Reflection on the First Year of Urban AgTech

“The 2020’s will be the decade of the vertical agriculture revolution.”-Ray Kurzweil, author, entrepreneur, futurist and inventor

Each City …could lay itself out scientifically. At the center was the enormous complex of administrative offices. In careful orientation to one another and to the whole were the large residential Sections connected and interlaced by the expressway and the local ways. Towards the outskirts were the factories, the hydroponic plants, the yeast-culture vats, the power plants. Through all the melee were the water pipes and sewage ducts, schools, prisons and shops, power lines and communication beams.

There was no doubt about it: the City was the culmination of man’s mastery over the environment. Not space travel, not the fifty colonized worlds that were now so haughtily independent, but the City.

-from Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, acclaimed 20th century science fiction author,

A year ago today, I set out to build a community of like-minded people interested in learning more about the intersection of architecture, agriculture, and technology. This intersection goes by a few names, including vertical farming and indoor agriculture. Our community calls it urban agriculture technology or Urban AgTech.

Urban AgTech came into being while I was in the back seat of a van driving through the Palawan countryside in the Philippines. I was on my way to catch a flight to my dad’s farm in Mindanao. The van ride was long and I found myself pondering over this intersection of architecture, agriculture, and technology.

A year prior, I moved to San Francisco to work as an architectural engineer and become a maker. Maker culture fascinated me. I read several books about it and its implications on technology and economics [1], which led me to explore the prevalent maker culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. I started by building a 3D printer at the TechShop to understand firsthand the idea of prosumption and how a community can create innovation. For example, the RepRap community helped bring 3D printers as we know them today to the world. In the Spring of 2015, I finished building my 3D printer, Vincent, and was ready to start my next maker project.

It was that fall when I found myself in a van on my way to my dad’s farm. Recently, I had finished reading Dr. Dickson Despommier’s book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, which described how vertical farming could help alleviate problems we face with our current food systems. I was skeptical. I remember my architectural engineering professor dismissing the idea. But the problems Dickson discussed sounded valid. Rising urban populations. Feeding ten billion people by 2050. The associated environmental challenges with our food system. How could technology help? Could a community of people be empowered to be prosumers and make solutions to address these challenges? As I reflected with the beautiful and lush Philippine countryside whizzing by, I had a hunch that others share my sentiments. So, I started planning.

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Planning notes for Urban AgTech

Looking back at how Urban AgTech came to be, I am humbled by where it is now. Fast forward to today, Urban AgTech has grown to a 300-person Meetup group comprised of plant and data scientists, hobbyist gardeners and indoor farmers; architects, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Four amazing people have volunteered to lend a hand in organizing our group (Special thanks to Anthony, Alice, Chelsea, and Shayan!). We’ve met brilliant champions of the industry, hosted 10+ events, including forums, speaking events, and hack nights; and launched a news digest with over 100 subscribers. It’s been a whirlwind!

What began as the community side of a maker project has turned into a multidisciplinary network of people banding together to leverage technology in innovative ways to address some of our generation’s most challenging problems. And that, in turn, has created opportunities for me to begin to contemplate and experience the innovations our food system is going through.

As we begin this second year, Urban AgTech is getting ready to transform from a consumer to a producer. In this first year, we spent our energy understanding the state of the industry. Now we are in a capacity to produce original work. We have a few projects underway, including our newly started Hack.Food hack night, more interviews with industry experts, and community events at places like urban and indoor farms. Through these projects, we plan to go deeper into our original questions when I started the organization. How can we use technology to bridge the gap between cities and agriculture? Are there aspects of soil-based agriculture that are important and missing from soil-less agriculture? Is vertical farming really sustainable given the energy demands? How does a climate recipe work?

In practicing engineering, I have learned that designing systems, like buildings, takes collaboration, rigorous evaluation, and care to avoid subtle human errors like confirmation bias. “Garbage in, garbage out,” as they say. These questions and challenges we face do not have easy answers and I’m certainly not claiming we will be able to get to the bottom of them. My point is that in this first year, I have learned that there are others who share my sentiments. And though we are empowered by the promise of an era of vertical agriculture, we have many questions that remain unanswered and are skeptical about the ones we have found. Perhaps this year, we can help accelerate the innovation needed to bring this intersection of agriculture, architecture, and technology forward.

Here’s to the future.

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[1] The Singularity is Near, The Third Industrial Revolution, Zero Marginal Cost Society, Makers, and The Maker Movement Manifesto.

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