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The Field School on Biodiversity , Datafication , and Participatory Policy was held at Ecodorp Boekel (NL) on the 9th and 10th of April 2024. This Field School focused on examining the socio-political relations of digital technologies that can be used to measure and monitor biodiversity in the specific local context of an ecovillage, living lab, and adjacent small forest, in the south-east of the Netherlands. The Field School in April 2024 was organised as a follow up from a longer case study in order to share findings and engage in further discussion with an extended stakeholder network. The goal of these two days was to brainstorm together about local biodiversity restoration and local policymaking through participatory methods.

This Logbook summarises the 6 workshop themes that were held in the afternoon of April 9th. 26 participants formed smaller groups around different themes and rotated through three rounds of 45min sessions. The six themes were formulated together with the Ecovillage inhabitants and represent important local policy issues for which new ideas are needed. The 26 participants represented a wide array of backgrounds, and include policymakers, ecologists, researchers, technology developers, think-tank members, and inhabitants from different ecovillage projects in the Netherlands. By sharing raw notes, images, and documentation from these workshops prior to further analysis, this data becomes accessible to community members and the wider public as open data.

Workshop 1: Rights of Nature

For this workshop theme, groups gathered around the topic of 'Rights of Nature' in relation to the Ecovillage's biodiversity plan (read more about this plan in this older Logbook). During each round, groups selected up to three species from the biodiversity plan and speculated on the implications of granting rights specifically to this species. What would it mean to assign rights to selective species? How would this influence local policy for humans? And what could be the effect on ecosystems? To speculate further, groups also playfully imagined on what grounds this particular species could potentially sue the Ecovillage.

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Workshop documentation outlining the collective task, detailing the 10 species in the biodiversity plan, and the notes people added during the sessions.

Participants came up with policy implications such as:

  • Adapt the lights to my preferences (for the common pipistrelle bat)
  • Do not cut the grass everywhere (for the great green bush cricket)
  • Adjust homes so that I can nest there (for the red mason bee)
  • Ensure that facilities such as deciduous trees continue to exist in the future (for the starling)
  • Leave host plants and do not cut flowers (for the peacock butterfly)
  • Avoid drones (for the common pipistrelle bat)
  • Do not confuse me with wasps and do not encourage honey bees in my environment (for the red mason bee)
  • Do not use chemical pesticides to fight lice (for the great green bush cricket)

Some of the speculative court cases listed include:

  • Sue the neighbouring farmer for the use of pesticides that kills insects that the starling needs to feed themselves
  • Sue the neighbouring farmer for the use of pesticides that kills me (the red mason bees), but do not turn me into food for the starling
  • Sue the red mason bee for walling up the home of the common pipistrelle bat
  • Sue the company Nestlé for proposing to use the great green bush cricket as a protein source

Discussions that came up during this task include the difficulty of assigning rights to certain species over others (these also become visible in some of the contradicting notes), leading to a never ending circle of conflicts between different species. Also interesting was that several groups discussed the problems of the neighbouring farmer's use of pesticides, albeit in different ways for different species. Relations to the use of digital technologies in this workshop theme became apparent through remarks on the use of drones that could negatively impact certain bat species, as well as the schedule for outdoor lighting in the Ecovillage to adjust to bat preferences.

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One of the workshop groups working together on the 'Rights of Nature' theme.

Workshop 2: from Cooperative to Zooperative

This workshop discussed a participatory governance model that includes other living entities as active partners in decision-making. Currently, the Ecovillage operates as a cooperative, with a body of members that make decisions together. They are seeking to transform this cooperative model to a ' zooperative ' one. The zooperative idea is a Dutch initiative developed at Het Nieuwe Instituut (see https://zoop.earth/).

One of the main elements of this model involves assigning a human 'speaker' for all living organisms. This person attends decision-making meetings in the cooperative model and tries to give other species a vote and representation in the organisation.

In this workshop theme, participants speculated together about how this zooperative model could be applied within the Ecovillage. During each of the three sessions, one group member was assigned the role of 'speaker' for all living organisms, and the other group members interviewed them. Together they then wrote a management advice based on their findings.

