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The Challenge


The Challenge

MFA Thesis | Spring 2016 | Umeå Institute of Design


How might city dwellers become better connected to the natural world?

Understanding the role the natural world plays in our urban lives has become challenging. Increasing layers of complexity keep being added to our reality, pushing their point of origin further away from us.

For my thesis I aimed to explore the role technology could play in collapsing the layers that stand between us and the natural environment.


The final concept

The final concept


The concept

What if we could hear biodiversity?

As most of the animal and insect worlds remains invisible to our eyes, to perceive them, we need to open our ears.

Concept video


Biofonia - listening to the invisible

Biofonia is a service and product ecosystem that connects people to unique locations within nature reserves, through which they can learn the natural cycles wildlife has. Through the act of listening, people gain an understanding of the species that inhabit the area and what their daily and seasonal cycles are. Through the biophony*, we can re-learn to recognise how the natural environment is changing.

*The term biophony refers to the collective soundscape produced by animals and insects.


Key moments


Setup the sound recording device, the Collector in a chosen a nature reserve.

Listen to the wildlife through the Biophone and mark new species.

Learn to interpret sounds and report new species sightings on the Mesh.


Physical touchpoints


Biophone interactions

To help establish routines around the activity of listening, the patron is provided with a listening device, a Biophone (from biophony that refers to the wildlife soundscape). The light on the biophone is a realtime translation of the sonic activity at the nature site. 

1. Lift the glass lid to open the realtime audio connection to the site.

2. When you hear sounds that you want to save for later inspection, press the button on the side.

3. Close the lid to close the stream.


Concept goals

A sense of agency & hope

The auditory data becomes valuable after the user has interpreted what she has heard, and reported her sightings on the online platform, the Mesh. This data can then be used by scientists in their research, or by the entity that drives the nature reserve project.

The auditory data becomes valuable after the user has interpreted what she has heard, and reported her sightings on the online platform, the Mesh. This data can then be used by scientists in their research, or by the entity that drives the nature reserve project.

In a time when biodiversity loss is one of the most pressing problems facing us, it is not only important that we become aware of it, but we also need to provide people with means to help mitigate it.

Biofonia works with entities that drive the creation of new protected areas, and acts as a bridge to citizens interested in supporting them.

People can contribute to the establishment of a protected area by setting up sound recording devices, Collectors, in the area, the data of which is valuable to track the success of the project.

The data collected acts as evidence of the species inhabiting the area, which can be used to communicate the importance of the nature reserve.

People also pay a small fee for the maintenance of the Collector, and thus help fund the nature reserve employees.


Understanding biodiversity

Through our increasingly nomadic lifestyles, we are losing the sense of the natural cycles other species around us have. Moving within and between urban worlds, we are no longer aware of the species that are local to our surroundings and remain blissfully ignorant of their gradual reduction or complete demise.

Biofonia aims to help people create a connection to a single location, learn which species inhabit the space, and at which seasons of the year they tend to come and go. Through the understanding of the cycles of life within a single location, with time, we will learn to recognise when something is out of sync. What does it mean when a particular species arrives much later than usually, or perhaps, does not arrive at all? Conversely, what does it mean when an entirely new species arrives to the area?

In order to provide a supported learning process, Biofonia connects the users with collaborating scientific communities and nature reserves around the world. An online platfrom, the Mesh, serves both as a learning platform and as a connection point between users, scientists, and nature reserve staff. 


Service blueprint


Research and insights

Research and insights

Foundational research


I was interested in understanding the apparent disregard many of us in the Western world displayed towards the environment. To begin the foundational research for my thesis, I posed myself the following question:


One of the major reasons for why people living in the urban Western world do not display concern about environmental degradation is because they have little relation to it*. With increasing urbanisation, we nowadays spend more than 90 % of our daily lives indoors, and therefore have little contact with the outdoor natural environment. In order to give value to the environment, we need to have relation to it. And to have relation to it, we need experiences with it.



Primary research


After identifying one of the core problems for why we allocate little value to the environment, I re-focused my question for qualitative research.


Primary research plan


1. Expert interviews & field studies

2. User studies


Key insights


1. Drivers

The aspects that drew fascination for nature.


2. Barriers

The aspects that made it harder for people to relate to, or have experiences with nature.


Design principles

Basing on research analysis results, I determined that the following principles were key in creating a solution that helps people develop and maintain an interest towards the natural environment.

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Ideation and prototyping

Ideation and prototyping



Measuring biodiversity through sound

Bernie Krause, one of the founding fathers of the discipline of Soundscape Ecology. 

Bernie Krause, one of the founding fathers of the discipline of Soundscape Ecology. 

A spectrogram of sounds at Masai Mara.

A handful of biologists have been recording soundscapes in natural habitats for over 50 years. These soundscapes, also known as biophonies provide a 360-degree view of the life onsite. Soundscape Ecology, has become an invaluable way to measure biodiversity.


Ideation workshop

Gathering new perspectives

Small groups were formed around each of the four fictional characters (based on character types identified via interviews). Groups were given three different questions to ideate on, while keeping in mind my design guidelines and the notions of listening and sound. Four themes emerged: Memories and place attachment, Sense of community, Sense of agency.

Based on these I ideated further and developed the concepts:



From concepts to experience prototypes

Nature Calling vs Sound Hunter

The Sound Hunter concept was tested by having participants use their phones to record anything they regarded as nature

Although the Sound Hunter concept was successful in motivating people to listen to the environment, the most crucial downfall was that the recordings were never listened to again.

The Nature Calling concept was tested with the Wizard of Oz method. Participants were given birdhouses that they could place anywhere in nature. They were then given a listening device that streamed the soundscape from the birdhouse (Wizard of Oz).

This concept was easier to engage with, as the soundscapes were listened to as background noise while working via the sound playing device.


Design guidelines

Drawing from prototype feedback and findings, the following guidelines were set to steer the refinement phase of concept development: 


Concept development

Concept development

Concept development and refinement

The results from the two prototyping spurts lead me to decide to take further the Nature Calling concept. During prototyping the following issues were identified with the concept:

  • The maintenance, connectivity and taking care of Collector’s end-of-life
  • Hearing biodiversity decline
  • Getting guidance to understand what was heard
  • Supported maintenance of long-term relationship with the location.  

I also aimed to move away from a conceptual solution to a more realistic outcome. Staff from the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat helped address the technical challenges of the concept.


1. Limiting setup to nature reserves

2. Adding light interaction

3. Tweaking the Collector

Providing a service

  • To ensure proper maintenance and the eventual retrieval of the Collector.
  • To provide a sense of agency in addressing biodiversity loss, by contributing with data to support biodiversity research.  
  • To provide a sense of hope, by hearing an increase in biodiversity over time.
  • To create a community and add human interaction to support long-term engagement.
  • To provide human guidance in understanding and learning about animal sounds.

A light that signals heightened activity at the nature site

  • To remind the user of its presence and help create listening rituals. Animal activity tends to take place at certain times of the day. With light, a better understanding of the site's active times is established. 
  • To limit the Collector's energy consumption. Streaming audio data continuously is energy intensive, therefore the data is sent only when the connection is opened by the user (by lifting the lid). In addition, the data is uploaded to the cloud at regular intervals (e.g. once a day).

From birdhouse to a simpler sound collecting device

  • To allow a wider range of setup locations, so that the likelihood of hearing other animals than birds would increase.
  • To address practical problems relating to behaviours of most bird species.