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Opening the door to soil

Luke Richards (Masters student)
Published 08 Jun 2021 by Luke Richards (Masters student)

Our world today faces environmental and social challenges that are unprecedented in human history. From climate change to mass extinction events, food insecurity to income inequality, the issues of today are simply too complex to be addressed in isolation. When we begin to, we often realise how big the void is between what is happening, what we know, and what we do about it.

One giant void in conservation is made up of millions of tiny particles and organisms: soil.

Despite its significance as the foundation of terrestrial ecosystems, management and restoration of soil health has historically been neglected in the conservation sector. I explored this in my previous post What if soil could talk? and upon further research have unpacked why this is the case, with resourcing and funding issues often being cited as the main contributing factors.

Considering the incredibly tight budgets conservation organisations often work with, it's understandable that the physically and financially demanding exercises of soil surveys and laboratory analysis are often not a high priority.

Which got me thinking: What if an alternative approach could ‘open the door’ to the mysteries of soil in a less demanding, more efficient and therefore more appropriate manner?
Perhaps this is where a popular strategy of the moment known as 'interdisciplinary collaboration' could come in. Interdisciplinary collaboration is often cited as being critical to overcoming the major challenges of our time. In fact, the UN Sustainable Development Goals references collaboration across disciplines in its seventeenth goal ‘Partnering for the Goals.’

To me, interdisciplinary collaboration simply means working with experts from fields outside of your own experience or expertise. What this 'work' looks like in reality and which 'experts' you choose to collaborate with are of course completely case dependent, but the core ethos remains the same: Diversity in approach creates resilience in outcome.

When developing this thesis project, I had two major goals in mind:

  1. Complete work that fills a void in conservation practice
  2. Experience the idea of “interdisciplinary collaboration” in practice A smarter world.

A smarter world

The rapid development of information and communication technology in the 21st century has led to paradigm shifts in all areas of modern life.

Smart phones, smart cars, smart speakers, smart homes; our data-driven world continues to become more 'intelligent' with each passing day. What were once tedious or laborious tasks are now often self-operational or automated. The influx of technology in conservation has been similarly influential, though there remain many opportunities for growth.

As described by Berger-Tal & Lahoz-Monfort (2017), in order to meet the challenges of an ever rapidly deteriorating environment, the sector must begin to drive development of its own purpose-built technology. Recognising this, our project team decided to take up the challenge and attempt to overcome the logistical barriers of soil sampling with the intervention of novel, open technology. However, with no experience in technology development myself, a collaboration with an industry expert was needed. Enter Freaklabs.

Sometimes fate acts in peculiar or subtle ways, other times it smacks you right in the face. Fortunately for this project, fate worked in the latter.

After scoping the internet for examples of open-source technology for environmental applications we stumbled across what would prove to be a game-changing clip on the conservation-tech platform, WILDLabs. In their Tech Tutors series, Jacinta Plucinski and Akiba from Freaklabs had just presented a precursor for their upcoming series ‘Build Your Own Data Logger’.

After a very 2020 virtual meet and greet, Freaklabs came on board as technical advisors and agreed to develop the technology platform.

We now had an interdisciplinary team consisting of project managers, landscape conservationists, parks managers, soil scientists and technology developers. With our combined skills and shared vision for a world where soil is managed for resilience and regeneration, and where ecosystems thrive on top of a healthy foundation, we were ready to begin the development journey.

Our objective now is to build a device to monitor soil heath in real time.

Tune in to our next post to see what we built and how it’s been going!

Soil monitoring station Soil monitoring station
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