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Dan’s Blog

Using technology to make #wildcities

Back in June, I started my walk across all of the UK’s national parks and cities in St David’s, Britain’s smallest city. Since then, I’ve spent 338 hours taking 2,443,845 steps and walking 1,686km. To put that into perspective, equivalent to walking the length of the country and then some.

During all that time, I wore an an Emotiv EEG headset whihc collected data over 5 million times during the expedition: taking a 3D snapshot of activity inside my brain, transferring the reading from my headset to my smartphone, using an algorithm to work out my emotions and then sharing the data through the cloud for geotagging, analysis, visualisation and storage. I’m now working with neuroscientists and a range of experts to crunch and analyse the data. I hope to have some findings to share later this year.

What has become clear to me is the enormous power of this kind of technology to improve our lives. I really felt that wearing the headset influenced my behaviour. Much like how other wearable devices (such as activity trackers) influence how far I walk and how many steps I take, the brainware put me more in touch with my feelings. On a very personal and practical level, I feel that is has not only helped me to avoid stress but also actively search for interest in everyday places.

The opportunity is for technologies like these to become more affordable, used by far more people and connected through the internet of everything. We already know that data is being used to in many areas to improve health and social care, save energy and preserve the environment and help commuters travel with increased efficiency.Data revealing how thousands or millions of people feel about specific or different kinds of places could directly influence how they are designed. I hope that big data from a crowd of brains will add to the growing evidence for why we should make cities greener, wilder, less polluted and more healthy.

Influenced by wearing the headset, I had many thoughts and ideas about how we could make cities better. My lasting impression is that the UK is a wonderful country, but it’s also bursting with potential and opportunities to make it even more so. Here are just a few ideas of things I think would make the UK better.

Be more connected
We should be better connected by ensuring everyone can always get a decent data connection, (unless they are deep inside a cave), using sensors and displays to reveal and visualise current levels of air pollution, monitoring flood risks at a hyper-local level and live screen nearby wildlife in city centres.

Be more inviting
We should strive to make our cities more inviting and accessible to all by growing habitat for wildlife, having benches outside our houses, prioritising streets for children and animals instead of cars, hanging swings on street corners and offsetting every negative “no” sign with a positive “do” sign.

Be more interesting
We could increase visual interest in our cityscapes by erecting sculptures on roundabouts, curating exhibitions on household window sills, designing streets to boost bird populations and amplify their songs, chalking poetry onto paths and encouraging or making in mandatory for retail parks to have as much green as possible and make climbing or art walls on the side of their buildings.

Be more invested
We should be more invested in places by not just protecting nature and heritage but actually creating it, allowing culture and life to thrive wherever possible. We should walk more, engage with each other more and invest in making places more inviting and more interesting.

Many of the above ideas are personal, local and low tech. Increased connectivity will help us share, engage and evaluate these actions and many more to work towards, more liveable, healthier and wilder cities.

The next part of my journey is to use all of my Wild Cities expedition experiences, ideas and findings to further my work to make London a successful National Park City. To find out when the final Wild Cities results are published and how the London National Park City campaign is going you can follow me on Twitter at @DanRavenEllison.

The Expedition

Smart cities don’t just connect people, things, and technology—they connect people and nature too. In fact, I believe that smart cities … should be wild cities.

To explore this idea further, over the next few months I will be walking 1,500km across the UK’s 15 national parks and 69 cities, looking at how people, things, technology, and nature are connected, and can be better connected. As well as looking out for insights and keeping my ear to the ground for ideas, my understanding will be enhanced by wearing a special headset that will record my changing emotions as I pass through different landscapes—literally mapping my mood.

The inspiration for this experiment came from a previous National Geographic expedition as I adventured my way through the UK’s national parks. Surrounded by stunning countryside I asked myself a simple and disruptive question: what if a major city could became a national park? The idea grew and led me to start a campaign to make London the world’s first National Park City, creating an entirely new and excitingly different kind of national park.

The thing is that when it comes to cities I don’t think we make the most of our relationship with nature. Nature has the potential to make city dwellers healthier, their communities more enjoyable, and their urban spaces more resilient. Nor is it a one-sided relationship: it might sound counter-intuitive but cities can be amazing habitats for wildlife, perhaps an even richer habitat than some large areas of intensively farmed countryside. I am convinced that this is a great missed opportunity and that there is much more we can to make our cities wilder, and therefore better.

