There is no place left on earth that has remained untouched by humans. We are living in the Anthropocene; an unofficial geologic epoch, yet commonly used term to describe the time wherein the impact of humankind on the planet is substantial. We have become the single, most dominant species on the planet, causing global environmental and ecological changes. One of these changes (though not the only one) is global warming. Ecological theorist Timothy Morton deems global warming to be what he calls a hyperobject: an object that exists on too large of a scale for human perception. As a result, we can only observe the effects of the problems such as extreme weather, melting glaciers, a reduction in crop yield, etc. but never grasp and “prove” the object as such .
The KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute) proposed a guide, based upon scientific foresight, for professional global warming mitigation and adaptation, in the form of so-called ‘climate scenarios for the year 2050’. In these scenarios, they expect the average temperature to increase between 1.6 C and 2.7 C  🤯. These projected changes in daily temperatures will have, among other things, a direct and indirect impact on humanity, including our food security. It is predicted that the agriculture sector as we know it, will undergo a yield crop depression by the time of 2050, [source], and other climatic changes such as unpredictable weather and seasons, intense drought, wildfires and rising CO2 emissions will all negatively affect food production. At the same time, the demand for food security will be doubled in 2050, due to the growing world population. For the agriculture industry, this calls for alternative ways of food production in order to adapt to the effects of global warming.
Urban farming is considered as a potential strategy to develop more climate resilient food production systems in and around densely populated urban areas. Motivations and implementations of urban farming may differ per urban area. Whereas in some urban area’s (Amsterdam for example) urban farming on roof terraces and community gardens is mostly a social endeavour that aims to contribute to a more sustainable and communal urban environment, other urban areas, such as Detroit’s Keep Growing Farm, provide urban farming facilities to citizens from poor and underrepresented communities who have no access to healthy food. A highly efficient form of urban farming is vertical farming, a food production technique which uses vertically stacked layers in an indoor environment, and therefore requires a smaller unit area for growing. With the help of state of the art technologies such as the internet of things and machine learning the practice of vertical farming has been elevated intensely. Unlike our unreliable outdoor climate, vertical farming allows us to produce food, close to our homes, in indoor climates that for the most part we can control.
But I hear you think: “What does this specifically have to do with Cities of Things? Don’t worry, we will get there soon!
As I have illustrated, our future cities will be more heavily affected by the effects of global warming in the way we produce and consume our food. As a part of my Master’s degree (Industrial Design at the Eindhoven University of Technology), I have been exploring possible ways of how citizens can adapt to these predicted changes, and what the role of design and smart technologies could be in this process. I like to take some of my inspiration out the work of pioneering speculative design studio’s, (which are really worth checking out!) such as Superflux’s (https://superflux.in/#) Mitigation of Shock, Space10’s (https://space10.com/) Growroom, Sprout, and Lokal, and Tellart’s (https://www.tellart.com/) Climate Change Reimagined.
I combined literature research and future probing, with prototyping (intelligent) things (Yes, there they are 🙌) for urban farming activities. This process also included interviewing stakeholders, as well as co-organizing a speculative design workshop at Thingscon 2020 with various practitioners from the creative industry in Amsterdam and Munich. I combined some of the knowledge that I gathered in this reflective design research process, into a design fiction, which I would like to share with you. It is a brief glimpse into the everyday life of citizens that live and interact with intelligent things that aim to help citizens with the practice of urban farming. 👩🌾👨🌾
A day in the life of Lea (14th of August 2040)
The 39 year old Lea awoke slowly. The raging thunderstorms and extreme rainfall of last night deprived Lea from an unperturbed night’s sleep. A quick gaze out of the window assured her that the storm was over. The expected temperature today would be 41 degrees in the city centre. Today was going to be like any other day: take the tram from Westergasfabriek to the Wibautstraat. Go to the restaurant. Serve tourists some French cuisine and beverages, while trying not to faint, and to keep a broad smile towards the guests. Lea got out of bed in order to put on her working clothing: a thick jumpsuit with long legs and sleeves. “How could you do something like that to your employees?” Lea wondered with frustration. She walked down the stairs of her tiny apartment which she shared half of the time with her 15 year old son, Jesse. During her breakfast, Lea got a notification from the Bulba app, a platform that she used for her urban farming activities.
“(Bulba) Based upon the weekly data: collected by:
- The UH Activity
Bulba predicts with a probability of 88% that tomatoes and eggplants in C9 are more than 90% grown, which means that they are ready to be harvested.
Lea felt optimistic about the quick development of her crops. What kind of dish shall I make tonight? Before Lea left the house, she grabbed a jug with a neon purple fluid in it, out of one of the kitchen drawers, and put it carefully in her bag.
After a hard day of work, Lea was planning to meet her son Jesse at an ice-cream shop in Westerpark. The two of them queued for the ice-cream shop.
“(Lea) How was school today?”
“(Jesse) It was fine. I think I passed my English test this morning.”
