Digitization, and the future of urban agriculture.
In my first blog post, I introduced the basics of who I am, what I’ve been working on and briefly revealed some of the big ideas that plague me. When speaking about or writing on these topics, I often reference historical trends in technology to best explain what futures I think we’re drifting toward.
It’ll take me more than a few posts to fully explain my vision for the AVA Byte and the future of urban farming. My viewpoints are informed by my experiences growing up around my father’s construction company, working in a failed vertical farm, my studies in history, human geography, the sciences, and many subjects of interest in between.
I’ve meditated at length on where we are as individuals, communities, cities, societies and a species, and what I know for sure is that where we can go is directly connected to where we’ve come from. From the earliest permanent settlements supported by farming, knowledge had to be developed and personally taught to others, using oral traditions while knowledge of planting and harvest was ritualized through religion and festival celebrations. These traditional conditions still exist in developing nations around the world today. However, these models will soon be disrupted by the ever-decreasing cost of powerful digital technologies like smartphones and apps. Just as flip phones have allowed African nations to skip investing in previous generation technologies like telephone lines, and jump straight to mobile phone banking, we should expect similar exponential jumps in the world of agriculture across the planet.
There are multiple paths to a future where cities and people live in better harmony with nature, and each other. The technologies that can help us create the utopian cities I long for are mostly here. The reason we don’t live in them yet is less about the technological development and more about the awareness of what’s already available.
Before we’re willing to trust and test new technologies or ideas, we first have to become aware of them. I’m sure many of you are aware of the concept of the adoption curve, which is used in the Lean Startup methodology and helps companies identify what they should build, based on the discoverable needs of the first customers. What the typical adoption curve discussion doesn’t address, is that there is an awareness curve (the idea moving through the population) that occurs ahead of any adoption curve. By writing here, and working at AVA, I understand that at the foundation of everything that I’m doing, spreading awareness is the key to a better future.
I see serious problems in how slowly powerful new and old technologies are adopted by individuals and companies. Hydroponics, aeroponics, local sourcing, community gardens, home growing, vertical farms, rooftop greenhouses, food computing and the concept of living produce are subjects that I personally feel responsible to infiltrate further into the collective consciousness. Through widespread awareness, and acceptance of these technologies, we have the ability to create the demand that would influence suppliers and growers to move to more efficient operations and technologies. By understanding the historical arc of technologies, and how they’ve shaped us, we can anticipate how they also might affect the future. For any company working in our space, the simple act of helping more people grow food at home, creates an influential daily practice and conversation around food and food related issues.
For the past three centuries, humanity has created multiple waves of increasing efficiency in agriculture; through mechanization, selective breeding, genetic manipulation, and the application of digital technologies. While these technologies helped boost crop yields significantly, over seven hundred million people remain undernourished, whereas the developed countries waste around 33% of their food. Today we’re all connected in a global food network, and dependent on a fossil fuel intensive, industrialized food supply chain which emerged from technologies, practices and trade agreements that were signed in the previous century. Beyond archaic in today’s world of exponential technology, the foundations of this system are too shortsighted and destructive. We’ve witnessed past and present eras of significant technological disruption that we need to learn from, so we can seize the opportunities that will deliver us into a more abundant and ecologically balanced future.
Community and school gardens are fantastic examples of the oldest agricultural technology; sharing information and learning from others. People helping people grow food has always been the primary way that everyone survived and the fact that we’re seeing an increase in Urban Farming is very promising.
A few weeks ago, I had a profound conversation with my friend and collaborator, Michael Moll who has developed a subtly revolutionary gardening app platform; My Green Space. Our pivotal discussions around urban farming and digital agriculture are intense and have been key to my evolving understanding of what can be accomplished. My Green Space (MGS) took widely available information and digitized it. Now instead of looking at a chart to see what to plant, and when, based on where you live, you can use the MGS app to plan an entire season in less time than it takes to understand the chart. Beyond making it much easier to start growing your own food garden, the app makes it easier to companion plant combinations that work for your space, sun exposure and preferences. The app allows you to learn at your own pace, engage with videos and will continue to evolve as a free app, and is currently being used by 7500 in 15+ countries.
