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Innovation By Design 2014: A Q&A With Caleb Harper, Founder Of The CityFARM Research Group At The MIT Media Lab

Join Co.Design writer John Brownlee for a live chat with MIT Media Lab's Caleb Harper, whose CityFarm project is one of this year's Innovation By Design Awards finalists. The chat begins at 2 p.m. ET on Monday, October 13th--but you can start submitting your questions now using the "Make a comment" box below!

Photo: Kent Larson (courtesy of MIT Media Lab)

Caleb Harper's CityFarm project allows his team to grow produce in what's essentially a glorified closet. Open-source software calibrates light levels, humidity, temperature, and pH to create an easily replicable, soil-free urban farm.

This MIT Media Lab project is a finalist in the "Spaces" category of this year's Innovation By Design Awards, which will be celebrated later this week at the Innovation By Design Conference in New York City.

Join Co.Design's John Brownlee at 2 p.m. ET on October 13th for a live chat with Harper before he heads to New York for the awards ceremony and conference. You can start submitting your questions now using the "Make a comment box below!

  • You can also learn more about this week's upcoming Innovation By Design Awards and Conference here:

    Innovation By Design Awards 2014

    Co.DesignThe first conference dedicated to the business impact of design.
  • Looking forward to the chat in a few minutes!
  • I'm sitting here live at the MIT Media Lab with the very handsome Caleb Harper! Got any questions about the future of urban farming and the hydroponic grow labs that will one day supplement our kitchen pantries? Let us know!
  • Alright! Let's get started. Caleb, thanks for having me at MIT! Can we maybe start by telling the cats out there who you are, and what you're trying to do with CityFARM?
  • Great! CityFARM is about taking urban agriculture to the next level - producing literally TONS of food right in the heart of the city where it will eventually be consumed.
  • How do we do that? Cities are tight for space, and getting tighter. How do we grow a large volume of crops in an urban setting?
  • Right now we are working on the technology to make that possible through applications of vertical farming techniques, control environment agriculture and networked production. What that really means is more or less of a hyper greenhouse imbued with sensor networks (CO2, O2, Temp, Humidity, etc) that adpots a vertical footprint (stacked production) rather than single layer production. Through having interested sensors giving us constant feeback we can make quick adjustments to optimize the growth of the plants.
  • Currently we grow about 4x faster in the CityFARM and use 70-90% less water than conventional, for example. So in 1 sq ft, for example, by going vertical we can achieve a 500X multiple vs soil.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:05:56 PM
  • So to make sure I understand, we're talking about greenhouses that we stack on top of each other, and that use much less water and energy than conventional greenhouses. That sounds cool, but why is that something we need?

  • Here's an example of what a skyscraper-sized greenhouse of the future could look like!

    by John Brownlee edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:08:25 PM
  • Well there are different reasons why we need that in different contexts - take for example the context of the middle east where this kind of technology would be deployed in an effort of food security to lessen their dependency on food imports, or in China it might be a matter of food safety where contaminated agricultural environments are a very serious concern. In the context of the United States we may be talking more about quality, freshness and availability of food in our cities.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:10:53 PM
  • So is this something where, say, the Farmer's Market of the near future might grow many of their vegetables in pods? Or where people might have grow labs instead of gardens?

  • This is one of the first prototypes of the CityFARM concept, made out of Bed, Bath and Beyond parts back in 2012!

    by John Brownlee edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:14:25 PM
  • I think it will look like a LOT of different things that are not only limited to retail like grocery stores and farmers markets, but yes I think this will redefine how we understand what is "local". For example you will see schools and corporate cafeterias adopting this technology to provide healthier and more engaging experiances with food in the city, also restaurants that want to have more engagement with their own supply lines and provide a new aesthetic around growing and eating, also developers will start to offer these environments as amenities in buildings (you have a pool and now you have a FARM).