On my journey I am wearing an Emotiv electroencephalogram or EEG for short! The EEG’s sensors measure my brain activity, sending the results to an app on my smartphone and on into the cloud where algorithms interpret them as emotions. Linking these emotions to my location by GPS allows us to see how my levels of excitement, focus, engagement, stress, interest, and relaxation change as I move through different landscapes.

It would be too crude to directly compare the UK’s national parks with its cities. Instead I’m creating a 1,500km sample of diverse kinds of places. At the simplest level I’m seeing how differently the countryside and the city affects my brain, with more complex findings coming from mapping my brain activity to different habitats, land-uses, and environments.

My broad hypothesis is that I will be more relaxed in tranquil national parks and more stressed in cities. That seems fairly obvious, but it’s more complicated than that. There are different kinds of stress and relaxation, and they can both be desirable or undesirable, so which will I experience where? And how will my levels of interest and excitement differ in the compact but fast-moving cities compared to the slower and more expansive countryside?

While this data is being collected I’m also using the camera on my smartphone to take photos of my journey, looking for and recording ways in which people, things, nature, and technology can be better connected. While I’m certainly searching for examples of best practice, I also expect to identify plenty of opportunities for improvement too. My hope is that the results will provide some valuable ideas for how we can design not just smart cities, but wild smart cities.

Throughout this extraordinary journey I’ll be posting my provisional results on this website and updating this blog with my findings and insights. On Twitter I’ll be tweeting from @DanRavenEllison and using the hashtag #WildCities. I would love to hear from you, especially if you’ve got any ideas or examples for how we can better connect people and nature, and make our cities wilder.

The Psychogeography of Wearable Technology

How walking while wearing a piece of top-spec technology is changing the way I see the world.

I am fascinated by how technology can bring a whole new dimension to even the simplest acts, such as walking or climbing stairs. Two years ago I used staircases across London to climb the height of Mount Everest , using a Fitbit to count my steps. The technology was crucial to verifying my expedition, but I also found it influencing my behaviour.

My goal was to climb 330 stories a day, and counting them down was certainly motivating! But knowing that the technology was sharing my progress with an audience and posting it onto a leader-board added an intense sense of competition—not least because my wife usually takes many more steps than me! I found that wearing the Fitbit changed the way I thought about my journeys and affected my relationship with the places I walked through.

This expedition takes that idea to a whole new level. My Fitbit has been augmented by some incredibly exciting cutting-edge technology: an Emotiv wireless and portable electroencephalography (EEG) device. Four times every second the 14 sensors in its headset record activity from all across my brain and then use an algorithm to assess my levels of stress, engagement, interest, focus, excitement, and relaxation. The data is recorded locally onto my smartphone which is connected to the cloud to automatically share the information in real-time with anyone who has access to my online Emotiv account. This effectively maps my emotions as I walk across the changing landscapes of Britain’s cities and national parks.

The thing is that when it comes to cities I don’t think we make the most of our relationship with nature. Nature has the potential to make city dwellers healthier, their communities more enjoyable, and their urban spaces more resilient. Nor is it a one-sided relationship: it might sound counter-intuitive but cities can be amazing habitats for wildlife, perhaps an even richer habitat than some large areas of intensively farmed countryside. I am convinced that this is a great missed opportunity and that there is much more we can to make our cities wilder, and therefore better.

However, the EEG is influencing my relationship with places even before I begin to analyse any of the data. I’ve found that the simple act of wearing the headset is changing the way I view the world: somehow the technology encourages me to be more intimate with my surroundings. I feel much more focussed, as if I’m looking through a special lens and seeing everything in higher definition. This sensation extends beyond the visual to include heightened perceptions of touch, sound, and smell. What’s more, I am far more reflective. This may be due in part to spending a lot of time on my own, but I am also acutely aware that my headset is a trigger for me to think differently: I’m actually more mindful. 