A few days before Michael and I met, he sketched out a visual representation of what the future trend in Urban Agricultural production could look like.
The X-Axis is time in years, from present day, looking into the future. The Y-Axis represents the amount of food produced.
- As we can see here, people helping people grow food has always been the primary way we fed the world. This will eventually be surpassed by the next two technologies, but never likely eliminated.
- Machines helping people grow food has been happening for a long time. Currently, the amount of semi-automated urban food production is limited, but holds promise in the short term.
- The next phase/step is machines growing food for people. Significant amounts of food, but not all of it. While there are very few highly or fully automated systems currently operating in cities, they do exist, and it’s our goal for the AVA Byte to become a well known example.
MGS is a perfect example of technology helping people grow food, with its power lying in how easy it enables someone to grow food without having to go through the traditional oral or written learning that takes much more time.
After a brief meeting at NY AgTech Week in 2016, I got to know Ryan Hooks of HUXLEY at the inaugural Aglanta conference. HUXLEY is another exciting example of what technology helping people grow plants looks like. While I understood that manufacturing would be one of the first industries to adopt Augmented Reality (AR) in their daily operations, I somehow missed the parallel and more exciting opportunity that greenhouses provided. HUXLEY is already working on the idea, and what it promises is nothing less than empowering workers and companies to significantly enhance the productivity of each worker, while making work more enjoyable. AR is a technology that is so powerful, exciting and relatable (Pokemon Go was the first mass AR event), that it has taken Ryan around Europe with groups from the World Food Programme and Tech Open Air. AR perfectly demonstrates how a single digital technology can make an improvement over ten times the current state, we have the chance to put multiple 10X technologies in place to start reinventing the way we grow food and rebuild our urban landscapes. The promise of this future is to have higher nutrient density, at a lower cost, with a lower carbon footprint, and fewer people being exploited by difficult, and low paying seasonal jobs.
Picture walking into a greenhouse without having any previous training and having a headset guide you through every task in the day. With a tomato greenhouse, future machine vision systems can be used to overlay interactive graphics on a worker’s AR glasses to point out exactly which tomatoes are ripe and need to be harvested, or where in the greenhouse attention is needed. All of this can happen while the worker is learning a new language or listening to lectures of their choice.
We can grow more food, at a lower cost, that is of higher quality, with a smaller environmental footprint.
Our current industrialized food system has created an abundant supply of food that allowed humanity to boom to a total population of 7+ Billion. Aside from allowing everyone reading this to exist, the massive increase in food production has been accomplished at the expense of the consumer’s health, the environment, and the half a billion humans still slaving away in the fields. In the near future, we will undergo a digitization of conventional and urban agriculture that will forever change the way we relate to food.
Our mission at Team AVA is to “Feed the world’s transition to sustainable food.” We’d love to share our vision with you and appreciate your ongoing interest and support. Like and share my blog and follow me on LinkedIn, Medium, Instagram, and if you feel up for a challenge, try to decipher my Soundcloud and Behance creations.
Web Recommendation — Plus farm +
The Plus Farm is an open source DIY concept that makes it very easy for any group to build a mini vertical farm using off the shelf materials. The creators of the Plus farm at Blue Planet Consulting have set an important precedent. The Plus Farm is a great example of how a few big dreamers can come use a similar open source strategy to Tesla’s to demonstrates Blue Planet’s commitment to their values of:
Book Recommendation — Guns germs and steel
One of the most influential books in my life. Jared Diamond integrates his deep knowledge of genetics, ecology, anthropology and synthesizes a geopolitical analysis of the history of humanity. This book provides an excellent education on how factors like animal domestication, access to resources, and lines of communication with other cultures were larger factors in arc of peoples than any form of genetic or cultural superiority.
Artist — Johann Sebastian Bach
I spent many years learning how to make music. I will never come close to creating a fraction of the brilliant melodies and songs that he did. Listening to his music and having only a basic knowledge of his life, I remain fascinated by the man that I see as one of the original rockstars.
Suite no. 5 in C minor sounds like an exercise in pushing the limits of the Cello and Cellist to its limits, just for the sake of doing so. His songs are so complex and rich, and his music carries a subversiveness and playfulness that only further emphasize how brilliant a talent he remains in all of cultural history.