Experts to Debate Outdoor Recreation in a Digital Age

29 August 2016, NZRA media release

The impact of technology on how we interact with the great outdoors will be a hot topic at this year’s Outdoors Forum, hosted by the New Zealand Recreation Association (NZRA).

Recreation professionals and experts will share insights on the different ways in which digital technology is changing the way in which we interact with the outdoors, particularly in non-urban settings. This year’s forum will be held on 1-2 September at the James Cook Hotel in Wellington, with the theme of Getting the Next Generation Outdoors.

“As with any change, there are challenges and opportunities associated with the increasing use of technology in the great outdoors,” says NZRA Chief Executive Andrew Leslie. “People venturing into the outdoors these days, particularly younger people, are often doing so with the aid of mobile devices and other technology. This upcoming forum will allow sector professionals to share their views and brainstorm their ideas on the subject.”

Dr Roslyn Kerr, Head of the Department of Tourism, Sport and Society at Lincoln University, will be speaking at the forum about the differences and similarities in the way people use digital devices in urban, peri-urban and back country settings.

“What we know is that the further away we move from urban settings, the more tension there is around the question of using phones, music players and other technology in the outdoors,” Ms Kerr says.

“In urban settings, the use of technology is more or less unquestioned. In the back country, there is less tolerance for such devices. At the same time, the research suggests that people don’t want rules imposed on them. For example, some outdoor sector managers have suggested banning technology use in tramping huts, but people appear not to want that level of interference.”

There is no simple answer to whether technology has had a positive or negative impact on how we interact with the outdoors. On the one hand, digital apps and GPS make people feel more secure about exploring the great outdoors. But such devices can also produce a false sense of security, Ms Kerr says.

“Experienced back country users are saying that people shouldn’t venture to places they have no experience with, because without skills, their devices won’t be much use to them if something goes wrong,” she says.

Ms Kerr points to a study she supervised, by PhD student Caroline Dépatie, which looks at the use of digital devices in the Port Hills area, in Canterbury. Two-thirds of the recreationists surveyed said they carried a smart phone, with 80 percent citing safety as their primary reason for having it. But the phones were mostly used to check the time (50 percent), followed by calling, texting and taking photos, while accessing information like trail conditions and weather represented only 15 percent of usage.

Still, technology is here to stay, and it’s important to talk about how best to use it, and to be creative in our thinking, Ms Kerr says. “It would be good to carry out more experience-based research, to better understand for example what skills people might need in the back country, and where technology can play a positive part in their outdoor experiences.”

The Outdoors Forum will feature a range of keynote speakers and provide opportunities to share ideas, debate hot topics and discuss common challenges. Other topics this year include access to our outdoors, New Zealand’s changing demographics, and the importance of understanding student needs and planning to ensure curriculum needs are met. There will also be a presentation on sport and cultural diversity, with a particular focus on an Auckland-based project aimed at addressing the needs of the rapidly growing Asian community on the North Shore of Auckland.

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