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Prologue: The Death of the Land Mine-Detecting Flower

“As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”


Nicholas Carr: Is Google Making Us Stupid? (The Atlantic)

Land mine-detecting flowers

Several years ago, Danish biotech company Aresa began to develop a series of products based upon the idea of using biotechnology to overcome environmental issues. It’s a common thread running through many organizations wishing to leverage technology to solve business problems, and in many ways, parallels much of what we currently see in the real estate industry as it moves along the glacial path of digital adoption.

Aresa’s product development centered around the genetic modification of plants. In their case, the re-engineering of a small weed-like plant, to create a product called “Red Detect,” a modified type of thale cress that reacts to nitrogen dioxide in the earth where it’s growing. It became important because it could be used to detect the presence of unexploded ammunition and land mines, free of the logistical and economic problems currently associated with bomb disposal. The premise being, plant the seeds (from the air or by using cleared strips of land), wait three to four weeks, and the plant would grow quickly and rampantly. Where mines had been buried, the plants would grow red. In other places, they would grow their natural green.

This promised seismic advances in the fields of humanitarian effort in post-war countries, where it’s estimated, despite the outlawed use of land mines by the 1997 Ottawa Convention in more than 90 countries, that there still exist more than 100 million unexploded land mines in more than 45 countries. Land mines have a brutal legacy not only of loss of life, but continued loss of limbs, especially among children, long after a conflict ends. In many ways, Aresa’s product truly promised to be that often-abused term, a game changer.

“There are a lot of promises in land mine detection, but still, what people often come back to is the guy poking around with a stick.”

Jarne Elleholm 

Current methods of land mine detection, such as ground-penetrating radar technology, still only manage to cover less than 1 percent of land mine territory each year, and the effort of clearing and safely disposing of them is arduously slow. As part of that process, there’s incredible cost, both in time and money. Simply put, it’s expensive. The promise of using technology to engineer solutions that serve as ways to help us save ourselves is an appealing one to many, and one that many in the real estate industry will be intimately familiar with. Aresa’s goal was ultimately to retain the soil’s productivity (so that it could return to being farmed, for example), and not make the process of mine removal so costly to the land itself that it couldn’t be used afterwards, like so many current methods. Developed out of research from The Institute of Molecular Biology at Copenhagen University, “Red Detect” was naturally engineered to turn red under what the scientists termed “stressful conditions,” such as cold or drought, but was modified to only turn red in the presence of certain chemicals, such as nitrogen dioxide, which leaks from land mines over time.

“Land mines are among the most barbaric weapons of war, because they continue to kill and maim innocent people long after the war itself has ended. Also, fear of them keeps people off the land, and thus prevents them from growing food.”

Kofi Annan, United Nations

‘It’s much more efficient. It’s very tedious to clear mines the normal way. You’re putting a stick in the ground every three centimeters. One man can sometimes only do two square meters a day.”

Simon Ostergaard (Aresa)

The visual symbolism of the flower-detecting land mine is of course, a highly romanticized one, and one which many people bought into as perhaps the future of how bioengineering would create beautiful, elegant solutions to the very real environmental problem of saving lives. Trials had proven successful in controlled environments in Denmark, and the project began to gain some very real traction, including euphoric publicity online, and great interest from noted sustainability futurists such as Alex Steffen. Real-world tests were scheduled and developed for actual land-mine sites in Serbia and Croatia, and early claims suggested that a working, commercial prototype would be available within the following two years.

“Relying solely on a weed to detect land mines raises certain concerns. Some mine casings are sealed to prevent the escape of nitrogen dioxide, which means not all explosives could be detected by the plant, says Bob Gravett, senior technical adviser to the Mines Advisory Group, an international organization that removes land mines. In addition, the thale cress plant might attract livestock into dangerous areas before mines are cleared.”

John K. Borchardt: “New Weed May Flag Land Mines” (Christian Science Monitor)

The tests failed. None of the plants changed to red when grown in known explosives-infected soil, or were so subtle, or small in number that those clearing the fields wouldn’t have been able to see them clearly enough. Aresa suggested that a further two to three years of development would be required to refine and optimize the product to the point where the trials would be consistently successful, and they’d have a fully working product.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead of continuing to develop the land mine-detecting flower, Aresa decided that it was too cost prohibitive to maintain and implement the genetic engineering side of their business, and began the process of transforming itself from a biotechnology company, into a commercial real estate investment firm, focused on the purchase and development of land mine-infested areas of the Balkans. That same land that they had attempted to cover with land mine detecting plants. As they mention in their (now deleted) online statement on the decision to pivot their business, the change came as part of a “far less risky” investment strategy, because the “business model behind the land mine plant had become outdated.” Namely, Aresa was left with a number of downgraded patent technologies that were unable to be validated, and were therefore of no value.

