DIS 2017 Poster Provocation

DIS Provocation 2017
DIS Poster Provocation 2017

From six-thirty to eight on a balmy 12th June early evening I stood by our poster-garden in the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms, George Street and talked to interactive systems designers about the need for digital systems design to do more to address environmental degradation, and the social, economic and spiritual malaise associated with it.

A number of attendees made the effort worthwhile by engaging with our ideas, showing interest in our Merchiston Sustainability Gardens project, and professing similar interests and concerns. There is definitely a core of like-minded souls out there, doing meaningful work around food, natural systems and concern for the planet.

And though, to some extent it didn’t feel like the right forum for my ideas – there was value in being different and the publicity of any event at least ensures you visibility. In actuality, I would say that five or six academics (from early-career researchers to professors) showed a genuine interest in my ideas.

On reflection I think we could have been more provocative, and in the future my intention is to tweak the nose of the mainstream somewhat harder.

The details of the paper associated with this poster are:

Sustainable HCI: Blending Permaculture and User-experience. (2017)
Callum Egan, David Benyon
Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems Pages 39-43
ISBN: 978-1-4503-4991-8

Interactive exhibit at Scotland’s Garden Festival

The Canopy Anchor
The Canopy anchor

Three very successful days at Scotland’s Garden Festival (2-4th June 2017) engaging around three hundred people with our interactive permaculture garden exhibit – a great example of harvesting edge.

A collaboration between Edinburgh Napier University’s Centre for Interaction Design and renowned permaculturist Graham Bell resulted in a 4msq pallet garden that demonstrated the layers of a food forest, enhanced by digital interactions, utilising the Blippar platform – triggered by ‘material anchors’ embedded within the garden.

Graham Bell engages the public
Graham Bell engages the public

A diverse audience showed interest in our work:

  • people interested in sustainability
  • people worried about declining bee populations
  • families
  • homesteaders
  • people with particular garden issues
  • people who knew a little about permaculture
  • people keen to do permaculture
  • people who have done/are doing permaculture
  • school teachers
  • councillors
  • people from all social classes
  • other stall holders and organisations
  • garden designers
  • an advertising executive
  • academics/educators
  • doubters
  • event organisers
Viewport, horizontal and canopy anchors in situ
Viewport, horizontal and canopy anchors in situ

Several people were keen to see our ideas delivered via a mobile experience in schools or via other public bodies, such as councils or canal authorities. The ability of the technology to reveal what is hidden is a popular idea.

Though we had inevitable technical issues (the triggered animations often crashed), we managed, via a bespoke web interface to show permaculture films and also used analog means (conversation, books, stickers and leaflets to convey what we are trying to do), that is, paradoxically, utilise digital technology to convey sustainability. Our tablet viewers chained to the garden highlighted how ‘clunky’ interaction in the wilds still is.

The process of putting the exhibit together (doing it), has propagated many research questions and issues that need to be addressed going forward – we talked about; getting away from screen-based interactions (glare was a big problem), the need for exhibit prompts, presence-led interaction, motion-triggered experiences, elemental design, immersive experiences, a geodesic/bower cinema cave, a controlled environment to feed nuanced experiences.

Personally, I was happy to see our garden attract bees, butterflies, ladybirds and dragonflies. Perhaps, in the future we can trigger novel interactions through these and other creatures, in our ongoing permanent story….

Permaculture Design Course #4

On the weekend of 20-21st May 2017 I jumped into the fourth instalment of the Permaculture Design Certificate course at Garden Cottage, Coldstream.


Exhibit plants
Some plants for our exhibit at Scotland’s Garden Festival

The day began with the usual ride-sharing from Edinburgh and after mirthful greetings at Garden Cottage, and a look at some of the plants we’re using for our exhibit at Scotland’s Garden Festival (see photo opposite), we settled down in Graham and Nancy’s cosy living room.

Discussions kicked off about perennial Nine Star Broccoli and the sea-kale origins of brassicas, and then we mused the extended honey production time facilitated by rapeseed planting.

We then talked about Unilever and Lord Leverhulme, before moving on to Hutting and the ability of permaculture to make any land fertile – for example – the greening the desert in Jordan project.

Fellow attendees are starting to consider their designs: we have interest in education about food forests and edibles, designing maintenance, guerrilla gardening London parks, smokers and beehives, companions, guilds, soil and nutrients, repurposing the edges of golf courses, edible hedges, transition projects, harvesting groups and preserving.

Thinking about design
Thinking about design

We then talked about money, listing proverbs about it, e.g. money talks, the best things in life are free, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the gates of heaven. We settled on the observation that it’s what you do with money that makes the difference.

We discussed the church being the original large landowner in the UK and the UK’s wealth based on sheep and minerals such as tin. We conversed about wood, stone, iron, bronze, alloys and Cornwall’s own parliament due to its rich tin industry. We went onto the Gold Standard (banks lending eight times the value of their gold). But money is of course a total fiction and it only works because we believe in it. There was talk of LETS Systems, and we did an exercise on what each of us would do if we had unlimited money, mine involved: a small holding, travel, re-aligning the economy to renewables, increasing free time, pubs, merriment, wilderness. There was a brief chat about Grounds for Learning.