    What I really want to do is lower the technology gap for people to come up with new methods of farming in the CITY. Farming and producing a significant amount of food is a pretty hard thing to do and hopefully I will be a part of creating adaptable technologies that can creatively be deployed in a lot of different use cases.
  • Are there other projects out there like this? If so, what makes CityFARM different?
  • So the landscape of this technology now - I'd describe it as "pre-Fordist". Lots of one-off "black box" solutions that are extremely proprietary and peddle the story of "better food for all" while protecting the IP behind it vigorously. You have projects going on primarily in China, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands and now in the US. Those projects have very little they can learn from each other. They are all designing "one off cars" that are pretty cool but can only be linearly scaled. What we need is an ecosystem of technology that enables many different players to come in.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:23:44 PM
  • What do you mean by Pre-Fordist? :)
  • I mean that Ford came along and people started understanding that cars were component based machines that relied on whole SYSTEMS of intertelated parts. Ford was able to create the assembly line based on this philosophy and therefore exponentially scale the technology that already existed around him. I think that is the next step for urban agriculture.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:25:47 PM
  • So what in particular are you guys doing different than all these "one-off" companies?
  • Well what we hope to contribute is open-source philosophy and more than that tools and technologies that are shared openly. To do that we are currently in the process of creating a "Linux foundation" of food technology. All of the work of CityFARM will be open source and put into a foundation like Linux that will protect its development. People and companies will be able to interact with that technology much like Linux and Red Hat now operates. Essentially we believe the future is not in selling dark magic "solutions" but building an ecosystem that creates rooms for operators, component providers, advanced R&D, etc to be building up from a common foundation of knowledge.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:30:22 PM
  • Can people get a CityFARM now? Are they out there in the wild?
  • Great question! and one that I get about 100 emails a day asking (which to me shows the power of collective thinking!). Here is what we are doing: We now have a CityFARM module that is designed as kind of a baseline, modular environment that is very close to deployment. We intend to follow a very similar approach as the Center for Bits and Atoms here at the lab created with the Fab Lab Network (*Precurser to the maker movement) - What they did was go around the world 10 years ago dropping off 3D printers and laser cutters (tools of digital production) and more than supplying tools they created a network of knowledge sharing. The Fab Lab Network created capacity and a community that allowed the current maker movement to take place.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:35:55 PM
  • So what we intend to do is deploy our CityFARM research module (about the size of a shipping container) around the world over the next year. That will be the beginning of the open-source research collective for urban food. We are currently in talks with many partners in a variety of contexts - Detroit, Ghana, Guadalajara, Chennai, San Francisco, Dubai, etc. What I really hope to do is be part of creating the potential for networked intelligence in food research. The days of "silo"-ed ag research are numbered - this platform can serve as a communication device between engineers, plant scientists, retail companies, chefs, etc.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:39:05 PM
  • I'm going to open Caleb up to some questions from our readers!
  • does open source matter with something like this if i don't have your education or training? do i need to know how to code to grow plants like this?
  • Great question - the whole point to open source is to create environemnts for the "anti-disciplinarian" to thrive! You should think of this like a computer - a computer is hardware with software intelligence and operating systems that allow people from different backgrounds to work collectively on them. Same thing for the CityFARM - we are building an open source operating system, hardware, and software solution - tools developed by experts for non-expert participation.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:42:30 PM
  • @JohnBrownlee Hi! I live in the Netherlands. It is known that the Dutch are very dependent of horticultural business. I spoke with a lot of Dutch growers and asked them to current big developments. Urban farming or -agriculture wasn´t top of mind, they talked a lot about technology and the role of exporters, but not about urban farming. Why do you think urban farming could lead to a disruption of the worldwide horticultural industry (including american and dutch industry)? In other words: how would you convince the current growers to invest?
  • Netherlands! Hello! This is a great question. The Dutch plant scientists are world renowned from Wageningen, to Phillips to Plant Lab. Take for example TIME magazine's 2012 invention of the year Verti-Crop. Verti-crop was a pioneer, let me say that first of all, and also HEAVILY invested in but this year went bankrupt, why? In my opinion because it was a unique system that was not designed as modular and upgradeable which made it very hard to adapt and scale. I think investors in this technology can appreciate the systems approach to a solution like this and that input from various sectors will be necessary to create an economically viable product.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:48:26 PM
  • This next question looks like it might be a good follow-up to the one @Johanstaronline just asked. :)
  • Most developing countries are similar to blank canverses when it comes to sustainable technology implementation; is this a question of affordability or just inadequate infrastructure? Since these countries stand to benefit more from such technology
  • The question we need to ask first is three part: Context, Goal and Technology. The answers to the first two will often guide the third. There is no magic or perfect tech, it will always depend on context and goal. So for example a developing country solution will be adapted to context - high use of human labor, low reliance on infrastructure (likely off grid-based solutions) - I believe it will also be important to define the goal - are we growing rice or tomatoes? Why? I would guess that early adoptions in developing contexts might pinpoint supply chain issues that they face very specifically - take for example tomatoes in Ghana - tomatoes in Ghana are $14 a kilo - so there is a lot of room for advanced technology when the price is already so high. I'm sure rice, corn, soy or wheat would not enjoy the competitive advantage for example.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:53:22 PM
  • is this less expensive than regular farming?
  • Good question to ask and incredibly hard to answer! There are few easy metics I am starting with - for example Kilo-Watt hours VS Grams of fresh weight. With this equation I can tell you an all in electrical energy price per gram - so for example currently all the devices in the lab record their real time energy use (LEDS, Pumps, HVAC, ETC) and I'm producing 300 grams of lettuce for between 50-60 cents of energy that I pay for in Boston. The next metric is liters per grams of fresh weight (water cost), add to that labor cost (varies locally) and equipment cost (still in development) and you can have a pretty clear economic equation which we are developing now and hope to develop with our partners on the network.