Particularly in the app and startup worlds, so much of what becomes technologically possible, or even proposed, suffers the same unfortunate fate as Aresa’s Red Detect, and the pace of change, however rampant it may appear to be, is happening despite the decisions of thousands of people who choose not to develop it further. What we see become available is a minute fraction of what is actually being worked on. As a metaphor for how technology is often poised to save us from ourselves, the story of the land mine-detecting flower is a powerful one, filled with promise, innovation and failure. It’s a story about land abuse, and how to rescue it. As technology increasingly takes over all facets of our lives, especially as the Web begins to spread outside of the desktop computer and into phones, televisions, cars and even household appliances (for example the cloud-based Nest thermostat), housing, energy, and the places and lifestyles which people choose to live in and lead, become critical. Decision-making is changing, and moving increasingly away from people. When it comes to decisions regarding housing, the real estate industry has already abdicated much of this process to algorithms, but it’s what happens after the person moves in that’s the really interesting part of this. The disruptive economics of location, location, location are shifting to mean something very different over the next 20 years.

“This revolution, the information revolution, is a revolution of free energy as well, but of another kind: free intellectual energy. It’s very crude today, yet our Macintosh computer takes less power than a 100-watt bulb to run it and it can save you hours a day. What will it be able to do 10 or 20 years from now, or 50 years from now?”

Steve Jobs, Playboy Magazine Interview 1985

We no longer have to remember information in the way that we once did, and it’s having wide-reaching consequences on information retention, learning and education. Simply remembering where to find it is enough in the age of Google. Arguments and lengthy discussions over dinner are resolved much faster when you can instantly tell who was wrong by swiftly consulting Wikipedia. And yet, for as much technology as informs our decisions about how to travel, who to talk to, and what to buy, the Web still hasn’t fundamentally changed the way we live, even in an era where there’s more computing power in an iPhone than there was on the rockets that sent man to the moon. We still cook on “dumb” devices; we still drive cars that, while sophisticated, do not have the computing capabilities of even the most primitive of smartphones; and we clean our clothes in devices for which the technology and processes were developed hundreds of years ago. This has led to a climate of rampant inefficiency, conspicuous consumption, and chronic resource ignorance. In essence, as technologically adapt as we may think we are, it’s still early, primitive days, especially when it comes to housing and the items we surround ourselves with.

At the core of this series is a discussion of dependence.

Dependence upon energy, dependence upon technology, and dependence upon abdicating our decision making to tools and processes beyond our control. It starts (and ends) with the premise of asking if this same technology can save us from decisions we’re unable, or unwilling to make on our own, and we’re going to start with one of the biggest decisions we need to make over the next 20 years, how housing is going to impact our dependence upon oil.

I hope you’ll enjoy the journey over the next three posts.

Further reading:

Julie Ardery: “Bomb-Sniffing Flowers” (Human Flower Project)

Babelgum Metropolis: “Land Mine Flowers” 

Nick Bilton: “One Step Back From The Digital World” (New York Times)

Nick Bilton: “This Is Your Brain On Twitter” (New York Times)

John K. Borchardt: “New Weed May Flag Land Mines” (Christian Science Monitor)

Nicholas Carr: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (The Atlantic)

Jamais Cascio: “Land Mine Detecting Flowers” (World Changing)

GM Watch: “Much-Hyped GM Land Mine Detection Fails”

Mark Halper: “Saving Lives And Limbs With A Weed” (Time Magazine)

Julia Levitt: “The Death Of The Land Mine-Detecting Flower” (World Changing)

Morning Edition, NPR: “Scientists Tap Tobacco Plants To Detect Land Mines” (NPR)

Jenny Purt: “The Future Of Sustainability And Our Planet” (The Guardian)

Reuters (Author Unattributed): “Flower Power Takes On Land Mines” (Wired)

Alex Steffen: “Innovative Approaches To Environmentalism”

Alex Steffen: “Seeing A Sustainable Future (TED)”

Alex Steffen: “Worldchanging 2.0”

Clive Thompson: “Land Mine-Detecting Plants” (New York Times)

Clive Thompson: “Your Outboard Brain Knows All” (Wired)