A garden in my apartment | Britta Riley

I, like many of you,am one of the two billion people
on Earth who live in cities. And there are days —
I don’t know about the rest of you –but there are days when I palpably feelhow much I rely on other peoplefor pretty much everything in my life. And some days, that can even
be a little scary. But what I’m here
to talk to you about todayis how that same interdependenceis actually an extremely
powerful social infrastructurethat we can actually harnessto help heal some
of our deepest civic issues,if we apply open-source collaboration. A couple of years ago,I read an article by New York Times
writer Michael Pollan,in which he argued that growing
even some of our own foodis one of the best things
that we can do for the environment. Now at the time that I was reading this,it was the middle of the winterand I definitely did not have room
for a lot of dirtin my New York City apartment. So I was basically just willing to settlefor just reading the next Wired magazineand finding out how the experts
were going to figure outhow to solve all these problems
for us in the future. But that was actually exactly the pointthat Michael Pollan
was making in this article –it’s precisely when we hand overthe responsibility
for all these things to specialiststhat we cause the kind of messes
that we see with the food system. So, I happen to know
a little bit from my own workabout how NASA has been using hydroponicsto explore growing food in space. And that you can actually
get optimal nutritional yieldby running a kind of high-quality
liquid soil over plants’ root systems. Now to a vegetable plant,my apartment has got to be
about as foreign as outer space. But I can offer some natural lightand year-round climate control. Fast-forward two years later:we now have window farms,which are vertical, hydroponic platformsfor food-growing indoors. And the way it works
is that there’s a pump at the bottom,which periodically sends this liquid
nutrient solution up to the top,which then trickles down
through plants’ root systemsthat are suspended in clay pellets –so there’s no dirt involved. Now light and temperature vary
with each window’s microclimate,so a window farm requires a farmer,and she must decidewhat kind of crops she is going
to put in her window farm,and whether she is going
to feed her food organically. Back at the time,a window farm was no more
than a technically complex ideathat was going to require
a lot of testing. And I really wanted it
to be an open project,because hydroponicsis one of the fastest
growing areas of patentingin the United States right now,and could possibly become
another area like Monsanto,where we have a lot of corporate
intellectual propertyin the way of people’s food. So I decided that,
instead of creating a product,what I was going to dowas open this up
to a whole bunch of codevelopers. The first few systems that we created,
they kind of worked. We were actually able to grow
about a salad a weekin a typical New York City
apartment window. And we were able to grow cherry tomatoesand cucumbers, all kinds of stuff. But the first few systemswere these leaky, loud power-guzzlersthat Martha Stewart
would definitely never have approved. So to bring on more codevelopers,what we did was we created
a social media siteon which we published the designs,we explained how they worked,and we even went so faras to point out everything
that was wrong with these systems. And then we invited people
all over the worldto build them and experiment with us. So actually now on this website,we have 18,000 people. And we have window farms
all over the world. What we’re doing
is what NASA or a large corporationwould call R&D,
or research and development. But what we call it is R&D-I-Y,or “research and develop it yourself. ” So, for example, Jackson came alongand suggested that we use air pumps
instead of water pumps. It took building a whole bunch
of systems to get it right,but once we did, we were able to cut
our carbon footprint nearly in half. Tony in Chicago has been taking on
growing experiments,like lots of other window farmers,and he’s been able to get
his strawberries to fruitfor nine months of the year
in low-light conditionsby simply changing out
the organic nutrients. And window farmers in Finland
have been customizing their window farmsfor the dark days of the Finnish wintersby outfitting them with LED grow lightsthat they’re now making
open source and part of the project. So window farms have been evolvingthrough a rapid versioning process
similar to software. And with every open source project,the real benefit is the interplaybetween the specific concerns
of people customizing their systemsfor their own particular concerns,and the universal concerns. So my core team and Iare able to concentrate
on the improvementsthat really benefit everyone. And we’re able to look out
for the needs of newcomers. So for do-it-yourselfers,we provide free,
very well-tested instructionsso that anyone, anywhere around the world,can build one of these systems for free. And there’s a patent pending
on these systems as wellthat’s held by the community. And to fund the project,we partner to create productsthat we then sell
to schools and to individualswho don’t have time
to build their own systems. Now within our community,
a certain culture has appeared. In our culture,
it is better to be a testerwho supports someone else’s ideathan it is to be just the idea guy. What we get out of this project
is support for our own work,as well as an experience
of actually contributingto the environmental movementin a way other than just
screwing in new light bulbs. But I think that Eleen expresses bestwhat we really get out of this,which is the actual joy of collaboration. So she expresses here what it’s liketo see someone halfway across the worldhaving taken your idea, built upon itand then acknowledging
you for contributing. If we really want to see
the kind of wide consumer behavior changethat we’re all talking about
as environmentalists and food people,maybe we just need
to ditch the term “consumer”and get behind the people
who are doing stuff. Open source projects
tend to have a momentum of their own. And what we’re seeing is that R&D-I-Yhas moved beyond
just window farms and LEDsinto solar panels and aquaponic systems. And we’re building upon innovations
of generations who went before us. And we’re looking ahead at generationswho really need us
to retool our lives now. So we ask that you join usin rediscovering the value
of citizens united,and to declare
that we are all still pioneers.


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