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Gadgets are winning the battle for hearts and minds

Posted on 11 July 2016

And that's a good thing.

It’ll soon be the season of glittering launches in the tech world. From the latest iPhone to the blockbuster games, each unveiling draws our attention to another wonder of technology.

You don’t have to look far to see the impact this new technology is having on our lives. We read reports that on average adolescents are spending 6.1 hours in front of a screen each day, that inactivity is causing rising obesity and that the chance of children visiting a green space at all has fallen by half in a generation. I read this morning that a student convinced her Facebook friends she’d been on an exotic holiday without even leaving her house.

This is all troubling stuff and it is easy to cast technology in the role of villain.

But I have a confession to make.

I love this stuff. I’m tragically excited about the latest batch of next generation games and eagerly snap up the flashiest smart phone I can get my hands on.

But I also love the breeze in my hair. The life affirming feel of soil in my hands and the taste of home grown tomatoes. To watch the wonder on my children’s faces as they discover sticklebacks in the local stream or their triumph as they scale a tree.

So it worries me that so many young people are missing out on that connection with nature and that, as my children get older, they too will feel the pull of the digital world at the expense of the real. Will they lose the well established health and wellbeing benefits of getting outdoors? Will they discover a love of the natural world that will be ever more important in the uncertain world we are leaving to them?

It’s tempting to see technology a problem to be overcome and that the solution is a return to a 1950’s vision of childhood. Certainly there is a place for simply encouraging people to get outside more, in fact many of our projects do just that. But it seems unrealistic to me that this alone will have a broad impact in the face of a shift to an overwhelmingly digital world.

Better instead that those of us championing the natural world and healthier lifestyles use these enticing new tools.

There are plenty of opportunities for us if we look for them. It can be creating digital communities like Project Dirt that bring people together to coordinate local environmental action. Or employing gamification – using game mechanics and rewards in non gaming contexts - to draw people out of their living rooms. This approach has been proven to work for encouraging a change in behaviour, from learning new languages to helping motivate people - even me - to exercise and they could work for us. For example, the growing popularity of geocaching apps, the popularity of Pokemon Go and high tech playgrounds are promising developments in this area.

The natural world is its own marketing department, get people out into it enjoying themselves and it sells itself. If that means drawing us out through our smartphones and games then it’s time we made gadgets our ally.

Once we are there the natural world will do the rest.

 Post by Ben Leach, Groundwork UK