 I have noticed my emotions becoming much more polarised, with an intensified contrast between things that I like and dislike. The earthy smells of woodland, the coolness of the air, and the complex colours of the landscape all feel more important to me than ever. At the same time I’ve never been more irritated by the intruding and polluting presence of cars. With the enhanced focus that technology brings to my brain, I am finding walking through suburbia surprisingly frustrating. At every turn I see missed opportunities for creating much more interesting living spaces, and passing along the regimented streets of houses I long to release the communal potential of the creative minds inside. In fact, finding well designed architecture has become a real highlight for me, consciously and unconsciously searching out the good examples that could be used to reinvigorate a city’s all too often soulless spaces such as unimaginatively designed retail parks.

This expedition is very much about exploring how technology can help us improve our cities. While walking the height of Everest I visited a school and used my Fitbit to show how classes on the top floor collectively walked the height of Ben Nevis every day. The kids loved this fun-fact, but for me the serious message is that building-design can be used not only to create more interesting environments, but also healthier ones that encourage exercise. My experiences with the EEG have made me think about how they could be used in large numbers to gather a wealth of big data. This would help urban planners design better places to live by informing their efforts to stimulate positive emotions from the surroundings we interact with every day. What this would look like in practice would be personally and culturally subjective, but I believe it has real potential to improve the health and wellbeing of the ever-growing numbers of people living in our ever-growing cities.

Connect with me on Twitter using @DanRavenEllison #WildCities.

The Sounds of Nature

How might wild acoustics be used to make cities better? Listen to my brief reflections as I pass Thorney Burn in Northumberland National Park.

"Why don't we have more rivers and streams running through cities? What if we had streams intentionally going down roads, or waterfalls coming off the sides of skyscrapers? That would be really exciting."

Mind reading sheep

I've been spending a lot of time with sheep recently. Like George Monbiot, I'm cynical of their overall contribution to much of the British landscape, but one on one I rather like them. When I'm on a solitary trek through the countryside it's a pleasure to strike up a brief conversation. My chats are always more brief with English sheep who nearly always let their bladders go, scream and then run off, which sharply contrasts to the Scots which hold their ground and bladder far more confidently.

I've had a few encounters with sheep who have really watched me for some time. More often than not, these are solitary sheep that have split from their flock or are going on adventures of their own. In the moments before their flight, I'll try and strike up a conversation, telling them not to worry about me and asking them a few questions about the grass or the weather. I rarely get decent replies, but a bit like talking to an indifferent teenager, it's only polite to try.

Of course, during these meetings I'm wearing my EEG headset - an advanced and networked piece of kit that is able to sense and record my emotions - so a natural question to ask is... what if, say, Shawn the sheep had one too? And what if Percy the pig, Heather the horse and all kinds of farmed and wild life were wearing EEGs that not only told us how individuals were feeling, but whole groups of animals while they were going through collective experiences such as grazing, milking or even being slaughtered?

There have been EEG experiments with non-human animals, but making the technology affordable and scalable could have a transformative effect on our relationship with other animals. On a personal level, dog, cat and guinea pig owners might be able to enhance their relationship with the pets by knowing how they feel or, in their absence, have felt. On a societal level, if we had live big data on the emotions of farmed and wild life, it could revolutionise the standards that we keep ourselves too and even earn other earthlings rights.

If we promise to get a Catbit, can we get a Lynx?

I love seeing cats when I'm exploring cities. They break all the rules with their over-friendliness and trespassing ways. I'm sure that when we do the EEG analysis, we'll see that times when I've seen cats are times when I'm more excited, focussed and engaged. It's not because I'm a "cat person" (although I am a bit), it's because cats often offer the only resemblance of interesting and positively disruptive influence on otherwise rather samey places.

The problem is that cats can leave mess all over the place and, when they can, either eat wildlife or kill it just for fun. Research is suggesting that this can have a negative effect on the population of wildlife in our villages, towns and cities, the very places where many birds and small mammals otherwise do very well.

Watching Dragon's Den on iPlayer I enjoyed learning about the aspirations of PitPat, a Fitbit inspired way to monitor how active your pet is. This wearable technology would not only be useful the owners of the pets on diets, the data would be valuable to a wide range of pet-related companies too.

