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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 guys -- but there are days when I palpably feel how much I rely on other people for 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 today is how that same interdependence is actually an extremely powerful social infrastructure that we can actually harness to 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 food is 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 winter and I definitely did not have room for a lot of dirt in my New York City apartment. So I was basically just willing to settle for just reading the next Wired magazine and finding out how the experts were going to figure out how to solve all these problems for us in the future. But that was actually exactly the point that Michael Pollan was making in this article -- was it's precisely when we hand over the responsibility for all these things to specialists that we cause the kind of messes that we see with the food system.
So, I happen to know a little bit from my own work about how NASA has been using hydroponics to explore growing food in space. And you can actually get optimal nutritional yield by 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 light and year-round climate control.
Fast-forward two years later: we now have window farms, which are vertical, hydroponic platforms for food-growing indoors. And the way it works is that there's a pump at the bottom, which periodically sends some of this liquid nutrient solution up to the top, which then trickles down through plants' root systems that 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 decide what 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 idea that was going to require a lot of testing. And I really wanted it to be an open project, because hydroponics is one of the fastest growing areas of patenting in the United States right now and could possibly become another area like Monsanto, where we have a lot of corporate intellectual property in the way of people's food. So I decided that, instead of creating a product, what I was going to do was open this up to a whole bunch of co-developers.
The first few systems that we created, they kind of worked. We were actually able to grow about a salad a week in a typical New York City apartment window. And we were able to grow cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, all kinds of stuff. But the first few systems were these leaky, loud power-guzzlers that Martha Stewart would definitely never have approved. (Laughter) So to bring on more co-developers, what we did was we created a social media site on which we published the designs, we explained how they worked, and we even went so far as to point out everything that was wrong with these systems. And then we invited people all over the world to 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 corporation would 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 along and 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 fruit for nine months of the year in low-light conditions by simply changing out the organic nutrients. And window farmers in Finland have been customizing their window farms for the dark days of the Finnish winters by outfitting them with LED grow lights that they're now making open source and part of the project.
So window farms have been evolving through a rapid versioning process similar to software. And with every open source project, the real benefit is the interplay between the specific concerns of people customizing their systems for their own particular concerns and the universal concerns. So my core team and I are able to concentrate on the improvements that 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 instructions so that anyone, anywhere around the world, can build one of these systems for free. And there's a patent pending on these systems as well that's held by the community. And to fund the project, we partner to create products that we then sell to schools and to individuals who 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 tester who supports someone else's idea than it is to be just the idea guy. What we get out of this project is we get support for our own work, as well as an experience of actually contributing to the environmental movement in a way other than just screwing in new light bulbs. But I think that Eileen expresses best what we really get out of this, which is the actual joy of collaboration. So she expresses here what it's like to see someone halfway across the world having taken your idea, built upon it and then acknowledging you for contributing. If we really want to see the kind of wide consumer behavior change that 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-Y has moved beyond just window farms and LEDs into solar panels and aquaponic systems. And we're building upon innovations of generations who went before us. And we're looking ahead at generations who really need us to retool our lives now. So we ask that you join us in rediscovering the value of citizens united, and to declare that we are all still pioneers.
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Britta Riley wanted to grow her own food (in her tiny apartment). So she and her friends developed a system for growing plants in discarded plastic bottles -- researching, testing and tweaking the system using social media, trying many variations at once and quickly arriving at the optimal system. Call it distributed DIY. And the results? Delicious. (Filmed at TEDxManhattan .)
Britta Riley designs and builds urban farms and other participatory artworks that explore the city. Full bio »