Written by Isabella Krammer
The Social Tech Tour #1: Onefarm
28th February 2019
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The Social Tech Tour is a series of site visits to innovative, tech-enabled social enterprises. The main objective is a peer learning: letting innovators and practitioners learn from each other. Every edition, hosts and participants will co-create a roadmap on one particular real-life challenge.
The first stop of the Social Tech Tour tour brought us to Onefarm at A Lab in the North of Amsterdam. Twenty-three participants joined the fully booked event, coming from a wide range of fields including agriculture, architecture, social entrepreneurship, digital media, engineering and the circular economy, to name a few.
Onefarm’s vertical farming showroom at A Lab / Waag / BY-NC-SA
Onefarm and their approach to vertical farming is a possible solution to urban food security issues and to climate challenges aggravated by industrial farming. Critics point out the immense investment needed to technically execute vertical farming and the risk of misalignment between societal needs and the benefits of innovations in farming. This is because vertical farms often produce high-value products that tend to serve the wealthiest segment of the consuming public. On the other hand, supporters emphasize the positive aspects of vertical farming, like the omission of pesticides, the use of up to 99% less water, higher yields and faster growth, improved food quality and year-round nutrition, as well as more localised production which reduces transport needs.
Jan Feist, project manager and plant enthusiast at Onefarm, gave a tour of the showroom plsnts in different growth stages, followed by a presentation offering insights into the technical, financial and practical aspects of large-scale vertical farming in a city like Amsterdam.
Co-creation workshop: “Mobile farm”, “Cooperative supermarket 2.0”, “Adopt a salad” and “Vertical circle”
Following the tour, four groups of participants joined a two hour co-creation workshop, during which they brainstormed and developed ideas for innovative, tech-enabled food production initiatives.
The initiatives were based on technologies ranging from mobile applications ( “Mobile farm” and “Adopt a salad”) to neighbourhood-based cooperative farms (“Cooperative supermarket 2.0”), to a state-of-the-art circular food system (“Vertical circle”).
For example, the online application “Adopt a salad” involves people in the care-taking of a salad. Similar to the Tamagotchi from the 1990s, each user is responsible for taking care and following the growth of their own produce. Their aim is to educate people on the true cost and production process behind farming and to sustainably support local vertical farms.
Social Tech Tour: Co-creation workshop led by Isabella Krammer / Waag / BY-NC-SA
Interestingly, all four projects involved learning and consumer education. By involving citizens through a game like Tamagotchi or collaborating with schools through “Vertical circle”, urban food systems can not only promote healthy lifestyles, but can also be leveraged to involve the community in the food production system whilst simultaneously promoting responsibility for the environment.
Communities were also central to all four initiatives. The projects were all community based and grassroots, with local citizens as the main stakeholders, followed by local businesses, the local government and real estate owners. Either though neighbourhood harvest activities, communal dinners or the local exchange of food, participants argued that any urban food system should also aim to strengthen social ties. “Mobile farm” for instance, an application that serves as a virtual exchange vehicle for the trading of food on the neighbourhood level, engages consumers and producers through word of mouth and pilots.
Another interesting aspect that came up was the value of high quality produce. In the concepts generated by co-creation participants, healthy produce is not merely measured in financial terms but can also be traded with other food, fertilizer, services or time (as proposed in “Mobile farm” and “Cooperative supermarket 2.0”). This means that if someone does not have the financial means to buy quality food, the possibility to trade one’s time or another service would instead guarantee equal access to a healthy diet.
“Vertical circle” took this idea one step further: the foundation of their concept is based on partnerships, through which the urban food cycle is closed in a sustainable manner. Using a token-based reward system, an urban vertical farm can collaborate with local businesses like anaerobic digestion companies that provide fertilizers, bicycle waste collection and produce distribution services or schools. Admitting that this is a major logistical challenge, the concept would require a well-developed integration into the existing urban fabric.
There is, on one hand, an increased demand for sustainable produce and for cutting-edge technologies in farming. On the other hand, there is a lack of awareness on how to execute these ideas at scale and in a sustainable manner. The ideas collected during our co-creation workshop show that any tech-enabled food production aimed at facilitating environmentally friendly, local food production should involve local communities. By turning the “regular” consumer into a main stakeholder, educator and producer through local farming activities, online applications, collaboration with schools or co-creation methods, we can stimulate new learning opportunities and help develop people’s collective consciousness.
Another important lesson is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel: many existing structures are already built into cities like Amsterdam, meaning that the main challenge is to alter the stream of resources (produce, waste, fertilizers, etc.) on a more local level. This can be supplemented through innovative farming concepts like vertical farms. With the benefit of quality produce, the community seems to be on board.
It comes at no surprise that the ideas gathered throughout the workshop do not offer ready-made solutions and strategies for overcoming the environmental issues caused by traditional industrial agriculture. Rather, the workshop aimed to collaboratively stimulate the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of citizens, consumers and practitioners. Thus, the workshop did not only benefit from the social and tech expertise of those present, but also highlighted the variety of questions that still need to be answered in the search of the 21st century form of sustainable food production.
What is missing to scale-up the vertical farm concept? A viable business plan, technological process or the inclusion of local farmers and consumers?
How can we spread the awareness and educate more consumers (beyond urban spaces) on innovative farming concepts like vertical farming?
Can a food system actually be fully closed and circular?
“Note to self” exercise: Participants wrote learned lessons and new questions on sticky notes / Waag / BY-NC-SA
Report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Cities and Circular Economy for Good - Building a food system fit for the 21st century and beyond
Small vertical farm kit for home by Ikea
The next Social Tech Tour dates:
#2: vanPlestik - 3D printing with recycled plastic
#3: 02025 - citizen lead the energy transition
#4: Fairfood - technological solutions for fair supply chains