Understanding the Technical and Social Challenges and Opportunities of Physically and Digitally Augmented Community Gardens
Lead PI:
Lining Yao

This NSF Smart and Connected Community (S&CC) planning grant will explore the concept of the "meta-garden", which is a physically and digitally augmented community garden aimed at addressing challenges associated with traditional community gardens. Community gardens have the potential to provide numerous benefits, but often face limitations such as scarce resources, limited access, lack of persistent engagement, and other challenges. The significance of this research lies in its potential to seamlessly connect physical and virtual community gardens, and enhance their experiences and values by overcoming spatial and resource limitations. Extending a physical garden into a virtual one could potentially overcome space and resource limitations. Virtual gardens may also provide new and engaging platforms to enable people to connect, share, learn, and even generate revenue. Being able to remotely monitor and manage physical gardens via a virtual platform may also provide more scheduling flexibility for residents who are pressured to fulfill other time-demanding duties, or during extreme events such as lockdowns due to pandemics. This innovative approach benefits society by addressing challenges facing traditional community gardens and expanding their potential in terms of community learning, engagement, and well-being.

The research endeavors to identify design opportunities and potential social benefits of the meta-garden through participatory design workshops, develop a technical strategy, and create functional prototypes for physical and virtual augmentations of a community garden. Moreover, it aims to conduct pilot tests with community partners and summarize design guidelines for future implementation. On the technical front, the research involves mapping out relevant functional features, formulating technical development strategies, developing preliminary functional prototypes, and evaluating system performance. These processes are informed by specific research questions targeting technical aspects such as key technical features, approaches for augmentation, technical gaps, challenges, and potential solutions. From a social perspective, the research employs a research-through-design approach involving participatory design workshops, semi-structured interviews, and reflective thematic analysis. These methods are guided by questions that explore the social benefits and challenges of the meta-garden concept and how it can enhance community experiences. Collectively, these endeavors serve to explore how meta-gardens, facilitated by this planning grant, could redefine community gardens to be more inclusive, accessible, and impactful. The potential for these mixed-reality gardens may even stretch beyond the community garden context, with possibilities for enhancing agricultural management, environmental quality monitoring, urban and rural planning, and more.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Lining Yao
Lining Yao is an Associate Professor of Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) at Carnegie Mellon University, School of Computer Science, directing the Morphing Matter Lab. Morphing Matter lab develops materials, tools, and applications of adaptive, dynamic and intelligent morphing matter from nano to macro scales. Research often combines material science, computational fabrication and creative design practices. Lining and her lab work anti-disciplinarily, publishing and exhibiting across science, engineering, design and art. Lining gained her PhD at MIT Media Lab, where she combined biological and engineering approaches to develop physical materials with dynamic and tunable properties including shape, color, stiffness, texture and density. Beyond her teaching and research at HCII in the School of Computer Science, Lining is also an adjunct professor of Mechanical Engineering, supervising undergraduate and graduate students across the College of Engineering. Her lab is currently accepting applications for Postdocs, PhDs, research scientists, visiting researchers and internship positions.
Performance Period: 08/01/2023 - 07/31/2024
Institution: Carnegie-Mellon University
Award Number: 2327014