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Plant-based data storage: Imagining a symbiosis between plants and data

Speculative designer Xiaofan Jiang and design technologist Xintong Tan from Parsons School of Design imagined a world where data and cyborg plants form a symbiotic relationship in this short film, Symbiosis.

Scientists and technologists have been looking for cleaner substitutes for cloud storage since it has a larger negative impact on the environment than the airline industry. Imagining 2028, scientists have successfully developed a way to turn plants into eco-friendly supercapacitors using external electronic roots and conductive soil without damaging the plants, allowing data exchange through the air, soil, and roots.

In the film, the speculative future scenarios took place when data storage plants have become common in households, centering around the life of the two roommates, Amy and Crystal.

A digital album on the wall showing the two main characters, Amy and Crystal

“Symbiosis involves two species living in close contact over a long period of their existence, and it is exactly what kind of relationship plants and data are in this video,” Xiaofan explains, “The plants offer themselves as hosts for data, while the electronic extensions transfer not only data but also the conditions of the plant to external interfaces, serving as a bridge for communication between plants and humans especially when a plant is in desperate need of care.”

The digital interface on the pot connected to the electronic roots indicates the plants’ conditions
The physical interface of the tools reminds people to take of the plants

“Another ecological phenomenon often brought together with symbiosis is mutualism. Plants communicate and share water and nutrients through the underground mutual-aid network. We can imagine that when one plant is sick, the surrounding ones would send nutrients to keep it strong and help backup the data.”

The conductive solution flowing in plants would highlight the part which is sick or damaged
Sending nutrients and backup data for the sick plant (the one in yellow)

In this film, projection mapping by Xintong Tan and visual effects by Xiaofan Jiang were used to demonstrate the reception, the flow, and the transmission of data inside the plants’ system.

Projection mapping on the leaves: Accessing data archives
Projection mapping on the wall: a digital Interface showing the data stored in plants
Projection mapping on the stems: The status of data transferring

“The plant-based data storage apparatus highlighted a liminal state for plants between a machine and a natural being. And that leads to the question: If your data lives in the plants around you, would you feel the urge to take care of their lives? Would you still treat them as plants, the living beings who are generous enough to spare their capacity to humans, or machines that would be disposed of once failure occurs? ” Xiaofan and Xintong posed these questions to the viewers. “We should always be grateful for the environment and our mother nature, instead of always taking advantage of them to clean up the mess we’ve created,” Xiaofan added.

Data or your plant, which one do you care about more?


About the artists

Xiaofan Jiang

Xiaofan Jiang is a transdisciplinary designer who is grounded in many fields of design. Starting her career as a user experience designer that makes people’s lives better and a communication designer that amplifies voices and visions, she has never stopped to expand her capacity in the different sub-discipline of design such as product service system design, speculative design, filmmaking, and sound design. Her practices in all those fields can be seen as an integrated approach to addressing issues that transcend disciplinary boundaries. Her works aim to address issues in the accelerating socio-techno system, challenge stereotypes of marginalized communities, reclaim narratives, build relationships, shift power structures, and visualize visions for a more equitable future.

Xintong Tan


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