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Documentation of session 1

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Documentation of session 2

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Documentation of session 3

What stood out during this workshop theme are the challenges in identifying and understanding the more-than-human organisms and ecosystems that could potentially become part of the organisation. At the same time, each of the groups in this theme identified valuable characteristics that a zooperative model should involve. Other than in the 'rights of nature' theme (workshop 1), the conversations in this theme were more broadly oriented towards different modes of listening and paying attention to surrounding ecosystems:

Participants discussed modes of 'reflecting', 'setting targets', 'collective caring', 'empathy', 'connecting', 'attending', 'knowledge enrichment', and 'collective decision making.

Identifying different organisms inevitably led participants to discuss the difficulties of understanding vast local ecosystems and raised questions about how the iterative cycle of the zooperative model could be used to build more ecosystem knowledge over time.

One of the groups assigned the role of speaker to a knowledgeable ecologist who was able to shift perspectives between different species in the interview, which resulted in an inspiring and enriching conversation that provided ecovillage inhabitants and other attendees with new perspectives about their surroundings.

Besides advocating for different modes of listening and attending that could be encouraged through the zooperative model, participants recommended that each decision of the organisation should only be taken after 'hearing' the 'voice of nature'. Other recommendations include thinking not only about life but also about death, ensuring both short term and long term perspectives, integrating external ecosystem impacts into this model, the aim of 'growing towards balance', making organisms feel 'at home', creating broad acceptance of caring for other species among Ecovillage inhabitants, focusing on elements like the soil and water, and passing along knowledge and connections to next generations.

While this theme did not directly focus on the use of digital technologies within the zooperative model, several pathways for rethinking biodiversity technologies can be informed by these discussions. For instance, how could digital technologies help or harm the understanding of local ecosystems? How could different modes of listening and attending to ecosystems be documented through digital technologies? Or how could such knowledge be expanded iteratively and preserved?

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One of the groups working on the zooperative-themed workshop

Workshop 3: the Biodiversity Protectors

This workshop theme took on a more playful and fast-paced creative method for idea generation and asked participants to come up with tasks for the potential role of biodiversity protectors within the Ecovillage.

By assigning inhabitants with the role of 'protector', the ecovillage seeks to attend more deliberately to restoring or preserving different local ecosystem elements. Furthermore, these protector roles could be a way to include younger ecovillage inhabitants in local biodiversity initiatives.

In this workshop theme, participants gathered around a map of the Ecovillage with 72 wooden figures representing all its inhabitants. Through written tags and craft materials, participants were encouraged to create as many 'biodiversity protectors' as possible, by writing down what each inhabitant could 'protect' and what potential tasks this would entail. Interesting conversations and creative chaos followed.

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Participants engaged in creating biodiversity protectors for the Ecovillage

This workshop theme generated new ideas and also provides detailed insights into the interests of the people who joined this workshop. Participants noted down specific entities that could be protected such as deer, owls, birds, bats, water, soil, hedges, the children, and the ecologist. But besides these, the meaning of biodiversity for participants of this Field School also emerged through more abstract proposals:

For example, what about 'biodiversity protectors' of:

  • the silence
  • the dark
  • resilience
  • environmental philosophy
  • the spirit of the place
  • the quality of the relations
  • the little gnomes
  • love for the environment
  • our patience
  • the unknown
  • standing still
  • the transitions
  • attention
  • living with nature
  • natural processes
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Some of the biodiversity protectors created by participants in this workshop theme

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Some of the biodiversity protectors created by participants in this workshop theme

This understanding of what biodiversity could mean in the Ecovillage and what could be involved in protecting it also became clear in the 'tasks' that participants allocated to each of the protectors on the back of the tags. For the more specific entities these tasks include installing nestboxes and collaborations with local protection organisations (for bats and birds), creating a pruning policy (for hedges), stopping cats (for birds), and recurring monitoring (for a variety of species and entities such as soil and water quality). For the more abstract protection proposals, tasks noted down include:

