Launching the OpenAG Initiative at the MIT Media Lab

The OpenAg team tend their garden. Photo credit: Chris Crisman for WiredUK.

We live in the age of the networked economy, in which information, products, and services are created, shared, and economized instantly through social networks operating on both local and global scales. The application of these systems has enhanced nearly every industry, from medicine and real estate to retail and automotive. In stark contrast, agricultural production has remained unchanged, and is still constrained by industrial-era economics.

Well, I believe that it’s time for an upgrade. I want to revolutionize agriculture — to move out of the industrial age and into a modern era of networked and computationally driven food production.

Photo credit: Chris Crisman for WiredUK.

I’m pleased to announce the launch of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. OpenAg’s mission is to create healthier, more engaging, and more inventive food systems. The precursor to these systems is the creation of an open-source ecosystem of food technologies that enable and promote transparency, networked experimentation, education, and local production.

The goal is to create the first open-source agricultural technology research lab, and to build collaborative tools and open technology platforms for the exploration of future food systems. This initiative will work closely with OpenAG research affiliates and advisors Howard Shapiro (Chief Agronomist of Mars Candy Company), Mitchell Baker (Executive Chairwoman of Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation), and Terry Garcia (Chief Science Officer of the National Geographic Society). We also look forward to working with Media Lab member companies IDEO, LKK, Unilever, Welspun, and Target. At MIT we will be collaborating with Mario Siller (Visiting Associate Professor and Fulbright Scholar from Cinvestav Unidad Guadalajara), and Jose Pacheco (Co-director of the MIT Master of Engineering in Manufacturing program). I also look forward to our continued support from advisor Kent Larson of the Changing Places group, who has nurtured this initiative from its conception and provided it with the tools, resources, and freedom to take on a life of its own. Our staff of researchers and developers includes several MIT UROPs, committed to a better future for farming.


Most modern agriculture is stuck in an endless loop of proprietary practices, restricted information, and a competitive, capitalistic mindset. Data collected through agricultural research remains opaque, practices and metrics of production are largely unobtainable, and most of our food is shipped thousands of miles from massive, industrial, single-crop farms. The current global food system feeds 7.2 billion people (of which more than 50 percent live in cities and only 3 percent are involved in the production of their own food), but will it feed the projected 9 billion of 2050? With a scarcity of natural resources, flattening yields, loss of biodiversity, changing climate, and booming urban populations, our current food system is rapidly approaching its natural limit.

The Personal Food Computer

With modern controlled-environment agriculture technology, the climate inside of a growing chamber can be highly controlled and used as a tool to enhance food production or quality. Our “Food Computers,” developed as a part of the MIT CityFARM project, use controlled-environment and soilless agriculture technologies to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber. Plants with the same genetics may vary in color, size, texture, growth rate, yield, flavor, and nutrient density depending on the environmental conditions in which they are grown. Each specific set of conditions, as they are maintained in a Food Computer, can be thought of as a climate recipe that produces unique phenotypic results. When entered into an online platform, these climate recipes can be shared, borrowed, scaled up, and improved upon around the world, in real time.


The accessibility of data, hardware, software — and most importantly, the accessibility of food and nutrition for the 9 billion people of 2050 — hinges on fostering a creative forum of thinkers and doers on collaborative platforms. That’s why, from build instructions, to code, to user interfaces, to generated data — we’re making everything open. In the 1980s and 90s the Internet expanded exponentially as millions of users were allowed to build, add, create, and innovate; we hope to see similar kinds of experimentation and progress when users get involved in Food Computer farming.

Open communities of innovators, drawn together by common, readily accessible technology platforms, will build the foundation for the next agricultural revolution. These communities will yield a diversity of thought and solutions as well as nurturing new connections between people and their food. The more ubiquitous the tools and education of production systems become, the more informed, innovative, and empowered the average person can be in contributing to the global future of food.

Students in a Boston elementary school gather ‘round for a demonstration of the Personal Food Computer

To get this project started, OpenAg has already recruited some of the world’s most curious, innovative, and enthusiastic scientists: kids. Today’s students are growing up in a world of rapidly evolving technology, and they are natural-born experimenters, programmers, and tinkerers. By introducing OpenAg’s Food Computers into a number of diverse Boston-area schools, we hope to inspire the high-tech farmers of the future.

The possibilities for Food Computers are vast in scope — creating agricultural linguistics models based on patterns in environmental, atmospheric, and diagnostic sensor data; curating on-demand production of “fingerprinted food” options; crowd-sourced production of healthy food from an entire city working together as a “digital farm”; and even providing an agricultural model for the colonization of other planets.

The at-home or Personal Food Computer will appeal to makers, hobbyists, and schools, while the larger at-work Food Server will appeal to interdisciplinary researchers and small-scale cafeterias, restaurants, and boutique operators. Ultimately, the at-scale model or Food Data Center will attract commercial operators in and around future cities, as well as food companies invested in securing stable supply chains of agricultural products. At any scale, the Food Computer will be a valuable tool for experimentation that will generate open, accessible data that can be replicated around the world.


The OpenAg team!

OpenAG is taking root, and I hope you will join us in helping it grow. I encourage anyone who is interested in connecting with us to reach out to us at mitopenag@media.mit.edu. For more information or to sign up for email updates about our initiative, please visit our website at openag.media.mit.edu.


Caleb Harper is the principal investigator and director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, where he leads a diverse group of engineers, architects, and scientists in the exploration and development of future food systems. Caleb’s research focuses on the areas of control environment design, actuated sensing, control automation, and data-driven resource, energy, and biologic optimization.