3rd Year Group Projects 2018

I’m working with three groups of students from the School of Computing 3rd year group project module this year. I have two groups looking into hyper-local WI-FI networks so that we can offer up bespoke immersive experiences in both garden sites at Merchiston. Thanks to Stuart Toland (Information Services) for lending a hand. The other group is designing a garden web-app.

3rd year School of Computing group projects
3rd year School of Computing group projects

Permaculture Design Course #5

Saturday 24th June

After ride-share pick-ups in Edinburgh, and drop-offs at IKEA, we glided, excitedly along the sun-drenched, early quiet of the A68, alive with possibilities – to the Rhymers Cafe, Earlston, where the remainder of our perma-tribe greeted us with camaraderie and joy.

The weekend mostly involved travelling around the Scottish Borders in glorious sunshine visiting inspirational places.

At the Micro Hydro plant on Ettrick Water
At the micro-generation, Archimedes-screw hydro plant on Ettrick Water,
photo courtesy of Gayle Baird

Our first port of call was Philiphaugh Salmon Viewing Centre. Here we saw the rusting old water wheel, sat beside a gorgeous stream and pool, and we walked along a wildflower meadow flood plain to the locally developed hydro-electric, Archimedes screw turbine sitting astride Ettrick Water – a fine example of micro-generation that powers the saw mill and other local homes and businesses.

We then stopped at the local cafe for coffee and a delicious German Apple Cake before making our way to another inspirational permacultural site that Graham was involved in developing – Tweed Horizons by Newtown St Boswells.

Overgrown orchard at Tweed Horizons, Newton St Boswells
Overgrown orchard at Tweed Horizons, Newton St Boswells

In the overgrown orchard we picked walnuts and marvelled at the serene, beauty of the place. The project no longer runs and it was interesting and somewhat sad to see what happens when a permaculture site is no longer maintained. You can read about the project in it’s original form via the 1996 article, ‘Tweed Horizons: permaculture growing and living in the Scottish Borders’ in Permaculture Magazine. We also investigated the adjacent agroforestry project, again a vibrant intervention returned to the wild. The location of the site was idyllic, nestled into a hillside on the banks of the River Tweed opposite Dryburgh Abbey. I’m keen to investigate how this centre can be revitalised.

The last trip of the day was for a late lunch to Scott’s View, an astonishingly picturesque view of the Tweed Valley, where we mused the wonders of the day.

In the evening, five of us merrily camped outside Kelso.

Scott's View - Scottish Borders
Scott’s View – Scottish Borders

Sunday 25th June

A groggy start and meet-up at Rhymers Cafe before we headed to Tim Stead’s house.

Tim Stead's living room, photo courtesy of Gayle Baird
Tim Stead’s living room, photo courtesy of Gayle Baird

Tim Stead was a visionary wood sculptor whose influence is felt the world over. He died at 48, some years ago but his house and workshop are a living testament to the man. His widow Maggy made them available to us to view and so a big thanks is due to Graham and Nancy for making this awe-inspiring trip possible. It is difficult to put into words the elemental creativity of the place – every object and surface a masterpiece of organic design that breathed a sensual life. Everyone was awed by the experience. The place certainly affected me deeply, and I spent the remainder of the day in a beautiful, inspired, contemplative mood that will stay with me for many years to come.

Tim Stead's sun room, photo courtesy of Gayle Baird
Tim Stead’s sun room, photo courtesy of Gayle Baird

After a meandering, glorious, sunny, life-affirming drive back to Grahams, we had a wonderful, alfresco Sunday lunch and spent the remainder of the day harvesting strawberries and cherries and talking about water in terms of the permaculture view.

Tim Stead bedroom. photo courtesy of Gayle Baird
Tim Stead bedroom, photo courtesy of Gayle Baird
Tim Stead's house. photo courtesy of Gayle Baird
Tim Stead’s house, photo courtesy of Gayle Baird
Sunday lunch at Garden Cottage, photo courtesy of Gayle Baird
Sunday lunch at Garden Cottage, photo courtesy of Gayle Baird

Permaculture Design Course #3

Spring flowers
Spring flowers

On the weekend of the 8/9th April I attended the third session (days 5 and 6) of the Permaculture Design Course run by Graham Bell at Garden Cottage, Scottish Borders.