  • Searching for poetic materials (for protecting environmental philosophy)
  • Getting through and dealing with the lack of understanding of people outside the Ecovillage (for protecting patience)
  • Shamanistic processes and techniques (for protecting the spirit of the place)
  • Attending to nature through feelings, spirituality, energetic systems (for protecting the unknown)
  • Limiting artificial light (for protecting the dark)
  • Transferring knowledge, stimulating collaboration, leadership, and exuding enthusiasm/passion (for protecting living with nature)
  • Education and observing processes (for protecting natural processes)
  • Attending to the x-factors and maintaining restraint (for protecting the gnomes?)
  • Taking into account artificial sounds (for protecting the silence)
  • Being open to new insights (for protecting attention)
  • Dialogues, collaborations, and working with externals (for protecting the environment)
  • Celebrating poetry and art to appreciate and honour the environment (for protecting environmental love)

These are just some of the ideas generated by the participant during the Field School, showing that the notion of 'biodiversity protector' can be expanded to include many different entities and ideas. In relating these findings to biodiversity monitoring, participants have contributed an extensive list of design openings that can inspire different types of technologies. What would it looks like to create digital tools and platforms that do not only identify species or monitor ecosystems, but engage much more broadly with the important aspects identified here? How can technologies assist local communities in protecting things like silence, the unknown, living-with nature, spiritual connections, or environmental love? This short exercise shows how the ideas of local communities who engage in biodiversity efforts can inspire alternative ways of thinking about technological innovation.

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The tasks of potential biodiversity protectors noted down by participants in this workshop theme

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The tasks of potential biodiversity protectors noted down by participants in this workshop theme

Workshop 4: the Ecovillage as a Natural Park

This third workshop theme took participants on a 45-min forest walk in the surroundings of the Ecovillage. This local, urbanised forest is a protected nature sight that is cared for by an experienced forester and a local foundation (see also this Atlas Radio episode documenting an earlier walk with this forester). The Ecovillage seeks to become part of this protected nature site, by potentially turning the village itself into a natural park.

In this workshop theme, participants walked across the border between the Ecovillage, the surrounding forest, and the adjacent farmland to explore what it might mean to create a protected nature site here and what practical questions and challenges arise with this.

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Documentation of session 1

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Documentation of session 2

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Documentation of session 3

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Documentation of session 2

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Documentation of session 3

By thinking through different questions on the worksheets, participants identified what they saw as the biggest opportunities and challenges for creating a protected nature site.

One of the main elements listed during all three sessions was the question of how humans could potentially have a positive impact on their surrounding nature. So instead of thinking only about human withdrawal from nature for restoration, an ecovillage site such as this one, that sits in between urban areas, forest, and farmland, has to work with its surrounding elements to restore biodiversity as best as possible.

Participants discussed and illustrated ideas for a more subtle transition between the Ecovillage garden and the adjacent forest. Expanding some of the food forest trees into this forest, for example, could create more connection between the forest and the Ecovillage.

Interestingly, the use of digital technologies was not documented by any group when asked how the ecovillage could demonstrate or proof their positive impact on nature, or during any other part of this theme. Here, groups noted down that the visible connection between the Ecovillage and forest itself can already proof this impact. Another group mentioned the importance of the biodiversity plan of the Ecovillage in demonstrating positive transformation over time, presumably through measuring changes in the presence of certain species. While these methods could imply the use of biodiversity monitoring technologies or platforms, this was not concretely documented by participants during their walk.

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Two participants of this workshop theme standing on the border between the Ecovillage (right) and the farmland (left).

Workshop 5: Biodiversity Monitoring

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Field School participants working together on gathering ideas for different forms of biodiversity monitoring for the Ecovillage.

This fifth workshop theme focused more directly on the use of different technologies for biodiversity monitoring. Participants were asked to document monitoring methods in four different groups: digital & quantitative, digital & qualitative, analogue & quantitative, analogue & qualitative. Doing so led to discussions around what types of knowledge are generated through different methods and it broadened ideas around monitoring from the digital/quantiative technologies that usually dominate discussions around monitoring towards more multidimensional practices.

