Observing eco farmers could guide sustainable information technology innovation

In their field research on over a dozen farms in Shengou Village, they observed the practices of a new generation of farmers — many of whom left city-based professional careers (in architecture, engineering, chemical informatics, political science and cultural anthropology, among others) in a number of industries to try their hand at smallholder farming to experiment with alternative techniques and principles to address ever-increasing harmful environmental impacts. Each with their own unique approach to their craft, the farmers contributed to a more symbiotic community and a more resilient agricultural ecosystem.

“A lot of times these questions, especially involving environmental justice or environmental concerns, are actually wicked problems that technologists cannot work alone,” Shaowen said. “And so we are using ethnography as material to think with. Through the understanding of farmers’ concrete practices, we want to make visible the potentials for alternative solution.”

One farmer experimented with the concept of an abandoned farm, which was planted in a way so the farm would self-regulate and ultimately produce crops without further human intervention. Another developed a system to attract and trap invasive snails to replace the laborious, previously-used alternative of removing them by hand, in an effort to avoid pesticides which would kill not only the snails but also the shrimp, frogs, clams and other organisms that live in the environment.

“The farmers seem to be prototyping an alternative way of doing food production. They have created an alternative economic system and an alternative set of values, alternative community relations, and an alternative practice for actual food growth and food distribution,” Jeffrey said.

Additionally, the researchers found that many of the farmers they observed were not open to new technology.

“There is so much innovation happening in the ag tech space,” said Shaowen. “And if people who are on these farms opt out of engaging in that innovation, in the long term you’re going to see a digital divide and people who are structurally disadvantaged.”

From their observations, the researchers make three notable contributions to future research. First, they suggest that technologists should more intentionally design resources that are sharable by all — including humans and non-humans — in a given space. Second, they recommend that HCI as a field should fully leverage its own resources to support flourishing biosystems, rather than view information as disembodied and place-less. Finally, the researchers note that HCI researchers and designers should factor land usage and interspecies relations into any consideration of IT development and deployment.

“Our work is really trying to leverage different disciplinary perspectives to help us address some of the underlying causes of climate crisis and change them from within with minimal disruption,” concluded Shaowen.

Jeffrey and Shaowen collaborated with Ann Light, professor at the University of Sussex and Malmö University. They presented their work at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI2021, the international flagship conference on human-computer interaction, held virtually in May 8-13. The work is supported by the National Science Foundation.