Building smarter cities by integrating urban agriculture

Urban agriculture can be defined shortly as the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities.

Urban Agriculture may not be the most glamorous sub-sector in the Smart Cities sector but while in today’s heavily populated cities some of the 3.3 billion people living in cities are using the Internet, smartphones, and computer tablets; all of them must eat, after all.

Farming and technology have always had a strange relationship. Traditional knowledge says that technology and the urban sprawl are at odds with the quiet, live-off-the-land mentality of farming.

I have been working in technology for many years (Aerospace & Defense, High-tech, and Telco) so you could imagine that I was not passionate about urban agriculture initiatives.  But a few months ago when I launched my company OIES, I realized the potential of IOT in Smart agriculture industry. A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate as a speaker to the event “M2M+ Industry Summit” (www.m2mplusforum.com) that will be held in Milan at Milanofiori Congress Centre on 19th and 20th May 2014 and after a conversation with the Organization we agree to focus my presentation in Smart Agriculture.

One of the points that will be included in my presentation will be Urban Agriculture and I have believed that it could be interesting summarize and publish in this post, the trends, challenges and business opportunities for IoT/M2M ecosystem in the space of Smart Connected cities.

Urban agriculture benefits

Developing agricultural capacity within or close to urban areas has the potential to reduce food transportation costs and environmental impacts, provide economic development opportunities, and reduce disparities in healthful access that have contributed to epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes especially among low-income populations.

Despite these advantages, there are challenges to establishing the viability of urban production as compared to more conventional agricultural practices, including scalability, energy efficiency, and labor costs.

Smart cities and Vertical Farming

Today most of the initiatives implemented in smart cities are oriented to solve specific problems related with sustainable energy, environmental conditions to reduce the greenhouse gas, and to provide socio-economic advantages in terms of quality of life, local employment and businesses, and citizen empowerment.

These objectives are involving ambitious and pioneer measures in buildings, energy networks and transport. However the population growth will force local government leaders to rethink more than just transportation and housing.

As the population increases, the real estate needed to grow the food we eat will become increasingly scarce. Some experts have suggested that a new agricultural approach called vertical farming, also known as urban farming, could solve this problem. In a model that is already being tested in Singapore, crops are grown indoors in tall buildings. The benefits are extensive, the technology is powerful and the results are delicious.

If you are interested in learning more about Vertical Farming and meet some of the best projects of Urban Farm I recommend these two links.

http://www.statetechmagazine.com/article/2013/03/vertical-farming-key-smart-cities-future

http://www.farmxchange.org/top-8-urban-farms-in-the-world/

Urban Agriculture and Social Classes

Growing food in cities, whether or not smart cities have in common large social differences among its citizens. And these differences are far from diminishing.

Middle upper classes

There is a certain sense that urban agriculture programs are “trendy” ways for middle upper class white people to eat organic, locally sourced food. For the middle upper classes, getting fresh produce in the city may be one of the little perks they will enjoy.

In their mobile and connected world their expensive lifestyle will applaud any initiative to increase the number of smarter urban farms.

These upper classes will love to buy any kind of sensors and probes, urban agriculture cloud services and mobile applications to measure air temperature, humidity, light intensity, soil moisture as well as a CO₂ levels that alerts them when their plants need watering or fruits and vegetables in their gardens are ready to be eaten.

In many smart cities we can find government, school teachers and the like involved in evangelize urban agriculture, but as well we can find richer people who are seeking a good investment for their capital.

Urban poor

Large part of the people involved in urban agriculture is the urban poor. Contrary to general belief they are often not recent immigrants from rural areas (since the urban farmer needs time to get access to urban land, water and other productive resources).
Women constitute an important part of urban farmers, since agriculture and related processing and selling activities, among others, can often be more easily combined with their other tasks in the household. It is however more difficult to combine it with urban jobs that require travelling to the town centre, industrial areas or to the houses of the rich.

For the lower classes, Urban Agriculture programs are continuing to rise in popularity.

Many of the better-known urban agriculture initiatives in are focused solely on green and sustainable methods of food production, which do not actually get to the root of what is causing a lack of food sovereignty.

Urban Agriculture and Urban Design

The most striking feature of urban agriculture, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture, is that it is integrated into the urban economic and ecological system: urban agriculture is embedded in -and interacting with- the urban ecosystem. Urban agriculture is not a relic of the past that will fade away nor brought to the city by rural immigrants that will lose their rural habits over time. It is an integral part of the urban system.