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Documentation of the different methods for biodiversity monitoring that participants came up with during this workshop theme.

The first thing that stood out with this workshop theme was that there was notably less interest in this topic compared to the themes of workshops 1-4. Nonetheless, ideas that participants came up with are valuable in extending our understanding of biodiversity monitoring:

Digital/quantiative:

  • measuring air-quality at times where the neigbor farmer is using pesticides.
  • measuring dust particles on the solar screens (also used for air quality monitoring)
  • soil-quality research
  • measuring flower species with AI
  • soil-life research (measuring micro-organisms DNA sequences)

Digital/qualitative:

  • Organising a BioBlitz (a species identification even through citizen science)
  • Using AI to summarise the results of interviews
  • Recognising bird-sounds via a mobile application

Analogue/quantitative:

  • Measuring the contents of the septic tank to measure human health levels
  • Measuring the healing time of human skin after injury
  • Researching rainwater
  • Join (nationally organized) species counts
  • Researching moths
  • Researching the efficiency of the helophyte filter and the loss of rainwater

Analogue/qualitative:

  • Undertaking interviews with humans (about their health)
  • Interviewing insects
  • Spring-festive rituals with nature
  • wild-walks (noticing tastes, smells, structures, colours, and itchiness of plants in our surroundings)

These specific examples show the types of monitoring that the participants of this workshop theme are familiar with and discussed together. Having worked with the Ecovillage community for a year, I recognise the examples noted here as they have been part of our conversations throughout this project. Through these collaborations, community members shared their monitoring knowledge and became aware of new potential monitoring methods. Despite the fact that this is not an exhaustive list of ideas, this list of examples shows a particular snapshot in time where technologies such as AI, DNA sequencing, and automated acoustic monitoring are starting to emerge. Also noticeable are the way this community proposes to use technologies to measure existing tensions: proving how the neighbour is using harmful pesticides, as well as the community's concerns about the effect of these on their own health and the environment.

Workshop 6: Biodiversity and AI

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Documentation of the workshop theme on biodiversity and AI

The sixth workshop theme focused on the use of AI for biodiversity monitoring. Knowing that the participants of the Field School have different opinions and perspectives on the use of these types of monitoring technologies, participants were asked to discuss four different statements and document their discussions.

The printed worksheet included three different examples of AI technologies that came up during earlier fieldwork in the Ecovillage and include the use of drones to automatically detect flower species, the use of nest boxes with automated bird recognition technology, and bee colony management through weight, temperature, acoustic sensors, and automation algorithms.

When asked whether automation or AI is the future of biodiversity monitoring, participants reported a difference in opinion. They agree that it is important to be aware of the disadvantages of using these technologies and weight them against possible advantages. They emphasise the importance of asking questions such as 'why are we using these technologies? What is the data indicating? And why could this be meaningful for us?'

In response to the statement 'more biodiversity data = more biodiversity', participants noted that 'more data about candy does not equal more candy'.

Is creating more trustworthy data the biggest challenge for the development of automation systems to monitor biodiversity? To this question, participants engaged in a longer discussion and noted that it is more important to remain aware of the intention behind the creation of these systems and to avoid losing track of their purpose.

Lastly, the question of whether such techniques could help the Ecovillage locally to improve their biodiversity, participants agreed that it could help data that can prove the benefits of biodiversity initiative to the 'outside' world and it can help the community to think 'beyond the human perspective'. They disagreed on whether such systems can potentially lose interaction with the environment.

Similar to workshop theme 5, this theme received notably less interest than workshop 1-4. On further questioning why this could be the case, participants seem to prefer to engage in larger questions around local biodiversity restoration and focus less directly on the digital technologies that may support or hinder these efforts. Community member also report their lack of knowledge about these systems that may influence their interest in addressing them further. These different workshop themes thereby show how different modes of discussing digital technologies in either direct or more indirect forms reveal more details about people's willingness to engage with them.

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