Geeked-out gardening

The day after I celebrated his Kickstarter success with Tyler Caruso, co-founder of Seeing Green, which is about measuring the value of urban agriculture, I read a fascinating piece by Simon Kuper in the FT about the use of data to analyse every tiny aspect of a football match..
‘Largely unseen by public and media, data on players have begun driving clubs’ decisions’, Kuper writes, ‘particularly decisions about which players to buy and sell’. Chelsea’s performance director, for example, has amassed 32 million data points over 13,000 games. At other clubs, too, obscure statisticians in back-rooms will help shape this summer’s player transfer market. Just as baseball has turned into more of a science, Kuper concludes, soccer will too.
This prompted me to wonder: Could statistics and data-mining come to dominate food growing, too?
My curiosity was further piqued when I hard about a ‘computer that runs your garden’ also known as an Automated Garden Facility (AGF) also known as Garduino.
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The idea of Garduino, which is built on the Arduino platform, is to monitor the garden environment in real time and use that information to water plants when they’re thirsty, turn on supplemental lights when the sun’s not bright enough, and alert you when temperatures are uncomfortably chilly for plants. What’s up-and-running so far is a pilot application that measures the water status of a plant where the information is collected by an NSLU2 mini linux server.
Garduino is pretty cool, but I can’t help worrying that its ambitions are too narrowly-focused. It’s spec surely needs to include the thorny issue of Measuring What Matters [MWM tm].
The picture below, for example, is a close-up of my tomato beds here in France. What you see is a tomato plant, doing OK, and two other plants, also doing OK, that were formerly known as weeds.
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One problem with Garduino is that the conditions it measures and regulates are exactly the same for tomatoes, as they are for the ‘weeds’. To complicate matters further, some ‘weeds’ are more beneficial to the local ecosystem than others – or so one learns from permaculture. You need to know which ones bring which benefit, or not, in order to decide which ones to ‘weed’ – that is, kill – or not.
Although Garduino is resolutely bottom-up and open source, and stands in cultural opposition to the monopolistic and evil tendencies of agribusiness, I’m not sure how diferent it is, in kind, from Accenture’s 2004 Pickberry Vineyard project. Then, a wireless mesh of networked sensors was deployed over a 30-acre premium vineyard. Is Garduino not a child of the same control-seeking mentality?
The answer is probably yes and no. My intutition is that *some* Garduino-like platforms will be needed as we make the transition to resilient food systems in all their complexity and diversity. How much tech, and what kinds, and who will use and own and control them, need to be discussed as we go along. We’ll need evidence and data, not just arguments, to get the attention of wavering policy makers.
The last time we discussed appropriate technology widely was during the 1970s when we’d barely thought about, let alone deployed, the internet, sensors, wifi, or an internet of things. Today’s new times are like the 1970s, only different: It fels like a good moment to revisit and reframe the app-tech debate.

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Shoe Town to Brew Town

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When Jimmy Carbone, co-creator of The Good Beer Seal, was considering running for mayor of his old hometown in Haverhill, Massachusetts, he began to ponder possible new uses for industrial buildings that had fallen in to disuse. Could small resource-sharing breweries be a centerpiece of a regional economic development? To find out, he asked his peers in craft brewing, green building, engineering, and microbial science for advice. This intriguing discussion continues at an event at Brooklyn Brewery [pic above] on 19 July called Shoe Town to Brew Town.
The environmental impacts of brewing are significant. They are energy intensive operations and use lots of water. By the same token, many brewing ‘wastes’ have the potential to be re-used as raw materials in another product or process. Fermentation lends itself to the production of biogas or methane, for example; breweries could be a modest power centers for the local industrial ecology. The New Belgium Brewery in Colorado uses 40 percent less energy per barrel of output than the average American brewer because, from hops in to beer out, every stage of the firm’s brewing process has been designed for greater efficiency and the re-use of waste.
Brewing wastes can also enrich food chains. The mash leftover from fermenting process, which is microbially rich, can be fed to pigs, or fish [such as perch) or oysters and mussels. Sweet Water Organics in Milwaukee, for example, is not a brewery but it does occupy a once abandoned warehouse in which one floor now houses aquaponic systems for growing Perch, and another floor is used to grow greens.
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‘Shoe Town to Brew Town’ is July 19, 7:30-10:00 PM Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Tickets are $40 per person [mainly because this is a benefit event for the Gaia Institute].

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The high-tech permaculture metabolic engine greenhouse

[Stop Press: Polydome has been shortlisted for the 2012 Buckminster Fukller Challenge]

A few years ago urban farming in developed cities was a fringe topic that few designers or architects thought much about. There were exceptions: we tried hard [but failed] to build a prototype of Natalie Jeremijenko’s Urban Space Station at Designs of the time in 2007. But the prevailing design view until recently was that food growing belonged as ar away from the city as possible.