Access to healthy food is severely limited in many urban neighborhoods. Landscape architect April Philips suggest situate food systems as “part of a city’s urban systems network,” Philips frames food as a design issue instead of simply a horticultural concern.

Urban agriculture often relies upon cooperation. In many cases with city farms or community gardens there is a dependence on volunteer participation, and resources are often very limited. This provides a challenge for urban designers and technologists to contribute to the resilience of these urban agriculture communities, and support the longevity of their practice. Additionally, it provides a challenge to service designers to help setting and organizing the communities that manage the gardens.

Local growing and gardening encourages more plant life within urban boundaries, and represents an effective use of available space. As local growing serves to remove dependency on crops grown elsewhere, it provides a level of food security to the urbanites.

Urban Agriculture viability

While urban agriculture has been successful at a local scale, it has yet to economically challenge existing industrial food systems. However, efforts to increase the scale and economic viability of urban farming are underway.  City Governments should promote measures to avoid urban agriculture contamination and one of their goals must include the generation of green jobs and the distribution of organic food to local consumers.

IOT / M2M technology for Urban Agriculture

Although we see in some cities how urban farms are popping up on every corner of the street, many of us probably have always doubted the genuinely of all those small farming initiatives that are left behind after one season of fun. Nevertheless, some developments in this ongoing hype are interesting to mention here because the urban agriculture scene seems to become mature.

Aerofarms was was one of the first pioneers who wagered for using technology in Urban Farming.  If you are interested in the Future of Food, take a look at this article:” 11 Unique Urban Farming Projects”.

With all the media boom that is taking IoT and wearable’s is not surprising that we find many entrepreneurs and investors working or looking for solutions addressing emerging urban agriculture.  Some companies with successful crowdfunding projects to look at: Plant Link, HarvestGeek and GrowCube.

AquaSpy helps you increase your yield and save water, energy and chemical. Each crop has different needs for water and nutrients during it’s specific growth cycle. AquaSpy data lets you give your crops exactly what they need precisely when they need it.

The company Agricultural Food Systems, sells a device that measures the tenderness of beef. TenderID is a handheld device with three blades that are stuck into a beef carcass at the processing plant

Sometime this winter you could have a glass of orange juice made with oranges picked by a robot. Energid Technologies is testing a prototype robotic picker in a Fort Myers (Fla.) orange grove this month. A truck-mounted arm with several pneumatic tubes guided by a camera locates the oranges for picking.

You won’t find many Silicon Valley startups interested in agriculture. But in the valley of Apple, Google, and Facebook sits Blue River Technology, founded by two former Stanford University classmates. The startup has raised $3.1 million from Khosla Ventures and others to build a weed-identifying bot that helps farmers cut down on pesticide use. Blue River’s robot, pulled behind a tractor, uses computer vision and fine-tuned algorithms to identify and kill the nasty vegetation.

You can find more information about companies using IOT/M2M technologies in solutions for Smart agriculture in my previous post: https://pacomaroto.wordpress.com/m2m-industrial-series/m2m-industry-series-the-connected-livestock-farmer/

Summary – Building smarter cities by integrating urban agriculture

It has been estimated that by 2050, as much as 80 percent of the earth’s population will reside in cities and we have to plan how we are going to feed our cities in an ecologically friendly way.

Smart cities must be at the forefront of urban agricultural systems addressing a wide-range of challenges to become more vibrant and livable places for the future. Those smart cities that already have urban agriculture systems have the opportunity refine and scale them so they are replicable and economically-sustainable.

With all the media surrounding smart cities and industrial agriculture and its corresponding technologies it might be easy to lose sight of the fact that many people around the world are working hard to create alternative ways to meet our growing food needs in ways that reduce our impact on the environment and reverse climate change.

Joint initiatives between the Cities Government and IoT/M2M Industry should be aimed to adapt urban agriculture for all social classes in the city and help people living in urban areas better feed themselves in a more secure way, while protecting Earth’s most valuable resources.

For additional information please contact: francisco.maroto@oies.es

https://www.linkedin.com/in/franciscomaroto

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  2. Pingback: What if Smart Urban Farming was the future of Agriculture?

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