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Build A Better Houseplant

Industry 4.0 tech turns to nature.

I love technology, except when I don’t. Maybe it’s a classic approach-avoidance conflict.

I discovered my career in the events industry while producing conferences that supported the emerging tech revolution of the ‘90s. I thrived in that tech-driven chaos. And today, I love the way digitalization has empowered all manner of professionals — from baseball managers to heart surgeons — by allowing them to make critical decisions based on access to powerful data-integration systems. But few things are as frustrating as technology gone awry, whether it’s a cell phone app that won’t load or an enterprise system entangled by a mysterious glitch.

I am not a luddite. When tech-induced anxiety strikes, I remind myself that technology has helped everyone get better at pivoting, flexing, and being scrappy, which is critical these days. But I suppose I resent being dependent on something I know how to use but don’t really understand how to fix. This goes a long way toward explaining why a small news items I saw the other day captured my imagination.

Neoplants, a Paris-based startup, has developed a line of bioengineered houseplants that fight air pollution in the home. They claim that one of their plants does the air-purification work of 30 normal house plants. The plants suck up VOCs and metabolize them in an eco-friendly way. So, instead of building an improved air purification machine destined for a future landfill, these dedicated scientists sought and found the solution in nature itself.

Maybe this story charms me because I already know how to perform maintenance on a houseplant. Just add water. But I suspect what I like most is that it bodes well for a future in which the next wave of innovation originates in nature. People are already working on a transparent wood-based product to replace plastic. Chemical engineers at MIT are researching ways to embed nanoparticles in plants to help them generate light. Technology is being applied to analyze how nature works in order to help nature itself repair and mitigate the damage technology has engendered.

I find this life-centered approach to progress encouraging. The favorite metaphor for innovation used to be, “build a better mousetrap.” But maybe we should take a cue from the scientific community, which is finding inspiration in nature.  Or instead of talking to our houseplants, we should listen.

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