Autonomous Agents for Regenerative Ecology was the second lab in a series of three Terraforming Earth Labs. The second lab built on work that was carried out during the first lab: Constitution of a 21st Century. The third Lab, titled Terrafiction, will take place on September 28 and 29, 2018 at Waag in Amsterdam, in collaboration with FIBER.
Lab 1: Terraforming Earth - Constitution of a 21st Century
The first lab started from the observation that a 21st-century society will have to become less human-centered in order to thrive ecologically. It explored new legal and organisational approaches around the basic right and obligation-holding unit of the 'natural person’, which is based on the human individual. If a 21st-century society has to become less human-centered, this central idea of the natural person needs to be reconsidered.
Starting points for the lab were provided by several interesting recent cases: The Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India were granted the status of ‘natural person’ in 2017. This status was revoked by a higher Indian court. In New Zealand however, Whanganui River and Mount Taranaki have been granted legal personhood, which holds up well in the legal system. And then there is Terra0, a forest outside Berlin that has been augmented with a DAO and that technically owns itself.
Participants in this lab explored alternative modes of corporation, that would include non-human entities and extrapolated their possible cultural, economic and ecological effects. The full report of the first lab can be found https://research-development.hetnieuweinstituut.nl/en/research-projects/report-lab-1-constitution-21st-century.
Lab 2: Autonomous Agents for a Regenerative Ecology
The second lab, Autonomous Agents for Regenerative Ecology, organised at the Border Sessions festival in The Hague on June 13th, 2018, investigated how various autonomous technologies could support the emergence and regeneration of ecosystems.
Landscape degeneration is a phenomenon at planetary scale. Some see this century as the age of ecological regeneration; bringing areas back to life, with the return of water, vegetation and all manner of organisms reappearing. This could then be considered 'The Great Work' for humanity. But are humans best suited for all aspects of this task? This lab explored the potential role of (automated) technologies in this context, engaging with questions such as: Could landscapes engage in self-regeneration if they form alliances with the right technologies? What would such systems entail? Bringing together field-workers and field-thinkers from the environmental avant-garde who work at the level of community, the lab embraced technology and digital data to design and develop actual applications of autonomous agents in regenerative ecological practice.
Regenerative ecology is the practice of bringing ecologically exhausted sites literally back to life. It does not necessarily imply a return to a former ecological state, however. A regenerated ecology may be home to other species and networks than a previously existing system.
The term ‘autonomous agents’ was adopted as an inclusive term to indicate technologies and other beings and systems that perform without direct human supervision. The extent to which autonomy is possible and/or desirable in technical systems was a point of discussion in this lab. The decision was made to spatially situate the questions of this lab in areas that have fallen victim to desertification due to human activity. This choice was made to prevent participants having to deal with too many complex forces in the scenario building phase.
The day was divided in two main parts. In the morning, the participants developed general scenarios in which ecological regeneration would ally with autonomous technologies. In the afternoon, the building blocks of these scenarios were to be refined and their functioning processes were discussed and designed in more detail.
Participants groups were offered some basic questions to help develop their scenario outlines, although not all groups worked from these questions.
- Which kind of organisation is undertaking the work of regenerating ecologies (political, corporate, religious, voluntary, or combinations thereof) - in other words, on the basis of which philosophy are the initiators of the regeneration working?
- What are the functions that need to be performed in an ecosystem and what are its developmental steps?
- Which organic, technological or human entities are most suitable to perform these functions?
Three scenarios were developed and will be outlined below, along with some questions from fellow participants.
1. Autonomous Rainwater Stones and Carbon Capture
The starting point of this group was a very basic question: can we design an automated system that would secure the water cycle and that would prevent the land from further erosion? To arrive at the simplest solution the team decided to work as much as possible with locally found materials.
The basic concept was the strategic placing of large stones found scattered over the land. The location of these rocks would be decided upon through mapping the land using satellite data, which allows for contour lines to be drawn. Using this contour lines and data on weather patterns, solar powered (slow) robots are programmed to place stones to create ridges that perform several functions at once. The stones are relatively cold in the morning and collect moisture that creates relatively humid niches for pioneering plants. They furthermore prevent erosion by protecting these plants against too much direct sun and wind.