Now, as the realization dawns that global food systems are neither resilient nor sustainable, small-scale urban plots are sprouting up everywhere – 2,000 new projects in London alone, by some accounts. In their wake a new phenomenon is evident: design-led proposals to optimise urban food production that combine elements of permaculture, technology, and a whole-systems approach.

One such project, proposed by Except Integrated Sustainability, is called Polydome. It offers, say its designers, “a revolutionary approach to greenhouse agriculture with the possibility of commercial scale, net-zero-impact food production” .
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Intrigued by the bold claims made for the project, I talked in Amsterdam with one of Except’s partners, Eva Gladek, to find out more.

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Kick-off!

This was a first for me: witnessing first-hand a Kickstarter project cross the line and go live.
The happy guy with the phone [in Claire Hartten’s garden in Brooklyn] is Tyler Caruso, joint founder [with Erik Facteau] of Seeing Green: The Value of Urban Agriculture.
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Their project is a year-long research effort to measure the stormwater management potential of two urban farms: Brooklyn Grange (a rooftop farm) & Added Value (raised beds) in NYC. Their aim is to create a model for future research, that can be replicated anywhere, to help validate and support urban farms.

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How to make systems thinking sexy

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[The following is based on the author’s keynote at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge awards in New York on 8 June. He was also on the 2010 jury of the Challenge.]
We will not transition successfully to a restorative economy until systems thinking becomes as natural, for millions of people, as riding a bike. That’s a big ask. How do we get from here, to there?
The Buckminster Fuller Challenge [BFC] is one of the more important projects to address this task – and serving on the jury was by far the hardest work I did last year.
Our task was easily enough stated: select “a bold, visionary, but tangible initiative that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems”. To that headline – a challenge on its own – was appended a daunting set of criteria for the assessment of each entry: Did it apply a whole systems approach to all facets of the design and development process? Is the project ecologically responsible? Is it feasible – not just in an ideal world, but using current technology and existing resources.? Can the project’s claims be verified by rigorous empirical testing? And, finally, is the project replicable? Can it scale and be adapted to a broad range of conditions?

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Sweat equity infra

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It’s hard not to be impressed by the Millau Viaduct that’s down the road from where I live in France.

The tallest bridge in the world boasts an eight-span steel roadway, is supported supported by seven huge concrete pylons, and weighs 36,000 tonnes.

But consider this: The great pyramid in Egypt weighs 180 times more than the Millau viaduct – and what happened to the folk who built that?
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Sigiriya built [in what is now called Sri Lanka] in the fifth century, is equally impressive. Its system of man-made pools and water course incorporate incredibly sophisticated hydraulic technologies.
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From ecstasy to exergy: Running out of easy copper

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Built in 1978 by German steel company Krupp, the giant Bagger 288 was designed for open mining trenching. It took more than five years and $100 million to design and manufacture. It can move more than 76,000 cubic meters (~2,700,000 cubic ft) of coal, rock, and earth in a day.

Why would anyone need to build such a monster?

One reason is that since 1994 mining companies have had to dig up an extra 50 percent of ore to get the same ton of copper.
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According to financier Jeremy Grantham, ‘copper has an oil-like tendency for the quality of the resource to decline and the cost of production to rise’.

Grantham is convinced that the reason copper prices have strengthened since 2010 is that increased global demand has interacted with an industry that is ‘somewhat challenged to increase copper supply’.

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xskool: breathing the same air

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Last weekend the first xskool class took place at West Lexham in England.
As previously reported, xskool at this moment is more a question, than a project: Does the world need a professional development program to support designers, architects and their teachers making the transition to a new kind of design?
The class of West Lexham soon decided that this initial question [posed by me] was too worthy and portentous. We converged, instead, on the idea that “X” means: this place, this moment, these people. Breathing the same air. Only here, only now.
Our group also embraced the idea of no curriculum, no standardised process, no teachers, and no certificates.
It was also liberating to realise that there’s no special virtue to being unique in the world. If a thousand experiences similar to xskool happened last weekend – well, lucky them.
The question nonetheless arises: was last weekend’s positive energy, attention, and mindfulness a happy fluke? Or could one reproduce the conditions that nurtured them? Otherwise stated: in which ways might xskool be an intentional part of ‘the change we wish to see in the world’ ?

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Energy: A Sense Of Loss

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Whenever electricity is transmitted from one place to another a certain amount is simply lost. In older grids, energy is wasted overcoming resistance in the lines themselves. In extremely high voltage lines, so-called corona discharge losses [as shown in the image above] can offset the lower resistance losses.
Whether system-wide electricity losses amount to three or 65 per cent across the system as a whole is a matter of heated debate. Corona discharge is just one of the arcane variables that are contested when optimistic energy scenarios are subject to the fabled ‘closer inspection’ of experts.
Such has been the fate of the World Wildlife Fund’s Energy Report, which was published in February. It asserts that the world’s energy needs could be met by wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and sustainable forms of bio-energy — and by 2050.

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