For at least a decade, designers have dreamed of creating urban farming utopias. The vision is compelling: Why not try to a feed our expanding cities and save resources by growing food vertically—in or on buildings—right near the people who eat it?
But making that idea a reality is much harder than it’s seemed, especially when it comes to getting the economic part of the equation to make sense. One of the few companies that has tried, with its Verticrop system, filed for bankruptcy in January.
By precisely optimizing every input and output and creating customized designs, MIT’s CityFarm is an attempt to create a soil-free urban farming system that gets it right. Caleb Harper, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, hopes that the open-source CityFarms project can one day be replicated all over the world. The project is a finalist for Fast Company's 2014 Innovation By Design awards, which will be announced on October 15th
"No one has proven an economically viable model for these kind of plant environments," says Harper. "What I’m trying to do is kind of be the Linux for these environments— the person that creates the common language for this new area of food production."
CityFarm started as a 60-square-foot module inside MIT’s Media Lab, where Harper grew lettuce, herbs, and tomatoes in a windowless room bathed in blue and red artificial light—the part of the sun’s spectrum that plants can actually absorb. The system had no soil. Some plants were grown hydroponically and others aeroponically in a simple mist. Both methods require far less water—as much as 90% less—compared to a conventional farm. More recently, Harper began experimenting with an even bigger system in the building, which is also meant to test whether sunlight exposure helps or hurts the crops.
"It’s essentially like a big, clear plastic box, about 7-feet wide by 30-feet long," says Harper. "Inside of that box, I have pre-made weather. I monitor everything."
So far, it’s been a big success. The crops grow three to four times faster than they normally would, on a 30-day cycle. Each of the two harvests so far have provided produce for 300 people. Once the researchers gave surprise deliveries to Media Lab staff. Another time, they sent the fresh veggies to local food shelters.
Harper, who grew up on a Texas ranch, was always interested in food, but he first became an architect who specialized in designing data centers and hospitals. But both settings have more in common with indoor agriculture than you might expect, he says. They're all systems in which the environment is highly controlled: data centers, for computers; hospitals, for people; and farms, for crops. After traveling to a post-Fukushima Japan, and noting that the country is losing its rural population and imports much of its food, he became interested in ways of producing food in cities that would also be free from fears of contamination.
Today, Harper's working to build "plant operating system software" and continuing to tinker with CityFarm, trying to reduce energy input and increase crop yield. He’s collaborating with the city of Detroit to try to open the first off-campus CityFarm in the next few months and plans to continue to expand the MIT system by building vertically.
Eventually, he thinks the methodology has the potential to reduce water consumption for agriculture by 98%, eliminate chemical fertilizers and pesticides, double nutrient densities, and slash the energy required to get veggies to our plates. Early use scenarios could include restaurants and cafeterias that can grow their own foods, and countries and regions where farming conditions are harsh. Eventually, it may be possible to build farming systems into building facades, and slowly, cities could begin producing at least a portion of what they can eat.
"One thing that I’m very honest about is that a lot of our food will continue to come from commodity sources. Cities like Boston consume hundreds of thousands of produce a day," says Harper. "But there are new areas for innovation."