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25th Anniversary series: The Evolving ‘Smart Countryside’

August 12, 2015

The “smart city” movement has captured the imagination of city planners and urban designers. Increasingly embedded, interconnected information and communications technologies (ICT) means cheap, low-cost, WiFi enabled sensors and controllers are creating a pervasive mesh of digital information. That digital data mesh can link residents and city planners in real-time urban management. Pervasive social media, connected devices, and embedded sensors in turn produce a massive information harvest that feeds into Big Data analytics.

Could we similarly see the development of “smart countryside”?

FS viewIn recent research we have begun to see a space where innovations in ICT and the expanse of the Internet of Things are enabling the digitisation of environmental management generally and more precise farming inputs specifically. Increasing use of automated or smart technologies such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to monitor environmental conditions and movements of both wildlife and domestic livestock will accelerate this.

Implications for increasing innovations in ICT and the rise of the Internet of Things include:

  • Smart grids – more efficiently managed energy use, alongside the potential for increased energy demand
  • A widely deployed environmental sensor net continuously collecting, eg,
    • climate change data
    • real-time pollution data
    • water quality data
    • invasive species data
  • Connected infrastructure
    • from ‘smart buildings’ to ‘smart cities’ to ‘smart regions’ and ‘smart sectors’ – infrastructure stays in touch with ambient conditions (eg, rail tracks that upload current conditions pinpointed via GPS, or canal lock sensors that stream water level and water quality data in real time), energy flows, water flows, other infrastructure, goods in transit and in situ
    • even connects to people via their wearable computing devices, becoming part of the social media landscape
    • potentially connects to livestock – for example, fitting sheep with digital collars to track their movements and monitor their health and external conditions

Potential implications for the natural environment and food systems include more detailed real-time data for local conditions, crops, and livestock. For businesses and consumers implications might include innovative business models, increased access to knowledge and data, enhanced government transparency, and expanded social networks.

The Internet of Things enables what we can automate, including automated vehicles. Solar-powered UAVs could be airborne stewards, used to:

  • Track patterns of crop growth and herd movements
  • Monitor crops for insect infestation
  • Track wildlife, both land and marine
  • Monitor for natural hazards, eg flooding and wildfire conditions, both before, during, and after emergencies

Questions regarding privacy may arise, but in the rural environment issues of noise, odour, and the impact on animal habitats and animal behaviour would also be critical.

Intelligent soil and water sensors, and the potential to track and monitor the health of domestic animals, would combine to create much more precise farming. Increasingly autonomous farm machinery would mean increasingly automated farming. Implications include:

  • Improved water use efficiency
  • Improved food security – increased food production and reduced food waste
  • Improved animal health and safety

A core question might be whether the improved efficiencies and animal and plant health pay for the potentially high cost of this ‘smart countryside’ infrastructure. It could potentially be the foundation block of the emerging digital food chain: a chain of linked sensors from soil or water environments to individual crops or livestock, to storage facility conditions, GPS tracking of raw materials, processing plant conditions, and cheap smart sensors to monitor food freshness and purity embedded in packaging – and readable by customers’ smartphone health apps.

These developments indicate an opportunity for smart countryside, and some initial seeds for its creation. But it is not yet as pervasive a conceptual model as ‘smart cities’. The UK’s Strategy for Agricultural Technologies refers to precision farming, remote sensing, web-based crop management tools, and citizen-based data collection, without linking the emerging sensing, data, and autonomous technologies into an integrated digital ecology of countryside management. An integrated digital ecology for the smart countryside could connect a widespread sensor net for environmental monitoring with smart infrastructure for farming that also connects to a digital food chain and a smart health network – linking as well with UK’s emerging smart cities.

The ‘smart countryside’ and agriculture amplified by the internet of things are increasingly being discussed in the USA as ‘data-driven farming’. Speaking at a recent California workshop hosted by the US National Science Foundation and the National Consortium for Data Science, Lance Donny of OnFarm Systems depicted the emerging data-driven future for farming, underlining the impacts of cheap sensors, cloud computing, and intelligent software. Linking that data to increasingly inexpensive satellite imagery and analysis of soil conditions, water availability and weather means higher yields with less waste. In addition to the benefits of higher productivity using fewer resources, this data-driven approach contributes to greater transparency in the food chain, answering consumer demand to know where and how their food was raised, what additives were used, when it was harvested, and the foodmiles it represents.

But it’s not all big data, big systems, and increasingly pervasive machine monitoring. Connecting up all parts of nature to the internet may increasingly mean nature connects to our social media – and interacts with it. What if your internet-connected sheep on the hillside could email you? What if you could email them back? Humans are social creatures, and when channels open up for us to communicate, we make use of them. The city of Melbourne recently discovered just how true this is when they created their Urban Forest Visual project. The project assigned ID numbers and emails to over 70,000 trees in greater Melbourne, to allow residents to report tree vandalism, damage, illness, or decline. Its goal is to push expansion of Melbourne’s canopy cover from 20% to 40% by 2040, to cool the city. But an unexpected side effect has been increasing camaraderie between people and trees: residents and visitors alike – even overseas penpals! – began emailing individual trees. The trees respond with a little help from the Urban Forest team – who happen to be multilingual, so some of the trees speak German, Hungarian, Spanish, Mandarin, and Gaelic.

“You are my favourite tree in all of Melbourne!” one person wrote to a golden elm, “Even if you do need a little bit of help under that great leafy canopy.” To which the golden elm graciously replied, “So lovely to be appreciated.” Huffington Post

There are many excellent guides to major trends that will affect us all over the next decades. For guidance, see . What we have tried to do in this blog sequence is to highlight a specific emerging change from the many, and to explore some of the potential impacts.  We welcome thoughts on other drivers of change or more impacts of the ones we have highlighted.

(Much of the above scanning comes from a project SAMI Consulting are conducting for Defra, Food Standards Agency, Environment Agency, Natural England and the Welsh Government – we would like to acknowledge their support).

Written by SAMI Principals, Wendy Schultz and Huw Williams.

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