Gardening Robotic Wanderer (GRoW)

An Experiment in Remediating Our Relationship with the Earth through Technology.

A vacant lot is all that remains of an old industrial site. The brick and mortar of its factory has been crushed into gravel. Its soil is packed and hard from the heavy machinery that brought down the building and pressed its remains into the earth. Toxins leftover from the factory's heyday linger in the ruined landscape, never far from the surface. One or two plant species dominate the landscape and struggle to grow more than a few inches high - a little patch of desert in Ohio.

GRoW, the Gardening Robotic Wanderer, trundles across the landscape on a frame hacked together from used bicycle parts. Two mountain bike wheels act as drive wheels, and a wheel from a child's bicycle acts as a caster. A galvanized steel garbage can is nestled between two orange plastic bins which house the electrical components. Inside the garbage can is a mechanism to disperse compost and wildflower seed. A steel mast rises from this conglomerate of re-purposed goods to a height of six feet and is topped with a bird feeder and sensor array. Inside the garbage can is a mechanism to disperse compost and wildflowers. Lacking any form of shock absorption, GRoW transmits every feature of the landscape into gesture. As GRoW clumsily traverses the site, the steel handles of the garbage can bang loudly as they slap the sides of the can. After traveling a certain distance, GRoW stops and is quiet for a moment before dumping seed or compost. It then chooses a new compass bearing to follow and the motors whine as it pushes forward. When the robot senses an obstacle that is too large to drive over, it intelligently adjusts its course heading to avoid the obstacle. This combination of behaviors ensures that over time GRoW will eventually cover the entire plot in seeds and compost.

GRoW is not meant to be a practical device. GRoW proposes a possible future in which technology is built for non-anthropocentric purposes and exists in a symbiotic relationship with the natural world. GRoW's purpose is to inspire thought and conversation regarding public perceptions of the relationships between humanity, technology, and the natural world and the assumptions underlying these perceptions. Humanity was once in a symbiotic relationship with the planet. Our population was subjected to the same environmental controls as every other species. However, through the development of language, fire, and agriculture, we learned how to defeat the population controls to which we had been subjected. Our relationship with nature became increasingly autocratic as technology and our understanding of the laws of nature progressed. This self-promotion, coupled with the Western, anthropocentric philosophical views of humankind, have made us and our inventions quite toxic to our world.

In the early twentieth century, the US government sponsored a culling of predators in the West. The misperception that predators were cruel, wanton murders of innocent animals led to the extermination of wolves, cougars, birds of prey, etc. “By the end of the 1930's, however, there was disturbing evidence from across the West that predator persecution was not creating a peaceable kingdom. By removing natural constraints on deer and rodent population growth, it was instead producing biological catastrophes.” (Davis, Ecology of Fear, pp.233) The unchecked populations of deer and rodents ravaged the landscape until succumbing to disease and starvation. Though disastrous, the consequences of this large scale slaughtering taught the scientific community the importance of balance in a healthy ecosystem.

We often cannot imagine the true impact of our actions within a complex, ecological system until they produce a dramatic shift in its balance. Though we are quite skilled at predicting the outcome of our actions in the short term, we fail when the system is complex, or when the impact of our individual actions is imperceptible. Humankind often sees itself as separate from the Earth and in opposition to natural processes. Our consciousness and intelligence have estranged us from the natural order. However, we must come to understand that we, and the technologies we are developing, are an implicit part of the natural order. We must express the same generosity toward the Earth that we are capable of expressing toward other human beings by designing and implementing technology for symbiotic non-anthropocentric purposes. GRoW uses human organic waste as compost to fertilize plants while increasing biodiversity by spreading seed as symbolic gestures of goodwill. By working at former industrial sites, GRoW not only remediates the plot, but remedies our technological relationship with the Earth.

As architects, designers, artists, and engineers, we need to think beyond sustainability. The artist Mel Chin has worked extensively with scientists to genetically engineer and test hyper-accumulators, plants that excel at pulling heavy metals from the soil. Following his lead, we need to design systems and structures that benefit the environment. We need to make our ventures carbon negative, rather than carbon neutral. We need our cities to increase habitat for threatened species rather than reduce their habitat. We need power plants that clean the air and water rather than pollute it. In short, we need to design systems that become a part of their ecology and fill the niches created by the byproducts of human action. The purpose of GRoW is not to promote an ideology, but to offer a different lens from which to consider the crises of our day.