“(Jesse) Oh, and we had a little field trip yesterday with my class. We went to the Plenty Tower, you know, the vertical farming tower, for my elective biotechnology. We got a small tour through the building, and had to wear these crazy costumes that completely covered us, otherwise the controlled environment would be unbalanced. It is very different from The Bot-anica“
Lea paid for a cucumber and strawberry ice-cream. Together they headed over to the Bot-anica, the urban community garden. The Bot-anica is divided in different sections, each belonging to a group of citizens that were living around the Westerpark area. The crops are grown without soil, using a technique called fogponics. Each section hosts a specific kind of crop in small tanks with a suspension of nutrient enriched water. The tanks are equipped with a number of bots, such as the fog-bot, cctv-bot and the nutrient-bot. These bots cooperate with each other and with the citizens to regulate the growing process. The Bot-anica is also a very social endeavour. All kinds of different people, with various backgrounds come here approximately once or twice a week to the garden, to exchange tips and tricks, or to work on the technology that the farm uses. Lea has been visiting the Bot-anica for over 5 years now. At first, Jesse was not very involved in all of it. However, when the owners of the garden switched to fogponics and hence added a whole family of intelligent bots to the system, he became hooked.
When Lea was younger, she hardly knew the origin of her daily consumed food. Lea is aware of the fact that engaging in the practice of community based urban farming, like places such as Bot-anica, will not directly contribute to climate mitigation. However, she believes that it contributes in teaching others, like Jesse, how certain crops are grown and that it increases the feeling of appreciation towards food that you grew and harvested yourself.
Lea and Jesse entered Bot-anica.
“(Lea) I have brought a new supplement with me.” Lea said to Jesse when they entered the garden. It is some kind of special fluid nutrient for peas which will make them bloom more intensely.”
Lea and Jesse moved over to section C4 of Bot-anica. Lea knelt down to get a closer look at the nutrient-bot. It was attached to one of the tanks filled with pea crops.
She gave the neon fluid to Jesse, knowing that he liked to do these kinds of things.
“(Lea) Let the experiment begin.”
Jesse tried to find the code on it. After scanning the code and selecting the right tank on the Bulba app, he proceeded with the experiment. Jesse unlocked one of the empty reservoirs of the nutrient bot and poured purple liquid in it until it was completely empty. He closed the reservoirs of the nutrient-bot. The nutrient-bot predicted when and how much of a specific nutrient must be added to the fogponics tanks, based upon the data of the nutrients, the cctv-bots and the fog-bots.
“(Lea) When do you think we will see the first results?”
“(Jesse) Bulba expects to see the first results in 2 days. However, the bots haven’t been trained excessively on these newer types of nutrients, so Bulba’s indication might not be that accurate. We shall see…”
They stared at the tank for a while in silence. In the corner of her eye, Lea noticed that some vapour was coming out of the edges of the tanks in C2. It seemed that the intensity of the fog-bot had increased considerably. The fog-bot used ultrasonic waves to form a suspension of nutrients as a desired amount of vapour in the tanks, and hence delivered nutrients and oxygen to the plant roots.
Suddenly Lea remembered the reason why they got here in the first place: the tomatoes and eggplants.
“(Lea) Have you seen the last notification on our Bulba account?”
“(Jesse) Yes, I saw it this morning. I think we planted these 2 months ago. That is quick! Tomatoes and eggplants for dinner, right!”
“(Lea) Let’s have a look shall we.”
When they arrived at section C9, Jesse looked at Lea. You could tell she was slightly disappointed with what they found.
“(Lea) The eggplants are still quite small, aren’t they?”
“(Jesse) Yes, I expected them to be a little bit bigger actually. I haven’t checked them in two weeks. I think they will be full size in about two weeks.” Never underestimate human intuition.
“(Lea) Let’s take half of the eggplants with us, and leave the rest here to continue growing. I want to make that lasagna with tomatoes and eggplants for dinner again. The tomatoes however, are looking fabulous. Deep red and full of size”
Each of the tanks is equipped with a cctv-bot, which is attached to the railing above the tanks. This bot uses computer vision and machine learning to track the crops growing state, including classifying the crop in specific categories, estimating properties such as color, shape, size, surface details, contamination, amount of leaves, and indicating whether the crop has diseases. Based upon that data, the other bots can take action to optimize the growing process, and hence the system simultaneously trains itself. Bulba will turn to the community by making predictions and causing them to inference with the process.
While Lea is putting the last tomatoes in one of her canvas bags she hears Mary’s voice over her shoulder.
“(Mary) Hi Lea, collecting your tomatoes and eggplants?”
“(Lea) Yes, however, I am not hundred percent satisfied with the eggplant harvest”
Mary glanced at the eggplants.
“(Mary) They look totally fine to me”
“(Lea) Yes, it would probably do. Although, I like eggplants to be a little bit fuller and to have more color, so they have to wait for two more weeks”.
Mary nodded. She waved Lea and Jesse goodbye and continued to tuck a set of legume cuttings in the empty tank at C10. Lea and Jesse went home
On the menu for tonight: lasagna made from freshly picked tomatoes and eggplants. Lea made a quick visit to the local supermarket to get the other ingredients for dinner, including puff pastry, cheese and basil. The latter coming from the Plenty Farm. Later that night, Lea provided feedback on the multiple aspects of the quality of the tomatoes and eggplants on the Bulba platform.
Eva van der Born worked on this project for the University of Technology Eindhoven (TU/e) Industrial Design, for Cities of Things September 2020-February 2021.
A little bit about me:
I am a 23 year old designer and currently pursuing a MSc degree in Industrial Design at the Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands. As a maker and design researcher, I am highly interested in how we form relationships with emerging technologies. Through experimental prototyping, speculative design and crafting high fidelity narratives, I aim to question the status quo and strive to create a more sustainable and harmonized relationship with technology in our everyday life.
- Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. U of Minnesota Press.