2016 Review of the Open Agriculture Initiative

I’m long overdue for a community update and share out — so sit down, strap in, and here we go!

Brief Overview of 2016 Open Agriculture Initiative

It’s been a heck of a year for all the #nerdfarmers around the world, including those of us at the Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) at MIT Media Lab. This year, we developed new prototypes, brought new software capabilities online, started new research, and expanded our space. Our community is bubbling and brewing across 20 countries on 6 continents, and we want to keep the momentum going strong.

To set the stage, the call for better, more transparent, more nutritious, and more sustainable farming has certainly been heard loud and clear across the world. The “gold rush” is on — every major food company has now launched large venture capital funds, and venture investors continue to bite at the trillion-dollar market, following up on seven billion in food tech venture investment in 2015, up from one billion in 2014.

The nascent field of “digital farming,” or next-generation control environment agriculture, also continued to grow by leaps and bounds. It attracted food tech entrepreneurs the world over, farming on rooftops, in shipping containers, in warehouses, and even underground. However, digital farming entrepreneurs, as well as investors, continue to think primarily about yield, volume, and business models based on proprietary intellectual property. Working in such protected silos and being singularly focused on yield is the legacy of the industrial agricultural economy.

While I’m personally excited about the booming possibilities, as control environments, sensor networks, computer vision, robotic systems, machine learning, and artificial intelligence create and analyze diverse data sets on farming in everything from climate, in-field conditions, and nutrition, to purchasing, chemistry, biology, and genetics, I’m also left wondering — who will ultimately benefit? Will this be another “revolution” that results in the co-opting of agricultural information? Or is this our generation’s chance to galvanize a more trustworthy, transparent, efficient, and democratic use of the world’s knowledge and resources in feeding our future generations?

I choose door number two. Now is the time to imagine what a networked agricultural economy could be, and how it could benefit all of us.

National Geographic Student Expeditions Food Computer Hackathon

Since the fall of 2015, I have had the pleasure of leading the Open Agriculture Initiative MIT Media Lab, where we have been busy building a future in which all hardware, software, and data about growing will be open source. We view changing climate, limited resources, growing populations, and rapid urbanization coupled with advances in technology, biology, and energy as an exciting opportunity for agricultural innovation at an unprecedented scale for a new generation of “farmers.”

Just as it took time for open source to become the norm in computing, the Open Agriculture commons is not a natural fit for those thinking only about short-term competitive advantage. However, to decode and understand the awesome complexity of interactions between everything from root microbes and bacteria, to minerals, atmospheric gases, genetics, nutrition, biochemical expression, biomass generation, and so forth — and then to recode and employ this complexity to feed the world more sustainably — is something no individual company could hope to achieve alone.

OpenAg Food Server v1.0

In an effort to create a collaborative open network, we have been building standard protocols and open hardware for this new method of food production. We strive to be for digital farming what HTML was for developing the internet, what Linux is for running it, and what Mozilla has been for providing everyone with unfettered access to it.

We are the only research lab (that I know of) in the food tech space creating a universal technical framework for this application.

In April of 2016, we launched a community forum as a digital meeting place for anyone interested in Open Agriculture to gather, build, hack, and share their ideas. We released the version 1.0 OpenAg Personal Food Computer (PFC) and associated software under viral open source licenses, and openly hosted the plans, materials, tutorials, and code on our wiki and github. The PFC V1.0 was then adopted and built by the OpenAg community of hackers, students, scientists, teachers, and generalist #nerdfarmers, all of whom have been experimenting with plants, flavors, climate, and tech, and then sharing their knowledge, questions, and findings in our forum.

A few weeks ago, we launched version 2.0 of the OpenAg Personal Food Computer along with upgraded software, and already have 500 people in the community amassing parts and helping each other by sharing their experiences.

OpenAg PFC V1.0, OpenAg PFC V2.0

In less than a year, a truly global ecosystem of makers, scientists, teachers, students, and for-profit and non-profit interests has emerged around our collective ideas. The OpenAg community is bubbling and brewing, and it’s time to coalesce. Things are moving faster than anyone anticipated, and frankly, we’ve developed a bit of a “success condition.” We, the Open Agriculture Initiative at the Media Lab, have spawned an ecosystem while simultaneously becoming its bottleneck, by lagging behind our growing community in our efforts to provide research, development, products, services, and support for a range of diverse emerging interests.

“There are two ways to achieve success. You can push a boulder up a hill, growing stronger in the process while the boulder becomes smaller due to friction, until eventually you toss it over the hill and watch it roll down. Or, you can run down a hill — screaming — chased by a giant boulder.”

This is how Joi Ito, the Director MIT Media Lab, recently explained our evolution to me. Looking back on what we’ve accomplished, and looking ahead to the next year, I can see OpenAg running down the hill, only a hair’s breadth in front of a giant boulder built out of hard work and massive support. The market and our community want access to the products, services, data, and research that will help change what it means to be a farmer in the 21st century.

The vision of Open Agriculture is to create the world’s largest open source hardware, software, and data commons. The burgeoning OpenAg community has the collective opportunity, if it can attain enough scale, to make the OpenAg commons a driving factor for agriculture in the future. It is complex (to say the least) to create proper scaffolding on which to grow an ecosystem rooted in open source science. There is a clear and pressing need to create clarity, boundaries, and opportunities across interest groups in our community to protect the vision, integrity and impact of our work.

It’s time to address that need, and get out of our own way. After about a year of thought, we’ve landed on a blueprint for what it will take to make OpenAg technologies — and our community — a driving factor in growing the agricultural system of the future.

For the exciting OpenAg Ecosystem developments in store for 2017, check back for Part Two of this post tomorrow!