    NOW conventional comparison, nearly impossible. Conventional ALL IN price is extremely opaque as it depends on what item you buy, when you buy it and where you buy it. That multivariable equation becomes more complex when you realize relationships from production to distribution to warehousing to point of sale are all arms length and usually heavily subsidized. We are years away from knowing a total ALL IN cost for our food.

    BUT one advantage in these new environments is we are in control of the product from Seed to Stomach in a City where the point of production and consumption could be only 30 minutes away.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 6:55:49 PM
  • One quick question, Caleb, that just occurred to me, especially in relation to CityFARM's open source philosophy. Does CityFARM allow you to hack your food in taste or appearance at all?

  • (I'm imagining tomacco here.)

    by John Brownlee edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 7:04:32 PM
  • Totally - One of the greatest personal moments was stumbling into an area of plant physiology called plant based expression. A quick story - we had a harvest in the lab, we do regular harvests for students and staff and create pick your own vegetable patches in the middle of the building - lots of fun. Anyway after one harvest we had some lettuce left over and put it back in the lab. The next day we tasted the lettuce and it was incredibly sweet! After researching we realized what we accidentally did was create an "induced drought state" and in that drought state the plant began to create a chemical defense, that defense tastes sweeter to us. It was a really interesting revelation for me personally that the statement the best X comes from X (avocadoes and California for example) really just meant the best X comes from the best climate that created X. In the CityFARM we have a controlled environment meaning we are creating climate so now we open up the possibility of changing that climate to change taste, much like a wine maker. Flavor from seed and flavor from environment is a VERY different and new area to be explored with this new precise technology. If one end of the spectrum is creating technology for seeds (GMO) for an adverse world, the other end of that spectrum says we are creating a perfect world for any seed. This is by far one of the most fun parts of my work to me personally.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 7:09:22 PM
  • Okay, final question. Caleb, can you grow pot in a CityFARM, and if so, do you want to go buy some Doritos and watch Tim and Eric with me later? Ha! Just kidding! Here's our real final question, courtesy of @Cheryl...
  • How soon do you think this is realistic for consumers to have? How much will it cost? And do you see it only for urban consumers, or for those who want bug-free, organic produce?
  • If I get another call from a whispering voice that says "I have an idea for a hydroponic shipping container company in Colorado" I might just go crazy, happens literally several times a week.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 7:11:51 PM
  • Great question - when can I eat from one??? Well the answer is sooner than you might think - if you are in the US check out Famgro Farms in Cali or Green Sense in Chicago - these already exist and are already market competitive!! I know it seems like I'm living in outer space but do a quick Google for GE+Fujitsu+Japan+FARM and you'll find a project there where they have literally turned an entire data center into a farm!

    I see the advantage is particular relevant in an urban context and essentially that is where I am and will be focused for the foreseeable future. We know in the future we will have a bunch more hungry people and most of them will live in cities - talk about job security ;)

    All joking aside, to know where the profit lies you also need to answer the question of your goal - if you just want to make a bunch of money, pharma, cosmetics and cannabis are frontrunner crops. My goal is to feed future cities so I'm looking at a full diversity of food offerings - which actually makes my life harder in about a million ways - but hopefully makes the future of the work more impactful to 9 billion people that are going to be looking for something to eat.
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 7:16:51 PM
  • Okay, we're going to close up. I'd like to thank Caleb Harper for taking the time to talk to us about CityFARM. Make sure to follow CityFarm on Twitter @MITCityFarm and look out for our Innovation by Design Awards on October 15th.
  • I think there is a tiny farmer in all of us (which is why I hear from that tiny farmer in about 200 emails a day) and that reaction lets me know Ive touched something far bigger than myself - which I am grateful for. However as in any "gold rush" this industry is full of charlatans at the moment and that's because we are in a black box, IP-heavy moment with little to no data reporting - SO BE CAREFUL in investing in the literally thousands of appliance to shipping container-sized solutions being marketed right now - a great first thing to ask is simply, can I see it growing?

    Now that sounds a little snarky but the truth is there is not much magic science here. I encourage all of you that are interested to go out to your local Home Depot, Bed Bath and Beyond, hydroponics store and just GET GROWING. You'll fail but you'll learn a lot - that is exactly how we started in building our first small prototype two years ago.

    Also just imagine a future case where 50-60% of the food you need everyday is grown in the city that you live in and that city is connected to others in the cloud around the world doing the same thing - that's the kind of future that enables a whole new generation of farmers to address one of the most pressing issues of our time.

    Thank you!
    by Caleb Harper edited by Anjali Mullany 10/13/2014 7:19:20 PM
  • Alright, we're out of here! Thanks for coming everyone, and thanks again Caleb!
  • You can learn about all the finalists in the "Spaces" category of the Innovation By Design Awards here:

    The Finalists Of The 2014 Innovation By Design Awards: Spaces

    Co.DesignA healthier, brighter, more efficient world doesn't just happenit happens by design.
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