an interesting juxtaposition to the idea that trees of different species in a finite amount of space should be at odds, fighting for light and pushing one another out of the habitat.

We often find this occurrence all too common in our own society within the interactions of businesses. The lack of connections between businesses as organisms creates inefficiencies and tensions between possible collaborators. This raises a question for us: how can we facilitate grounded connections between real-world businesses that allow them to share resources?

We got so excited after discussing the topic that we jumped right into building something. We took the opportunity to build with Nomad, an open source streaming protocol we’ve been developing at the CoLab.

Our prototype, called Myko, is a smart weight-scale that facilitates mesh networks between businesses by powering them with shared streaming data.

Using a couple Particle Photons and Force-sensitive Resistors, we quickly set up two nomad nodes that broadcasted real-time data from two Connected objects. Each has their own peer identification key, and our particle event stream outputs data in a JSON format, so I can easily parse objects just like I would with any REST API.

An early stage prototype of Myko. We created two foamcore plinths with sensors underneath, each is attached to a nomad node broadcasting a constant stream of data. In this test, I was publishing the weight of whatever was on top of it, and creating a subscribing nomad node to compare the two values to see which was heavier.

Since the Photons can broadcast anywhere with wifi and a power source, these nodes will always keep running, providing a constant publishing stream of data no matter how far apart they are.

Since the nomad nodes broadcast via IPFS, we can place them anywhere. For instance, this plinth would be placed in a cafe nearby IDEO CoLab.

In this prototype, we built two connected weight-sensing plinths for coffee pots to rest on. The weight data we get from the plinths lets us determine when new coffee is brewed, how old it is, how many cups get poured, and how much is left. One pot sits in our office at the CoLab, and the other sits in a coffee shop nearby.

While another plinth would reside with us at the CoLab.

When the CoLab pot is old or out of coffee, and when the cafe’s pot is fresh or about to be emptied (which happens every 45 minutes at our local cafe — they’re serious about freshness!), a signal on the plinth at CoLab is activated to tell the person to head to the cafe for a walk outside and a fresh coffee. At the same time, a signal is activated on the cafe’s pot, letting them know that IDEO-ers are being sent over.

Possibilities for new relationships in this workflow are endless. Could CoLab subsidize a monthly amount out of its studio coffee budget to create a steady income stream for the cafe in addition to its counter service? Could the cafe instantiate dynamic pricing on its coffee to reduce food waste? What about baked goods that go stale the next day? Could neighboring cafes load- balance their wait times in line or their occupied seats?

These questions sparked a lot more ideas and another experiment, which uses nomad to broadcast simple timestamp data from a location when a button is pressed. A subscribing nomad node receives the timestamp when the button is pressed and starts a timer. During specified intervals, a set of custom events fire.

The nomad button prototype in a wood casing.

In this prototype, the subscribing application collects a twitter user’s credentials and fires a tweet every time the timer reaches a certain increment. Each time point and tweet can be customized. In the case of dynamic pricing, the cafe can insert a coupon code into its tweets for a certain percentage off of an item.

Pressing the button sends a timestamp from the Particle Photon’s onboard clock.

Now, when the button is in the cafe, the barista that brews a fresh pot of coffee can simply press a button and a tweet will be sent out to all of the cafe’s followers. After 15 minutes, a second tweet is fired with a coupon code for 10% off a cup. After 20 minutes, a third tweet is fired with a another coupon code for 20% off, and so on. Since we know the cafe throws out its coffee after 45 minutes, we can set the timer to reset and invalidate all the coupon codes after that amount of time. In this way, the cup goes back to full price when a new pot is brewed. While this example isn’t the perfect design for a series of tweets to all cafe subscribers, we’re inspired by the live connections it can form between the cafe and its patrons.

Just like in nature, these prototypes act as fungal mats for businesses, connecting them to other partners nearby and allowing new symbiotic relationships to form. We’re installing these prototypes and building more because we’re interested in how these new technologies can help reduce waste, enhance experiences, and and improve efficiency.

As we continue our journey of exploring emerging technologies, we’re sure that there are many more lessons nature can teach us via the intricate complexities of the living world.

Got an idea? Shoot us a note: hello [at] ideocolab [dot] com


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