But perhaps there is another opportunity here. What if a special "Catbit" could identify when a cat is about to kill or has killed a bird or water vole? Much like a Fitbit is able to monitor the gate of a human to know if we are running or walking, the Catbit could monitor pouncing, chewing and squatting. This data could be used by conservationists to develop strategies to reduce wildlife kills.

There is an even more exciting possibility here though. When I'm trekking across the Lake District, Cairngorms and other National Parks I always want to see a big cat, just like when I'm in suburbia only one-hundred fold. There are a number of sites in the UK where Lynx could be responsibly and potentially successfully set free. I'd love to see this happen, not only for the sake of, the responsibility of, returning a lost species to Britain, but for the sheer thrill of the possibility of seeing one. Maybe a GPS linked Catbit could be the key to making this happen.

Could automation create more space?

There are a lot of conversations today about how much space we have to live in. If walking across lots of cities has told me anything, it’s that there seems to be a lot more space than we think. It’s easy to see why many people feel there is a lack of space, especially on our roads. It only takes me about an hour to walk from the edge to the centre of the average British city, and in many cases just 30 minutes (Chester, York, Newport), but despite this I tend to see very few other people walking and lots of cars.

In cities, the cars are often slow moving, frequently in traffic jams and many are often half empty. Delays in traffic can have financial costs for the drivers but can also impact health, not least in terms of air pollution. Cars take up a lot of space. In London, roads take up more space than residential housing. We have a situation where housing costs are so high that many people can’t afford homes, yet there are swathes of land devoted to the potential use of a car passing through or parking up.

So how does automation come in and where could it have an impact? Sharing vehicles, through automated systems and even automated vehicles, has the potential to make a powerful contribution to addressing these issues. Not only would there be less traffic, but sensors in the city coupled with data could be used to manage flows in the safest and most efficient way. Automation could speed up journeys as well as reduce costs and air pollution. By connecting, people, processes, objects and data, the Internet of things can connect cars driving around looking to park to available spaces and data from sensors can direct traffic flow to mitigate rather than increase traffic noise and pollution. Accumulated data could also change the way that cities are designed, creating more space for more affordable homes in healthier cities.

Some of the very best wild spaces I've walked through are old industrial sites, canals and dismantled railway lines. From Swansea to Inverness, spaces that were previously used by the main form of transport are now thriving corridors, habitats and meeting places for people and wildlife. We should start imagining and even planning, what our streets and roads could be like in a future where there are more automated vehicles, but far less traffic.

There might even be another benefit too. In my walks for this expedition I have seen far too many field mice, lizards, toads and badgers dead on the side of the road. My challenge to those involved in the development of automated cars is to develop sensors that are better able to detect and then avoid or warn animals before hitting them. This would not only benefit British wildlife, but also drivers, as it can be deadly for a driver to strike a large deer.

Of course, the development of automation will have multiple, complex and potentially conflicting implications and much research and investment is required for technological investment in the most appropriate ways to bring the biggest benefit to all. But perhaps we should start thinking about if we are prepared to share our vehicle space to create more living space.

About Dan

Daniel Raven-Ellison is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Guerrilla Geographer, passionate about challenging people to experience the world around them in a more meaningful way. By encouraging outdoor activities Dan is revitalising a sense of adventure that connects people to their environment. For Dan this is especially important in cities where we frequently move in isolation between our home, car, and workplace. Dan is on a mission to shake up our perception of urban living by making London the world’s first National Park City. With 8.3 million trees, 13,000 species of wildlife, and 47% of the land given over to green, Dan believes Londoners can make much more of these wild open areas. His expedition will gather data and learnings to help demonstrate the importance of green spaces in promoting health and happiness in urban living, while also exploring new ways for smart technology to support them.

There’s Never Been A Better Time To Make Our Cities Wild

Find out how your environment affects your brain! Follow Daniel Raven-Ellison as he documents his neural activity while walking across 69 cities and 15 parks in the UK. Will green spaces prove to be better for his state of mind?

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Take a Deeper Dive

Explore our results page to compare Dan’s emotions in cities to National Parks.

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Digital Transformation Stories

Cisco is sponsoring National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dan Raven-Ellison on his quest to prove the value and importance of our cities’ open spaces. Far from being irrelevant to high-tech urbanisation, these green areas compliment smart technology to make our cities as sustainable as they need to be—and as liveable as we want them to be.

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