Saturday 8th

As per previous weekends, four of us car-shared down from a pre-arranged pick-up point at IKEA. During the journey we discussed the mono-agriculture exemplified all around us, and how we have become accustomed to this landscape as the norm – fields upon fields of just a few crops, scattered grazing animals, managed forestry, small pockets of deciduous trees, a minimal amount of people living on the land, and geometric perimeters of hedging.

When you start to think how diverse this landscape was in the past, and indeed would become if left to its own devices, or if a greater diversity of people worked and lived on it, you get an idea of where permaculture wants to take us – from monoculture to polyculture.

After a warm get-together over coffee the 10 participants (and a visiting anthropology student from France studying permaculture people), were led by Nancy on a salad leaf hunt round the garden. We discovered lemon sorrel, ground elder, marjoram, garlic mustard, wild garlic, ramsons wild garlic, lungwort flowers, primrose flowers, kale flowers, lemon balm, fennel, horseradish leaves, ruby sorrel, french sorrel (citrus taste), salad burnet and land cress. We then convened in the sitting room for the background to module three.

Most of the discussion surrounded soil – silt, sand and clay, the mineral fraction that determines the loam. We carried out the classic – soil in a jar with water experiment to determine the loam of the soil at Garden Cottage. We rubbed soil between our fingers, observed it, smelled it, someone even ate a little. We talked about pore space, lazy beds, lightening soil with sand, draining heavy soils with forks, ploughing around contours, the living and dead matter of soil, how organic material improves sand, how humus is ten times as good at holding water than clay.

We mused the surface area of a mature oak tree – 400sq hectares!, and that you can fit 400 oak trees in a hectare – the huge increase in edge that this is.

Garden cottage in Springtime
Garden cottage in Springtime

We then covered – minimising tillage, how digging is counter-productive, how good soil has a crumb, flocculation, calcified seaweed, how worms take minerals into the soil, how mole hills denote worms, how good the soil of a mole hill is and of Charles Darwin’s seminal work: The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

Graham then led us onto concerns about the destruction of soils – that, built up over tens of thousands of years are now chronically depleted due to chemicals use, since the geologically tiny timeframe of industrialisation. Interesting to note that of course all farming was organic until industrialisation.

Finally, we looked at earthworms – brandlings, fungi, bacteria, nematodes, bees, beetles and ants etc and how the combination of theses living creatures build a cycle of richness into the soil. We learned how trees communicate via mycelium, and – how permaculture is about creating balanced ecologies – habitats where life just happens.

Lunchtime arrived in a flash and as in previous visits we were fed a wonderful curry comprising the gardens’ produce. In the afternoon we gardened in the sunshine, happily musing and sharing our newfound knowledge from the morning’s session. The day ended with harvesting huge roots of horseradish, cleaning, chopping, preserving in vinegar and returning the small roots to tyre towers to begin again the process. Everyone worked happily together – there was much mirth.

Sunday 9th

Outdoor group discussions
Outdoor group discussions

We started off the session in the living room, everyone sharing a thought about what they’d been musing after yesterday’s session. It’s life-affirming to share these things with fellow ‘travellers’ and there’s a positive feeling amongst the newly-formed German, French, Scottish, English, American and Italian fellowship. Morticia hit on what my research is about when she offered that ‘doing, improves retention – it grounds it’.

We chatted about Thomas Bewick woodblocks, how paradise in Persian means walled garden, the garden as a symbol and example of life lived fully – the Garden of Eden, ashrams.

Pathways to permaculture
Pathways to permaculture

There was talk of a project in England where a local community wanted to improve its relations – so they commenced a ‘year of listening’ after which they discovered that: a) most people knew how to garden, b) most woman made clothes, and c) most people were cash strapped. They built a garden as a hub for their shared activities. So this was ‘garden as commonality’ and garden as ‘tuning in with surroundings’. There was an insight that permaculturists are huggers.