Once the first step of placing the stones is completed and water availability has improved, the robots begin to collect and place sticks in the humid places. On these sticks, birds perch and defecate, carrying seeds from various plants. When the pioneer species get bigger, fog catchers will have to be introduced that function like trees in their capacity to catch atmospheric water.
Up until here, the question of who or what would be the initiating party for this development was (consciously) ignored, but at this stage the question surfaced again. The landscape hasdeveloped to a point where it can be transformed into just about anything - it has been rendered live-able. Choices emerge: do we allow humans to step in to inhabit it? Or do we allow the land to re-wild and leave it to non-human beings? While many things could happen, the basic options boil down to two: either long-term regeneration is opted for, or the land is subjected to new rounds of exploitation and degradation, essentially starting the cycle anew.
2. Bio Co-ops grouped around Ecological Succession Stages
This group first explored the philosophy that would underpin the scenario choices intensively, starting with the rationale behind regeneration.
Initially, the urgency for ecological regeneration was found in a drive for survival of humans and non-humans. But the group thought the ambition of their scenario should go beyond mere survival. Their stated aim was to regenerate ecosystems that should provide the conditions for a good life, which the group defined on a basic level as a combination of cultural and biological diversity.
In discussing who would be responsible for initiating this scenario the group identified the possible interest of the EU in supporting ecological regeneration of regions bordering the Sahara, as a way to mitigate refugee streams. The first stage was therefore cast as an experimental pilot project started by a group of NGOs and designers, funded by the EU.
This group began by questioning how they could restore living soil and applied the logic developed in the first lab: Constitution for a 21st Century to develop a political system of bio co-ps in that act in the interests of collaborating humans and non-humans. Each ecological succession stage was to be the business of a separate bio co-op, each working independently and on different time scales; the work of the first co-op would prepare the scene for the work of the second, which in turn creates the right circumstances for the third co-op to start working.
3. Sand Factory and Weekend DIY Bio-Hackers
This group focused the work of the first round on ideas for parties that would initiate ecological regeneration. Two possibilities were developed. The first was the a privately-owned, but government-sponsored sand factory that injects capital into the desert. As sand shortages are a growing phenomenon, mainly related to the demands of the building industry, a sand factory in a deserted area is potentially a viable proposition under current economic logic. The second idea for an initiation party was a group of DIY bio-hackers that commute to the desert and spend their weekends experimenting there. The goal of both is to re-green the desert.
Once these basic propositions were exchanged and peer-critiqued, the next task was to formulate ways in which they could be made technically, socially, culturally and logistically viable. This was done using a small set of diagrams derived from Unified Modelling Language. Indicating either Input (blue card), Process (green card), Storage (orange card), or Decision (purple card). Using these building blocks demanded that the origin of resources (input) was articulated (and justified), that the process was reflected upon (what happens with the input?) and that decision makers and decision thresholds were identified, et cetera.
Autonomous Rainwater Stones and Carbon Capture
This scenario begins with sunlight, robots moving stones and sattelite data. With the stones, ridges are to be made in such a way that the water collects and shade is created. The threshold criterium is the level of humidity and shade. If humidity and shade are not sufficiently increased, more stones need to be moved. When a stage of sufficient humidity is reached, sticks are planted.
When sufficient seeds have sprouted and pioneering plants have taken hold, fog catchers in the form of artificial spider webs are introduced, that collect water from the atmosphere. Pioneering plants collect carbon and nitrogen in the soil. Extra seeds may be added to prevent monoculture from developing. The fog catchers are rendered obsolete when trees come into existence, as they will then perform the function. As long as there are no trees, the fog catchers keep harvesting water.
Several measurable states were identified that would steer the process and indicate its level of success. Does a diverse set of species co-exist? If not, seeding continues. Is there sufficient oxygen available in the soil? If not, soil has to be cut open. Birds add to the nutrition balance of the soil through defecation, decompacting the soil and making it infiltratable. Success of the overall development would indicated by the presence of a certain insect mass, by the development of sufficient soil life, and by the establishment of a mycelium network. All these criteria can (theoretically) be measured by autonomous technologies.
