Speaker Spotlight: Simon Collison on The Internet of Natural Things
At our Bristol conference on 8 June pioneering designer Simon Collison will lift the lid on his recent research and suggest ways we can ensure the products we create have a positive influence on our lives. We caught up with him to find out what it all means and why he owns a bat phone
What have you been up to, Simon? You went away for a while and haven’t given many talks the last few years — what’s got you back into speaking?
Yeah, I remember speaking at Creative Mornings about there being too much industry noise. I was feeling weighed down by it, and running out of energy. I had nothing else of value to add, so it made sense to be quiet for a while.
While away, I focused on my private life. I learned to worry less and look after myself more. I became a runner. I met Geri and we married. I continued to visit new places but left Keynote at home.
Last year I reduced my responsibilities at Fictive Kin, giving me more time to write and research, and find reasons to love digital technology again.
So what is the Internet of Natural Things?
It’s multifaceted, but of particular interest are the thousands of tracked animals serving up data as part of a connected natural world that makes wildlife accessible to almost anyone.
The human Internet changed society. Later, objects could use the Internet and become sentient. Now we have wild animals pinging us, creating blog posts, tweeting, etc. This transparency is changing nature forever, and I find it fascinating — especially where it promotes human closeness.
Why have you started this research, and what are you hoping it will result in?
I’ve long been aware of digital tech’s negative impact — and I follow that closely — but I want to highlight positive ideas. If I’m to commit longterm energy to digital products, I need to see my values represented in their future.
I believe we can each be more thoughtful about the purpose of our own devices. I’ve enjoyed rewarding experiences outdoors with my phone, encouraging me to explore the role digital plays in both protecting nature and strengthening our connection to it. Connected animals are a part of that, but I’m casting my net wide: mapping, sensory software, video game worlds, and much more.
I get to ask a lot of questions and open a new possibility space. I’m not sure if I’ll find answers I want or like, but it feels important to try.
How’s our image of nature changing, and how can the tech and design industry help us reconnect with nature?
Our romanticised image is out of date. Throughout history, societies have collectively reinvented their image of nature, so it’s logical to me that we are now defining a new image for the digital age. Rather than think of it as far away, fixed, and irrelevant; think of it as near, resilient, and essential.
Digitised nature is influencing our idea of beauty. The slick production and grand narratives of BBC Planet Earth are enthralling but distant. Online communities are beginning to value blurry, pixellated images because they reflect nature much closer to home, offering fresh authenticity.
I think nature is a promising material to work with, but that’s a risky hypothesis in tech circles. Many think it sentimental, of no significance to our shiny digital future. I’m out to disprove that.
What are some of your favourite apps that you’ve come across in your research that enrich our lives?
I love sensory software that can see, hear, and in some cases even smell. ID tools are especially cool; I can “shazam” birdsong. With the addition of hardware, ultrasonic bat calls become audible, and the accompanying app analyses the echoes and identifies species in real time. Yep, I got a bat phone.
And then there are apps that foster communities such as Animal Tracker. For example, a Facebook group might form to crowdsource stories about one connected bird, chosen because it also has a webcam. These communities are important.
What can people expect to take away from your talk at Pixel Pioneers Bristol?
I’ll discuss principles for products that inform us without demanding attention and offer ways to think about the spaces we move through each day. I’ll show how place and time can help contextualise our tools and make for better user experience and focus.
The talk puts people first, highlighting areas where we can add value. I hope attendees will be more open to diverse inputs and the restorative benefits of nature, eager to make products that better suit the way we live, and help us appreciate the world around us.
Pictures of Simon taken by Stefan Nitzsche at beyond tellerrand Munich.
Pixel Pioneers Bristol on 8 June features seven other talks covering design systems, inclusive design, perceived performance, variable fonts, and more. There are also two workshops on easy and affordable user testing and UX psychology on 7 June. Reserve your space today!