RHS Chelsea Flower Show to host ‘Twitter garden’

Digital Capabilities
If there is no Twitter activity relating to the Chelsea Flower Show, only the familiar side of the garden will be displayed. As the ‘buzz’ grows, Digital Capabilities will reveal more and more of the exotica that lie behind the wall.
Professor Shaun Lawson
21/05/2013 update: The Digital Capabilities interactive garden has been awarded a Gold medal at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013


A unique digital garden shaped dynamically by social media is to make an appearance at the centennial of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. ‘Digital Capabilities’, a garden designed to respond to live Twitter activity, will allow the viewing public to directly influence how the exhibit appears at any one time.

Digital Capabilities is divided diagonally by an array of autonomous panels that will respond directly to the ‘buzz’ surrounding the Chelsea Flower Show 2013. The garden is separated into two horticultural sections: the familiar and the exotic. Whilst the familiar flora will be continuously visible, the more exotic specimens will be obscured by the panels. A computer programme will monitor the number of Twitter users using the #rhschelsea tag; as more people tweet about the show, more of the garden’s exotica will be revealed.

Digital Capabilities has been developed by a multi-disciplinary team of University of Lincoln academics and the award-winning design duo Harfleet & Harfleet. The contrast between the familiar and the exotic is intended to represent the internet by juxtaposing easily accessible surface material with the substance that lies beneath.

In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, Shaun Lawson, Professor of Social Computing at the Lincoln School of Computer Science, explained more about this novel combination of nature and technology.

"For some time now, I’ve wondered why nobody has entered a garden at Chelsea that mixes technology with traditional horticultural practices," he began. "My job is to improve our understanding of social media so this was a natural project for me to undertake. Essentially, our aim is to blend a physical garden with digital elements in an interesting way.

'Twitter-actuated wall'


"Digital Capabilities combines traditional planting with a Twitter-actuated wall that separates one half of the garden from the other," continued Professor Lawson. "This wall includes 20 electronically activated Perspex panels, each of which responds to activity across the social network: specifically that pertaining to the Chelsea Flower Show. The more people mention this subject on Twitter, the more of the inner garden will be revealed."

The immediate nature of Twitter will enable Chelsea Flower Show attendees to interact with Digital Capabilities in real time. The only tools required are a mobile phone and a connection to the internet.

"Twitter itself is a very interesting example of social media," explained Professor Lawson. "It is possible to collect huge quantities of information from the network in real time. This is not really practical on a platform such as Facebook; you can’t really get a feel for the daily ‘buzz’ surrounding a subject. With just a few lines of code, a computer scientist can find out what people are talking about on Twitter at this very moment. This is clearly a great advantage for our project."

I went on to ask about the importance of the contrast between the familiar and the exotic. What is this dichotomy supposed to represent?

"The internet allows users to expose information and experiences that would otherwise be unavailable to them," Professor Lawson replied. "The fact that our garden is divided into the familiar and the exotic is a reflection of that. If there is no Twitter activity relating to the Chelsea Flower Show, only the familiar side of the garden will be displayed. As the ‘buzz’ grows, Digital Capabilities will reveal more and more of the exotica that lie behind the wall."

Future installations


Digital Capabilities is an attempt to interweave data taken from social media with the corporeal world. Professor Lawson and his colleagues have devised a construct that will allow the digital to impinge upon the physical in a meaningful way. To conclude our conversation, I asked whether he had any other ideas as to how social media might be melded with real space in the future.

"We are interested in digital installations in general," Professor Lawson replied. "We want to raise more awareness of the digital world within physical spaces. A lot of our day-to-day research is concerned with understanding how and why people use social media. These platforms are used for all sorts of different reasons, some of which are fairly surprising. For instance, people often use social media to discuss mental health issues. You might not expect users to talk about this sort of thing in a public space, but lots of them do. At the same time, these conversations aren’t often seen by the general public. We want to show a broader audience that these types of conversation are taking place online, and that people are using new technologies to help solve their everyday dilemmas – even in terms of their own health and wellbeing."


To learn more about this digital garden, checkout the project's website at www.digitalcapabilities.com. You can also follow @digcapabilities on Twitter and get involved by tweeting #rhschelsea...

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