To close, this group again discussed the ‘who’ question. From whose perspective is this development functional? What is the implied cultural framework around which the scenario is designed? They established different indicators for different potential criteria. Can the developed sustain human life as well, without degrading again? (Can it become a sustainable food forest?) Or should the site aim for maximum bio-diversity? Or should it aim for maximum economic value in order to be sold to the highest bidder for a next round of exploitation that starts the same process again 300 years later? All choices have a cyclical nature to them.
Sand Factory and Weekend DIY Bio-Hackers
The two potential initiating parties that this group labelled in the first sessions were merged in the second session, to provide the basis for developing a scenario. The group positioned this after the sand company had shut down, leaving a number of large pits in the ground. This is the moment an initial group of ten biohackers researches the pits to decide where to build water traps allowing water to collect.
From there on they try out different seeding tactics in different pits. As long as healthy pioneering plants have not emerged, seeding continues with (slightly) different seed mixes until bases of foundation species emerge. Ideally, this process would create different types of environments in the different pits.
In a later stage, pits may be connected and disconnected by establishing ecological corridors, disrupting the established equilibria allowing for new systems and populations to emerge. Altogether this amounts to a diversity strategy, supporting for different developments to take place simultaneously, next to each other like islands in an archipelago.
Bio Co-ops around Ecological Succession Stages
The third group worked out a regenerative system based on establishing three bio co-ops: new corporate forms in which humans and non-humans collaborate, that act in their mutual interests.
Each bio co-op represents and acts out a different ecological succession phase. The group outlined the functioning of the three different bio co-ops in terms of time-scale and elaborated on the technical, political, cultural and ecological logic through which they would operate.
The first bio co-op was pictured as a slow-moving nomadic group, residing in a certain site for three month periods. Their core movement comes from slow-driving solar-powered bulldozers steered by satellite data, that traverse the land digging gullies in which water can collect, seeding them with pioneer species and nurturing them through their earliest phase. The group would not move more than a few hundred meters a day. The gullies may also function as graves for deceased humans or other animals, providing richer biodiversity.
The result of their presence is an increased presence of carbon, nitrogen and nutrients in the soil as well as improved water retention. Root culture, fungi and bacteria would form, creating living soil. This leads to a threshold moment, when the conditions for succession phase 2 are realised. This is when Bio co-op 1 moves on and Bio co-op 2 takes over.
The aim of Bio co-op 2 is the development of a functioning circular culture and related infrastructure that includes food systems and energy cycles. Importantly, this phase minimally takes several years to develop. This means vested power structures will emerge with related political tendencies. Part of the functioning of Bio co-op 2 is the application of blockchain systems to help govern commons. This would protect them from degrading exploitation.
Longer time-scales become relevant as entities that live longer than humans begin to take the stage. This introduces wholly different conditions. Trees, with their long-term perspectives and related long-term politics will bring interests to the foreground that are rather foreign to current humans. The group found that imagining these conditions is important, but, for lack of lived cultural experience, at this moment rather speculative. The famous seventh generation principle from the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations does provide a guiding principle, but has not been workably translated to alliances that also include technological non-humans.
Bio co-op 3 would have to develop a different kind of intelligence (or thalience) mediating between interests on different time scales, of different involved agents. (Machine learning) technologies may play a role here, to maintain long term developments. Including the possibilities of technologies that can establish communication paths that cannot exist in organic nature alone, would vastly increase the scope of possibilities.
Bio co-op 3 runs the risk of growing into an end state in which flexibility is lost, and ultimately cultural and organic diversity is reduced again. This would counter the first principles that were formulated by this group. Therefore the important function of the ecologic disturber was articulated as well. Disturbers would destabilise the functioning of a Bio co-op 3 settlement, opening space for species or entities to move into different roles.
Sander Turnhout, Sanne Bloemink, Michelle Geraerts, Josh Wodak, Daniël Steginga, Bianca Slieker, Ricardo Cano Matteo, Anne van Leeuwen, Martina Huynh, Daniela de Paulis, Thieme Hennis, Fabian van der Sluijs, Jarl Schulp, Yin Aiwen, Theun Karelse, Sjef van Gaalen, Malou den Dekker, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer