Plants Learn to Speak, Because Money Talks

Monique Grimord
Nov 21, 2017 · 8 min read

A Blockchain Experiment

Mock up of the interface for the micro-economy of the mint plant

With MOBGEN:Lab (contact for inquiries)
An experimental project by Charles Fried, Monique Grimord, and Tom Power
Written by Charles Fried and Monique Grimord

TL;DR: We rig a desktop mint plant to an office-only cryptocurrency so that the value of the currency is tied to the health of the plant. You can give the plant water, or take some leaves for your mint tea. Either action will be logged in the blockchain ledger, and have an effect on the value of the currency. The idea is to make the plant autonomously tied to the micro-economy, with no need for an owner, and to incentivize our collective care and conscious harvesting of it through financial devices.

Indonesian deforestation, image from Time Magazine

I’ve always had a hard time turning complex problems into an equation, so when we sat in front of the whiteboard to map out how a micro-economy could exist on the blockchain between Mobgen employees and a mint plant, I was triggered by memories of my middle school math class failures. Despite that missing skill, I’ve always enjoyed imagining how alternative economies could work, rearranging the relationships between humans, resources, nature, and value.

Currently, we live in a world of presumed ownership: the first man to the forest wins, and if he can keep ahold of it via national myths and/or property rights, then he gets to make money off of it as a ‘resource’. We wanted to use blockchain to make a dramatic shift in how we manage value and resources, and how we perceive our everyday transactions.

As westerners (French, American, and Irish, respectively) we’ve grown up in a financial world of capital-based-on-resource-extraction. Though we are quite frustrated with the sabotage financialism has caused on our planet, we are also intrigued by the new technological advances in finance, from bitcoin to smart contracts, online trading tools to stock market bots. We think there may be a way to reverse this self-destructive trend somewhere between those. (Well, we aren’t solutionists, but the conversation has to start somewhere.) What if the same culture of financialism could help us to reverse the paradigm between human and nature? —By utilizing blockchain as a device for changing our perception from one of presumed ownership, to peer to peer transactions between humans and non-humans: in this case, between man and a mint plant.

Mapping value transactions and smart contracts between man and mint plant

To summarize, the question we want to raise through this proof-of-concept is:

Can we create a self-regulating smart contract to incentivise mankind (financially) to only extract resources in a sustainable way?

For this to work the “Harvesters”, or us who use this office space in Mobgen:Lab, will become shareholders of the MintCoin, whose value is linked to the health of the plant’s ecosystem. Therefore, by extracting resources above the sustainable threshold, ie. so many leaves that the plant can no longer sustain through photosynthesis (and will die), the shareholder will become negatively impacted beyond the benefits of continuing the extraction of leaves.

With the aforementioned in mind, the issuance of MintCoin will be as follows: 30% of the total supply of MintCoin will be available for Harvesters. With this MintCoin, they can purchase stalks of mint for their mint tea. This ‘circular’ transaction can continue indefinitely, because for every new plant added to the system, a new supply of MintCoin will be “mined” and distributed proportionally amongst current token holders.

Our system is comprised of two smart contracts both of which run on the Ethereum Network. The first is the Mint Ledger, which is responsible for receiving ether, keeping track of the plants, calculating the health of the ecosystem and purchasing new mint when enough funds are available.

In the main function, buyNewPlant(), seen below, every time money is received, the function is called to check whether there is enough funds to buy a new plant. If there is enough funds, we run all the necessary calculations before creating a new contract called MintPlant and adding it to the list. Each new MintPlant contract is in charge of keeping track of the health of an individual plant. So, one can imagine, that if all is going well, the mint plants will start to multiply at a faster, and faster rate, as well as the value of MintCoin.

contract MintLedger {
address[] plants;
function buyNewPlant() onlyIfEnoughMoney {
number_plants_to_buy = finney_balance / plant_price;
finney_balance -= (plant_price*number_plants_to_buy);
number_of_plants += number_plants_to_buy;
for(uint i = 0; i < number_of_plants; i++){
plants.push(new MintPlant());

The value of MintCoin is calculated within the MintLedger contract, which takes the mean of all the plants in our system and feeds it into the formula below. To briefly summarize, the price (Pm) will increase as the health of the system deteriorates and the quantity of leaves decreases. As new plants are added to the system new coins will be mined, the total supply of MintCoins will increase and cause a price reduction.

Below is a simplified harvesting function of the plant contract which we previously created in the MintLedger. It gets executed everytime we take some leaves, which subtracts the amount of leaves picked, (numPicked), from the amount of remaining leaves.

contract Plant {
function leafPicked(numPicked){
remainingLeaves -= numPicked;

In a scenario where we are picking leaves at a faster rate than the plant can produce, we will be faced with two paths to take. The first is to ignore this ominous sign, which would result in our MintCoin investment dropping to zero, losing all future hopes of harvest. The second option is to send money to our ledger contract, which will take care of buying a new plant when there is enough funds, ultimately growing our investment into a sustainable ecosystem.

These two outcomes serve as a poetic metaphor for how we would hope humanity could behave towards its natural resources — a hope that we would invest in the future of our earth and home. And more than that, it actually is a financial system that incentivizes those positive behaviors.

Post its to explain our dilemma

Back to the whiteboard scene, before Charles and Tom figured out how to express these value exchanges in an Ethereum social contract (elaborated above): we had an existential question about capital. Something that has entered the public discussion around economics and sustainability is the idea of ‘growth’.

Because capitalism is focused on profit, we wondered to what extent our micro-economy would imitate this upward inclination, or would there be totally different rules? For instance, will our micro-economy only survive if the mint plant is multiplying? Must the value of the MintCoin always be rising, as our incentivized care for the plant nurtures it to buy more and more plants? Then, since the mintCoin is tied to Ether, would we actually be mining for bitcoin in a unique way?

Or, is it possible to stay completely circular, with equalized exchanges between the plants’ steady produce, and our steady care? It was one of those situations when the UX design of our blockchain concept was eerily reflecting one of the biggest contemporary questions we face in our world: must capital always increase in value for the economy to stay afloat? Slightly stuck in the mud, we decided to just make a simulation of our micro-economy, and simply see what would happen.

We do know for certain that our micro-economy is following different rules than our current economy. Incentive is focused on care and careful harvesting, as well as investing in a greener future (a future with more mint plants). For this reason, the experiment addresses the issues of large natural resources, such as rainforests, natural gas, and metals. It treats lasting and finite resources (those things that are older and bigger than us, that exist on a different timeline, one that isn’t human-scale) as something that could have some form of autonomy.

Though our experiment is only with an office desk mint plant that we use for an occasional mint tea, it is serving as a metaphor for those larger resources that are bigger than us, and which we rely on to sustain a safe earthly environment for us.

An arduino measures the moisture levels in the soil of the mint plant.

Not only is the mint plant tied to a micro-economy, but it can also ‘see’ us using sensors. When someone picks a leaf or stem of mint, the system is alerted, and it prompts us to say how much we took. Though it is flawed at the moment — because it relies on the honesty of the Harvester and is full of false readings — with a more sophisticated system, sensors and computer vision could successfully monitor all human–plant activity.

Nevertheless, the idea of a self-monitoring plant is an interesting part of the project, as it raises thoughts around the idea of ‘non-human persons’ and how they can become more authoritative actors in the economy. Inspired by thought movements by Timothy Morton, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and Donna Haraway, we define non-human persons as things that are intelligent but not conscious, such as plants and algorithms. One of the most exciting aspects of this project is giving agency, or a voice, to something by using the principles of finance. Finance is a language of value that humans understand, and which intimately influences our decisions and the direction that our lives take. By giving a plant the ability to speak in that language, we are endowing it with some level of autonomy.

As a concept, the idea of autonomy for plants, forests, and natural resources, is something we see as a possible next step in creating more sustainable systems, and blockchain and smart contracts are opening doors to make that possible. Treating plants as peer actors in a financial system might allow for a healthy shift in the paradigm, changing how we perceive resources — from extraction to partnership.

MOBGEN:Lab is the innovation segment of MOBGEN, an Accenture Interactive company, and is comprised of a diverse group of technologists and designers with T-shaped skillsets (mostly the top of the ‘T’). In the lab we experiment with new technologies, from blockchain to smart textiles, and VUI to digital fabrication.(contact for inquiries)

Charles Fried is a technologist and blockchain enthusiast. With a background in digital fabrication, he is most interested in the role disruptive technologies play in entrepreneurship, finance, and investment.

Monique Grimord is an interactive designer and artist that uses inventions as a storytelling device, design fictions as cultural commentary, and experiences to challenge the UX of our society.

Tom Power is a technologist and musician with a background in theoretical physics. He builds things like creative AI’s to write poetry and music, and instruments that use natural phenomena to create sound.

Accenture Interactive Amsterdam

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