We then moved onto Lao Tzu and the Tao De Ching (something I hadn’t put my head into for twenty years) and how we could use the permaculture principles as ‘a response to problems as they arise’.

Graham then provided further insight into permaculture, noting that in his experience there were three kinds of people interested in it:

  1. people interested in homesteading
  2. people interested in enhancing their existing profession
  3. people who are looking for ‘the answer’

Permaculture is about asking the right questions.

The indoor session ended with talk about Sociocracy – whoever turns up is the right people. We were encouraged to use provocations and the session wrapped up with two questions:

  1. What don’t you have?
  2. And, how are you going to get it?

We had another wonderful lunch and spent the afternoon gardening and sitting around the outside table discussing all manner of things whilst peeling and preserving freshly harvested garlic. Most of this discussion I managed to film.

Scotland’s Garden Festival Project

Prototype drawing courtesy of Richard Thompson
Prototype drawing courtesy of Richard Thompson

Very lucky to have Richard Thompson working with us on our permaculture UX exhibit at this years Scotland’s Gardening Festival at the Royal Highland Centre 2-4 June.

Richard is developing the interactive parts of our garden utilising Arduino and Processing.

We’re designing a two metre square garden that demonstrates the main seven layers of a permaculture forest; the canopy layer, low tree layer, shrub layer, herbaceous layer, rhizosphere, soil surface and vertical layer.

Prototype drawing for Gardening Scotland exhibit
Prototype drawing courtesy of Richard Thompson.

The garden will be augmented with a playful interactive experience, that allows people to understand the workings of the forest via digital viewports at varying heights.

Following the festival we’ll transplant the garden to the Lions Gate project at Merchiston campus.

SICSA Future Cities: The Economy of Collaboration

Parrot Flower Power Plant Monitor
Parrot Flower Power Plant Monitor

On Thursday March 2nd I attended the SICSA Future Cities: The Economy of Collaboration workshop at The University of Dundee organised by Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design’s Mel Woods, Nick Taylor and Drew Hemment.

The workshop was well-attended and included the following presentations:

  • Dr Mara Balestrini – Citizen Sensing – Making Sense H2020. IAAC, Barcelona and Ideas for Change.
  • Dr Drew Hemment – City Verve – Bottom up and collaborative approaches in the UK’s most recent Smart City IoT Demonstrator in Manchester.
  • Dr Nick Taylor – Grassroots Innovation around Community Technologies in Ardler, Dundee. ESPRC Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement.
  • Dr Katarzyna Sila-Nowicka – Smart Data Collection by Citizens. Understanding of the data, related privacy issues and possible applications. Urban Data Centre, University of Glasgow.
  • Ingi Helgason – The MAZI project: developing a Do-It-Yourself toolkit for creating local community wireless networks. Centre for Interaction Design, Edinburgh Napier University.
  • Cat Magill – Mediating a collaborative design process in the Engergy for All Project. Research Associate at University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Living Lab.
  • Alan Dobson and Andrew Kesterton – Smart City notes from a Small City, Dundee City Council.

Some interesting points from the talks include:

  • the shift from data to the use-case
  • cities cover three per cent of the earth’s land but output 70 per cent of the pollution
  • co-city, fab city, the bristol approach, the city commons method, smart kids lab, making sense, city sensing stations
  • the problem of the accuracy of sensors
  • makers, hackers, tinkerers as focus
  • the use of inventor kits, harnessing common knowledge, neighbourhood scale, DIY tech
  • how do you signal what is actually going on to participants?
  • cityverve, faultlines
  • research in this area is anti-disciplinary – practice-led
  • this kind of research positions itself as a touchpoint between critical art and user-acceptance
  • urban big data centre, energy data for all

In the afternoon we broke into groups and looked at critical challenges. Our group tackled collaboration and co-design and how art & design may contribute to acceptance of ‘smart behaviours’ (a term no-one was comfortable with). We thought a lot of the problems stemmed from: the cognitive complexity of the technologies; the perceived value of the outcomes; the often top-down methods used; and the dynamics of particular communities.

