Code Green

Global Gardener: Mobile Learning for Food Security

Global-Gardener-Neil-Palmer-CIAT-Code-Innovation-m4Ag.jpg

Global Gardener mobile learning for food security (www.codeinnovation.com) In the context of food production and the world’s poor, it can seem like the data and the money are moving in two very different directions. Even as a steady stream of reports conclude that empowering small scale farmers with the skills to produce food sustainably is essential to poverty alleviation in Africa, technology for agriculture interventions designed for large, industrial farmers and cash crops seem to soak up all the money.

The glitzy, future-tech of hands-free and vertical farming needs no assistance to develop—enthusiasm for this sort of tech is frothy and the market is full of incentives and funds to support it. Poor farmers in vulnerable communities, meanwhile, need assistance immediately and they need it optimized for their real world circumstances.

We’re currently building a coalition of knowledge partners, technologists and implementing partners to create an open source mobile application that can help to spread agro-ecological design practices where they are most needed. We want to help farmers to visualize the medium and long term implications of different strategies and interventions on their land and then to connect them to a supportive community of practice that can guide them through the implementation of whatever strategies they select.

By making careful use of the data that we collect through this undertaking, we intend to build algorithms that can help to provide free, real-time guidance for farmers, taking into account all of the subtleties of their growing circumstances and their economic situation. Ultimately, this means putting artificial intelligence at the service of small scale food producers, helping them figure out the free (or lowest cost) interventions for strengthening the resilience, diversity and nutritional prospects of the land at their disposal. But for now, we just need to connect the agro-ecological designers, permaculture specialists, water and sanitation experts and related mentors with the fast expanding demographic of the rural poor, newly connected to cellular coverage and using basic, low cost smartphones.

Naturally, we understand that this needs to be designed along with the food producers that we are targeting and we will follow the ICT4D Principles that have come from our experience and that of our colleagues.

If you’re interested in joining up or helping out, please feel free to email us at info@codeinnovation.com.

Here’s the science that ‘Interstellar’ really gets wrong.

interstellar-movie-corn-future-of-agriculture-not-monocropping-codeinnovation.com_.jpg

Science tells us that small-scale organic farming is the future of agriculture, not moncropping: Interstellar gets is wrong. (www.codeinnovation.com) Full disclosure, I'm late to the party of discussing Interstellar because I’m working in South East Asia on the future of farming and only just got back to Silicon Valley to help connect technologists with a basic sense of where their solutions are hoping to land. Let’s discuss the so far neglected, especially obnoxious, glaring lo-tech blindspot in “Interstellar.” Whether or not Lincoln McConaughey should’ve been pulped in the wormhole, this movie full of imagination and vision about the future shows a braindead disregard for agriculture, or, if it helps: ecosystem design.

The idea that someone would be called a “good farmer” for monocropping GMO corn with robots after 6 billion people have paid the price of mismanaging Earth is tougher to swallow than the idea that 80 years pass between the first space mission and the second, and the same exact size and type of robot is deployed in the new space ship.

That robotic oversight is a bit lazy and kind of cute because “Interstellar” is part of the decades-old trend of movies that normalize extending empathy to robots. But the failure to imagine a healthy relationship with future Earth derives from an entirely unscientific disdain: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” We do? Because we look at the dirt now, and when we do, we don’t monocrop corn with robots.

There are people transforming acres next to the Dead Sea into oases. Flyblown deadzones the size of France are being turned into fertile, breathtaking and productive regions. This is not happening with industrial additives, robots or monocropping. Nor does it require the sort of water waste that would’ve made “Interstellar’s” endless corn fields flourish.

There are pioneer species that can cling to desert cliffs overlooking the ocean, accreting the moisture and topsoil to support edible plants. Even in the case of a gloomy dust storm, we know how to engineer wind breaks out of local plant species on any continent that would create massive pockets of protected fertility. But any one who looks at the dirt must lack initiative, or at least social status. That’s why we are meant to leave Earth, right?

Look. I work on the NASA campus in Silicon Valley four months of the year because I love space exploration and believe deeply in the value of exponential technologies. But I work in Africa and South East Asia the rest of the time because I love Earth. And in all cases, I like thoughtful, strategic, sustainable approaches to making life better. This movie’s future vision of how we manage our environment belongs in the late 1940s when the same brutalist approach to farming started pushing us towards the dystopic conditions that make Interstellar so desperate.

Exponential Technologies and Social-Ecological Design

code-innovation-social-ecological-design-exponential-technologies.jpg

Teaching about exponential technology and social-ecological design in resilient systems at Stockholm Resilience Center (www.codeinnovation.com) The Stockholm Resilience Centre is making super useful contributions to humanity and to the planet. They’ve pioneered the nuanced and data-driven concept of “Planetary Boundaries”—the thresholds beyond which we cannot predict the behavior of our planet or our ability to live on it successfully. (The Centre’s Executive Director, Johan Rockstrom delivers a succinct TED talk on the concept here.) Or, for a brief paragraph about each of the 9 boundaries, see here. This concept and others pioneered at the Centre are helping to frame some of the decade’s most urgent debates around climate stewardship.

SRC is staffed primarily with scientists and researchers, but it is working actively to create positive impacts and to foster innovation. Maja Brisvall, who I first met during the Graduate Studies Program of Singularity University, was inspired by the potential impact of exponential technologies to create a similar initiative at SRC called LEAD. In close collaboration with SU mainstay, Kathryn Myronuk, and with contributions from SU's core impact faculty, this program will be culminating in December 2014. While LEAD offers the popular mix of entrepreneurial skills, exponential technologies and social impact, it also incorporates SRC’s priorities by requiring participants to focus their innovations on ecological systems or biodiversity. To the best of my knowledge, this is currently the only program focused on this potent overlap.

While applying exponential technologies to problems in health care or education is a fairly straightforward (and popular) undertaking, far fewer people have taken a serious look at how these technologies can be brought to the service of earth systems and into an area typically looked after by foresters and farmers. We’re watching this intersection very closely at CODE and doing our best to help it develop. If you are working on a technologically advanced initiative to strengthen existing earth systems, get in touch and let’s chat.

Our contributions to the LEAD program hinged on identifying four different industrial age assumptions that limit our vision and impact when thinking about innovations within our social and ecological systems. These are:

  1. Technological innovations should be for the individual and scaled on a 1:1 basis.
  2. Technological innovations should be delivered from the top down.
  3. We should develop our innovations on the assumption that we will continue to centralize and urbanize, discounting other trends and trajectories.
  4. Programs and initiatives should be designed to last and grow indefinitely.

Stay tuned for more detailed thinking around these points.

Also, in case it isn’t obvious, if we don’t work together on bolstering our existing ecosystems and biodiversity, we’ll soon find ourselves treading the dangerous and objectionable path towards Geo-engineering, an exponential technology that we want to keep in the box.