Computing the Eden Project

Posted on October 12, 2007

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Two things about me:

1. My work is a sometimes strange mix of education, plants and computers.

2. From my being 6 weeks to 9 years old, we lived outside Bodmin in Cornwall.

All these things came together for me last week when we visited the Eden Project. What a wonderful place. Perhaps even more interesting than the biomes themselves is the interactivity in the surrounding gardens and buildings.

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Eden makes no apology for being entertaining, they aim to be interactive yet still have a strong basis in academic credibility. Here are some highlights from a computing perspective:

The interactive exhibits in The Core are outstanding. Most of them explore the metaphor of the plant/ecosystem as a machine. While most are mechanical (with computer or electromechanical control) there wasn’t a computer screen in sight. In one display, the plant is portrayed as a computer, controlling its environment, except that it isn’t a plant – it’s a puppet and the visitor is has to manage the balancing act of responding to its needs for water, light etc.

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Juxtaposed between the almost space age displays is a very large (and noisy) piece made of rusty metal. This is Rob Higg’s Processor. In two parts, this Heath-Robinsonesque machine cracks a nut in a very complicated manner, and pointlessly oils itself (after a great deal of winding). It certainly had me thinking about the complexity of systems we surround ourselves with.

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The Mechanical Theatre is truly engaging. It mixes life sized automata with projection (of scenery, other players and stop-motion action of the main robots) to create a 15 minute show that had us glued. The show is currently programmed to explore issues of genetic modification – the Eden staffer introducing the show pointed to an invisible fence and declared to be firmly sitting on it. I wasn’t entirely convinced by this fence sitting – the businessman/voice of progress seemed to be quite evil.

All through Eden the designers have worked hard to entertain and educate. Chief in their toolkit is context. The plants that border meandering walkways don’t have a latin nameplate, instead they have a perspex bubble showing the products derived from that plant. A giant bee tells us about the importance of wider ecosystems, even in agricultural settings. Towering above people as they walk through what are quite stunning avenues of agricultural plants (that would put any ornamental botanic gardens to shame), is a giant WEEE man. This statue represents the 3 tonnes of Waste Electrical, Electronic Equipment the average Briton throws away in a lifetime.

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My only real complaint about the experience was desire to see more behind the scenes.  I had questions in my head: how much land does it take to feed this many visitors? is the site energy neutral? why does the biome ecosystem exclude birds and insects? to what extent are the biomes closed systems?

Perhaps the most impressive thing I took from the Eden Project is that it exists at all. This is threefold – first it manages to get 1.25 million visitors per year to be entertained by notions of sustainability (while the website takes great pains to argue that it isn’t a theme park – I don’t think it matters), second is the positive impact it has had on employment and education (I spoke to two young people working at Eden, both locals for whom Eden is giving a local job and encouraging them through higher study in geography). Third, and possibly most important, is the sign at the entrance (which I wish I wrote down to get the exact words), ‘we had an idea, this is the result, things you do can make a difference’.

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