Following the workshop the organisers were kind enough to give me one of the Grow Observatory ‘Parrot Flower Power Bluetooth wireless plant monitor’ sensors to test (see image). They’ve apparently bought thousands of them for their project. So in the coming weeks I’ll be helping them calibrate the sensor and also personally be critiquing it.

Pot Art

Pot Art
Pot Art

David Benyon and I are writing a ‘provocation’ for the Designing Interactive Systems – Space, Place, Interface (DIS 2017) conference in Edinburgh 10th-14th June at the Assembly Rooms.

Our ‘poster’ will be a fruit tree guild in a pot that will demonstrate the idea of companion planting and the layers used in designing permaculture gardens. The exhibit will act as a gateway to our research, and we’re hopeful that we’ll have some interactive aspects available too by then – maybe one of the GROW Observatory’s soil sensors and some audio-visual-haptic experience.

Our research concerns blending permaculture and user-experience, and the pot-garden is a prototype of our larger work at Edinburgh Napier’s Merchiston campus where we’re developing a full garden space along these lines.

Merchiston Gardens

Lions Gate Garden looking north.
Lions Gate Garden looking north.

The Lions Gate Garden project with its associated kitchen garden off-shoot continues to progress and pull in stakeholders and interested parties.

A meeting has been scheduled for 9th March involving Properties & Facilities, Information Systems/Library and the School of Computing to move the project further along. The idea is to embed our project within the grander plans for Merchiston, along the Creative Campus theme.

We’re also hoping to work closely with the design department on lighting and haptic interactions, and on the design of specific garden elements, such as pots, markers, touch-points, bird-boxes etc.

Kitchen Garden space looking east
Kitchen Garden space looking east

Our ideas are gaining traction. That is, to provide spaces for students and staff to unwind, learn, experiment, entertain, play and perform, within a permaculture garden setting that has novel, engaging, fun, thought-provoking, digitally triggered experiences to hand, if you so wish to engage with them.

Key to the success of the project is an outward-facing approach. We’re keen to make the edges of the project, transitional zones where university meets public, and to foster close-working relationships with local communities, businesses, charities and individuals.

Merchiston Gardens plans
Merchiston Gardens plans

I’ve been spending necessary time within the two campus spaces to get a feel for their particular environments and to allow the creative juices to flow. Drawings, photographs and notes are accumulating at a fair pace now, and along with the extensive reading I’ve been doing on permaculture, garden design and sustainable HCI (I’m building a library wall at home to accommodate all the texts), and the 15 years of expertise I have in user-experience practice (and even longer association with media production) – new ideas are beginning to emerge from the ether. Exciting times ahead.

Permaculture Design Certificate #1

Permaculture Design Certificate at Garden Cottage

Garden Cottage
Garden Cottage

In late January I attended the first of six weekend workshops to gain my Permaculture Design Certificate.

A group of twelve like-minded souls participated in what was an inspiring two-day introduction. Graham and Nancy Bell provided a warm and welcoming atmosphere, and many new friendships were forged.

We surveyed a wide spectrum of the permaculture view, alternating between garden, kitchen and living room, engaged in practical, philosophical and methodological interactions.

I also filmed Graham doing a demonstration of how to graft plants.

By the end of the weekend – everyone was enthused, and the drive home with some fellow participants was one alive with ideas and possibilities.

Mapping Merchiston

Good permaculture begins with a thorough understanding of place. I’ve been utilising the excellent National Museums of Scotland geo-referenced maps site to gain better knowledge of the Merchiston area.

Below are screenshots from Roy’s 1752-55 Lowlands, and OS maps through the 1800’s to a 1957 map showing the watershed.

Interesting to note that the land to the west of the campus was a cricket pitch and to the north, a bowling green prior to tenements being built in the late nineteenth century.