We then moved onto assets: health, energy, friends, family, colleagues, transport, gratitude, music, skills, potential, ideas/creativity, tools, language, numeracy, empathy, adaptability, community, spontaneity, experience, food, determination, access to knowledge/resources. Someone mentioned Street Bank and repair shops.


Graham touched upon the greatest number of forks in a river being seven. This part of the talk ended with looking at no win scenarios, no lose scenarios, coping, designing what you can maintain and consciously designing for the most resilient way to live.

After lunch we looked at design considerations, observation, who or what are we designing for, what is missing?, landscape, access, markets, energy, local knowledge, surveying, frost, mapping, research, and the value of structured design. Our own designs can be delivered however we want.

In the evening a group of us camped-out – and what fun it was – our group close and positive.

Sunset at Kelso
Sunset at Kelso


The morning talk began on the return to natural philosophy.

We then moved onto Tombreck, James Chapman, the Lost Garden of Penicuik, and the Penicuik Storehouse.

Garden cottage flower
Garden cottage flower

Most of todays talk was on buildings. Christopher Alexander played a big part in this. Things to consider about buildings:

  1. Longevity
  2. Location / climate / microsite / blending
  3. Warmth
  4. Budget
  5. Functionality / adaptability
  6. Regulations
  7. Purpose
  8. Materials
  9. Environmental cost
  10. Energy efficiency

We looked at passive solar, retrofit, air quality, ventilation, pattern languages, geomancy and dowsing.

Garden cottage flower
Garden cottage flower

We discussed the tidal earth – the moon’s energy moving the oceans twice a day, that Tahiti has the smallest tide. We surfed Maria Thun, the lunar calendar and biodynamics.

Next was planning permission – putting things in the application that authorities can put a line through. We mused how to store potential energy? Biomass – wood-chip, pellet, hemp, borage, energy crops, animal waste, waste from distilleries.

The day ended with us splitting into groups and designing a conceptual permaculture island with £50 000. Amusing, enlightening and useful – all groups had pretty similar ideas.

Merchiston Gardens plans

Between Estates and myself over the past few months we’ve been developing our ideas for interactive permaculture gardens at Edinburgh Napier’s Merchiston campus.

Infrastructural work is soon to begin – adding in a corridor from the library to the Lion’s Gate Garden and some electrical points and plumbing for taps.

The plans below detail our broad ideas at present.

Lion's Gate Garden
Lion’s Gate Garden
Kitchen garden and rooftop allotment
Kitchen garden and rooftop allotment

Solar-powered audio interactions

Here’s a student video of the 3rd year group project I set – ‘delivery of an audio experience via solar-powered BLE beacons for the Merchiston Lion’s Gate Garden.

It’s great to see the students working outside with the tech. To some extent – job done.

Lions Gate Garden Presentation by Marc from Marc G on Vimeo.

Filming by Nathan Mair + Marc Girot

Editing by Marc Girot

Actor – Rhona Legget Munro

Music by – Alex Collier + Alejandro Barroso Huber

Narration by – Erin Munro

Application developed by – Piotr Kubicki, Nathan Mair

Design meeting at Garden Cottage

David Benyon and I headed to Garden Cottage today to meet with Graham Bell about the design of our interactive permaculture garden exhibit at Scotland’s Garden Festival in June.

After an enjoyable drive down to Coldstream, on a sunny morn, that allowed David and I to discuss many a thing without the distraction of university life we sat down (after the obligatory walk round the garden) with a fresh coffee to take things forward.

Salad leaf hunt
Salad leaf hunt

Graham first set out the permaculture stall with talk of; the need to reduce work and eliminate waste; turning things into assets; reducing energy demand and therefore pollution; the garden as a soft living room and teaching space providing less work, the provision of food and well-being. He talked about a ‘garden-in-a-day’, Robert Hart – the International Permaculture Convergence 2017 in India – the Soil Association. Epiphytes, climax trees, fungi as connectors of the whole system, whether a bee is a part of the tree?, and building resilience.

The rest of the meeting concerned generating realistic ideas and working out the logistics of the event.

We need to develop a script and tell a good story.

We talked about: audio of birdsong; wood chip, spent mushroom compost, 60 salad species available in May, an edible poster, plum tree as climax, the concept of a forest garden (the world wants to be a forest), there is no wilderness left in the UK, the longest it takes for a place to become a forest is one lifetime, taking us back to being hunter/gatherers, building soil that does the work for us, feeding soil so that the soil feeds the plants instead of feeding the plants which is what chemical agriculture does, minimum tillage, indicator plants e.g. nettles.

We agreed on the need for small provocations. We could have a bowl of edible picked stuff such as flowers. Graham talked about Abundant Borders an initiative in the Borders that addresses food poverty. Polyculture is the key. We wrapped up the ideas with a discussion about the Happy Museum.

After a delicious lunch from produce in the garden we drilled down to costs etc and agreed on a method that should deliver us a 4msq palette garden in the short timeframe we have.

Graham walked us around the garden identifying numerous edible plants. I filmed this session.

After saying our goodbyes David and I had the luxury of another 90 minute trip home to discuss things further. A long but very productive day.

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.