‘Silicon beach’ has locals in a twist but who wants to be stuck in an office?

By Sue Thomas, Visiting Fellow, The Media School

Wishful thinking.
Giorgio Montersino, CC BY-SA

We must all now be very familiar with complaints about how the amount of time glued to our devices eats into family time and other meaningful relationships. They range from children who’d rather play with phones than eat at the table (for which there’s an app to lock them out at mealtimes) to addictions in the making and ones that “threaten the very fabric of society”.

Locking away your phone may be the answer for some, and at the moment we can’t be sure whether our use of digital devices will have a positive or negative effect on our health, but isn’t it more about being smart about how you use them?

While VisitScotland took the opportunity to sell poor mobile reception as a great time to experience the “novelty of luddism”, the New Forest National Park in southern England is inviting visitors to lock away phones in what it calls the “world’s first creche for technology and car keys”. The idea is that wandering in the forest without mobiles will “get families connecting.”

Asked about this initiative on BBC radio, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood made the case for disconnecting. He also commented on plans to introduce wifi to his local beach in Bournemouth. While he welcomed it, he said there should also be mobile-free quiet zones.

This Bournemouth beach also happens to be my local beach. And I profoundly disagree. Mobile-free zones on beaches are technically impractical, if not impossible, and only reinforce the notion that we can’t enjoy nature without being “switched off”. Quiet coaches on trains, arguably an easier thing to enforce, didn’t exactly work and are being scrapped. The idea of depriving people of their connections is a backwards way of thinking and out of step with modern life.

Bournemouth, in any case, is supporting Silicon Beach, an annual gathering of techies and digital entrepreneurs, in September. Organiser Matt Desimer recently said that the conference along with other notable digital events, two universities and myriad award-winning agencies, meant Bournemouth was “emerging as a creative and digital hotspot to rival Brighton or Bristol”.

Bournemouth is clearly working towards being a place where wired people can hang out and work while pursuing healthy digital lives. Talking about mobile-free quiet zones at the mere suggestion of having wifi on the beach seems an anathema to this. I know where I’d rather be working (ideally in the sunshine, though Bournemouth of course isn’t the Bahamas).

Spurred on by the moral panic about the time we spend using personal technology, Ellwood said it was “a little bit worrying” that we now carried out offices and social lives with us. Meanwhile, the New Forest National Park declared that “a battle is raging” in families with smartphones.

Is it really? Do any of these claims mean anything at all? Or is it just that X out of Y media outlets think that negative stories about our digital lives attract Z number of readers, while only a minority of readers enjoy technology stories with a positive bent?

Conflicted organisations

The New Forest National Park seems to be engaged in its own conflicted struggle with technology. Is it good for you, or is it not? The park already offers a pretty good New Forest App offering advice on where to cycle, walk, sleep and eat, as well as updated events and travel, yet now it seems to want us to stop using it and go off to play among the trees, stripped of our phones.

But is it true that technology makes the outdoor experience somehow impure – a belief that is no doubt ingrained in many minds? Or, alternatively, can it actually expand our enjoyment of it? Perhaps, as I’ve suggested before, we already use our phones to enhance our woodland experiences. They give us maps and GPS, apps for identifying plants and creatures, audio to record them, cameras to photograph them, and tools to draw and write about them. Plus, of course, the ability to call or text if needed. The Wild Network, an offshoot of The National Trust which is dedicated to reconnecting children with nature, is exploring the connections between “screen time” and “wild time”.

Humans have always brought technology into nature, from the earliest adzes and axes to presentday equipment of all kinds. And people have always used natural spaces to connect and socialise, whether in green woodland gatherings or sunny beach parties. Smartphones and devices are a tool too, just a new kind, that come with apps specifically designed to be used in those spaces. Turning off will always be your choice, there’s no need to make up yet more rules about quiet zones.

The Conversation

Sue Thomas does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Bournemouth pupils help come up with designs for Bio-Beach project


Pupils at two local schools have been helping Bournemouth University (BU) researchers come up with designs for structures to increase biodiversity on the town’s beaches.

Pupils at Avonbourne College and Harewood College have been working with BU staff and students on ideas for the Bio-Beach project, which aims to improve and increase the marine life along Bournemouth’s shoreline.

Bio-Beach is a collaboration between BU and Bournemouth Borough Council to place structures on groynes along the local coastline, which will provide refuge for marine life.

The creatures living within them will then be recorded by underwater cameras – giving insight into their habitat and behaviour.

Around 30 pupils from Years 7 – 9 have been working on ideas and prototypes for the project after school, supported by BU student ambassadors and the AspireBU outreach team.

They were given a brief by the BU Bio-Beach researchers to create durable structures that could retain water and provide shelter for marine life.

The pupils came up with designs inspired by everything from rubber ducks to scuba divers, which were made of sustainable and recycled materials including old rope and tires.

Fay Lyon, Science Teacher at Avonbourne College, said: “I think it has been brilliant. They have really loved it actually.

“I think it’s the fact that it’s real world application of science – it’s really useful. These are genuine problems that need to be solved and they can contribute something for that. They have the chance to make a real difference.”

After coming up with initial designs, the pupils had to create prototypes and test them – sandblasting and submerging them in saltwater to see how durable and suitable they would be for the harsh conditions on the beach.

They then shared their ideas with Bio-Beach researchers Dr Roger Herbert and Dr Bob Eves.

Dr Herbert, a Senior Lecturer in Coastal and Marine Biology at BU, said: “The brief was to develop some new designs and features which can encourage a whole range of different things for people to look at and enjoy, as well as increasing the biodiversity of the seashore.

“They worked really hard and have got all sorts of imaginative and interesting ideas.

“When we look at these sorts of problems, we see the obvious constraints but you can learn so much from younger people who don’t see those problems and that’s where their creativity really benefits us.”

Dr Eves, a Senior Lecturer in Product Design, added: “I think what has been great is the imagination and the ideas that they have come up with, because they are free-forming.

“The ideas are coming from children, which will then be enjoyed by other children on the beach.”

The pupils will use feedback from Dr Herbert and Dr Eves to continue working on their designs, with the best ideas and elements then selected for the final Bio-Beach structure.

Year 8 pupil Rebecca Harper was part of a group who created a design which used buckets and old tyres filled with recycled materials like bottle caps and ropes.

She said: “It’s been really fun designing these things and getting to create the prototypes.

“I’ve learnt a lot about the creatures that live on the beach and how to make and reuse things. It would be amazing to see our design on the beach.”

Find out more about the Bio-Beach project