Strategies for Sustainable Food Systems in Smart Cities
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Although we remain in the early stages, it is clear that a ‘Smart City’ revolution is sweeping the world. Technology driven solutions are being used to rethink and reshape the way that urban areas function. These solutions bring with them the promise of future cities that are more efficient with resources, more equitable for residents, and more resilient to climate events.
As with any young revolution, there is still a lot to learn in terms of what works and what should be included. Urban agriculture, for example, despite its unique ability to ameliorate a multitude of issues plaguing urban areas, is often strangely left out of the Smart City discussion.
Despite this fact, the urban agriculture industry has continued to grow immensely with an ever increasing demand for nutritious local produce. AgriFood Tech investment reached $10.1 Billion in 2017, including $200 Million in Series B funding for vertical farming company Plenty.
Urban Agriculture Entrepreneurship
In the last few years, my firm Agritecture Consulting has been in the unique position of working with over sixty urban farming projects around the world. From these experiences, two things have become abundantly clear. First, urban agriculture faces significant challenges as an industry. Many companies have made faulty assumptions about their market or their costs, and because of this many of them have failed.
But, second, I have also witnessed the incredible innovative spirit of the entrepreneurs who are driving this industry forward. It is abundantly clear that our current food system model is flawed, and urban farming pioneers will not rest until every process and piece of equipment has been fully optimized to make new, more sustainable and profitable models that transform food production globally.
It became very apparent early on in our consulting work that most entrepreneurs had brilliant concepts but were in need of technical guidance, and so we focused on feasibility studies and farm designs to assist new companies as they developed their business models. One prime example is Rob Laing, an experienced tech entrepreneur and home chef who wanted to revolutionize the way Michelin starred restaurants source produce by growing on-demand specialty crops in a vertical farm in Manhattan. Agritecture Consulting helped transform Rob’s concept into a viable vertical farm called Farm.One, and also helped him install the farm and recruit their head grower. Now, the farm has expanded to a second location in Manhattan after selling out of the first.
In addition to the needs on the entrepreneurship side, it also became readily apparent that the urban farming industry is siloed and frequently disconnected from the outside world. To address this we have created workshops and conferences that focus on bringing people of diverse backgrounds together and introducing urban agriculture to a wider audience than just ag-tech entrepreneurs.
In partnering with the City of Atlanta, for example, we have brought together individuals from across sectors of government, technology, farming, finance, etc. in order to facilitate the idea sharing that will spur ahead the next innovative urban agriculture models. Working directly with the City’s Director of Urban Agriculture, Mario Cambardella, Agritecture accelerated a unique brand ,“AgLanta,” to connect both high-tech for-profit and community-focused urban farmers with one another and the City. This culminated in two major conferences, a business development strategy to attract commercial urban farmers to the City of Atlanta, and also a roundtable where farms pitched to City agencies. Our partnership with Atlanta is another example of the work needed to drive local food systems forward.
Around the world, some regions remain highly dependent on food imports due to a variety of reasons such as limited water, land, and trained growers. We are also focusing our efforts in these places, where we see both the local desire and the capacity (thanks to recent innovations in agriculture) to become more self-sufficient in terms of food production. In Qatar, Agritecture proposed a context-specific agriculture incubator to respond to the nation’s urgent need to grow more food locally. The program embodies Agritecture’s approach: beginning with detailed market research and a study of the region’s potential for agriculture, followed by a comprehensive plan to attract new farmers, empower them through knowledge and incentives, and finally launch their new ventures with sustainable local agriculture in mind.
Cities and Agriculture
Urban agriculture is not the solution to our food system crisis, but it is and will continue to be an essential component of how every country, region, and city restructures their food system to make fresh food supplies more available, resilient and ecologically friendly.
It is my deeply held belief that just like energy, transportation and internet access, the processes of food production and distribution are integral parts of the urban ecosystem. Similar to other system components, agriculture should be supported through smart policies that are data driven and context specific. The path forward for resilient cities and communities should and must include thoughtfully planned urban agriculture.
Some cities around the U.S. and abroad have begun the initial stages of implementing policies to encourage the industry’s growth as a critical part of local and regional food systems. In Los Angeles, for example, the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator provides a space where urban farming companies can pilot their models. In Atlanta, a Director of Urban Agriculture ensures that municipal support is consistently available to local farmers.
Many other cities have passed zoning ordinances and started programs to promote the expansion of urban agriculture. In Boston, Article 89 comprehensively addressed where different forms of urban farms should be permitted within the city. In Minneapolis, the Homegrown local food program brings municipal and community actors together to research and plan out future supportive policies. In Paris, a municipal initiative ‘Parisculteurs’ aims to dedicate a third of the city’s green space towards food production. And in Singapore, developers are being incentivized to include urban farms as part of green building requirements.
These current efforts, however, are largely piecemeal. Few cities, if any, are using data-driven urban agriculture planning and analysis in order to ensure future resilience in this new and burgeoning sector of municipal economies. Through performing in-depth analyses, however, cities have the unique ability to change what today is mostly a feel-good concept into a critical framework that can be scaled to transform local food production.
The idea here is not to turn urban agriculture into a top-down model; the decentralized and diverse nature of urban farming is a major factor in its resiliency. Rather, the idea is for cities and regions to understand where the greatest vulnerabilities and opportunities lie in their local food systems, and to then plan out and provide support to targeted areas of the food economy such as through local distribution hubs and farming accelerators.
Advances in urban agriculture planning are happening, though slowly. Cities and communities are starting to catch on by working together across sectors and silos to recognize and promote agriculture’s role as an integral component of smart, resilient cities. But there is plenty of work to be done.
Taking the Next Step
Smart cities use technology and data to make people’s lives better. But, to date, cities have failed to adopt this new methodology to what is perhaps the most critical urban system: food. I believe this is deeply flawed.
Now, as urban agriculture continues to build momentum, it is the perfect time for cities to embrace this young industry and to foster urban food systems through a data-driven and smart approach.
Just like passionate entrepreneurs first entering the space, many cities have great intentions for urban agriculture but lack the capacity and technical knowledge to understand where the local food system should be strengthened to most effectively make it smarter and more resilient towards environmental, social and economic stressors.
To assist cities in analyzing and strengthening their local food capabilities, Agritecture has designed a new service called Urban Agriculture Scenario Analysis. Using site-specific and scale-specific data and modelling, scenario analysis can transform a city’s piecemeal farming community into a diversified urban agriculture economy.
There is an immense wealth of burgeoning technologies around urban and peri-urban food production and distribution. Many urban farms are already “smart”, using sensors and data to tailor everything from lighting to crop nutrition. This is true in big farms such as AeroFarms, which dominates an entire converted warehouse, and also in small farms like Farm.One, which takes advantage of underutilized basement space in Manhattan.
For cities to become smart in this sector, they no longer need to recognize the many benefits of urban agriculture–that has already happened throughout mayoral administrations, academic halls, and even more recently in Congress.
For cities to catch up, they need to apply a data-driven approach similar to what farms are using to more effectively grow crops. Cities must start supporting urban agriculture in targeted ways that work with the urban agriculture industry to transform our current food production and distribution systems into smarter, more localized, and more resilient networks.
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