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Infotropism: a plant-based approach to eco-feedback


Final design of the project with plant display in cafeteria. Current display is suggesting that the garbage can is getting more action.

In the paper “Infotropism: Living and Robotic Plants as Interactive Displays” the interdisciplinary team of David Holstius, John Kembel, Amy Hurst, Peng-Hui Wan, Jodi Forlizzi, present a living and robotic plant display as a tool to increase recycling.

At the root of the process was the desire to use “living plants to convey information about human activity”  (p.2). This is an excellent opportunity for designers to make an explicit connection between a behavior (throwing out garbage) and a consequence (detrimental impact on the environment, here represented by a plant), though I’m not sure this is established with this particular design.

The team recognized the ability light to draw plants in a given direction, which suited the particular exercise they were undertaking, which was to motivate people to think about recycling at the point of waste disposal. The team mapped inputs into trash and recycling containers into bursts of light from either side of the plant (see image to the right). The assumption is that people would be able to understand when, as in the image, the plant is oriented towards the trash receptacle, they are actually being shown that people throw more out than they recycle.

The team tested a plant display made of corn seedlings and a robotic display that was designed to work with the same principles. How the units are assembled are outlined in the paper. After collecting a week of baseline information, both the robot and plant units were tested along with a control and a unit with only the lamps and sensors for a period of one weeks.

While the duration of the study was quite short, a marginally significant increase in recycling behavior occurred with the living plants display, and people interviewed seem to understand the various displays and enjoy them. How it might perform long term is currently unknown.

One issue, with this kind of display, is that by presenting  trash as the predominant from of waste disposal, it could backfire as a feedback tool as it acts to establish a negative behavior as the norm. In a nutshell, it may imply “garbage: everyone is doing it!” There are numerous examples of how some messages that present the negative behavior as a norm that has to change, as having the effect of condoning the negative behaviors (see Cialdini on normative messaging). One concern would be that the same might occur here. Perhaps the particular design of this project and the desire some people felt to “take care of” the plant could help overcome any normative message that arises from the current positioning of the plants.  Knowing that would require more testing.


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