Vertical Farming and Co-location

I was recently lucky enough to be invited to attend and speak at a workshop in Cardiff, entitled “co-location for vertical farming in Wales”. I’ll freely admit that I was surprised to get the invite, not seeing Wales as a particular hotbed of VF generally. I did have some hopes though, as cardiff was definitely one of the more positive results I got in my Councils Project.

Well, what a result it was! Turns out that the Welsh government are paying serious attention the the potential of VF, along with a variety of other public bodies, companies and indeed the three universities that served as event organisers (South Wales, Cardiff and Aberystwyth).

This blog post will be essentially a written version of the talk I gave at the event, because I believe that they had caught on to something potentially important in the potential of co-location.

I found it hard, writing the talk, to fix it all into one 10 minute talk. There are so many perspectives and possibilities, considerations and complexities. But then that last word struck me… complexity.

I got to thinking that complexity is the key to looking at co-location. Or rather, it’s the other way around, co-location is the key (or at least a key) to unlocking complexity. That’s important, because in complexity lies value, though it may not be obvious. It could be economic value, social good, environmental benefit, but that value is there to be unlocked. What this means, in practice, is that in unlocking the value within complexity, we have the chance to unlock the true potential of vertical farming. Big claim I know!

I love vertical farming, and I am consistently amazed by how far it has come in such a short time. But we are reaching a point now, where we are beginning to hit barriers. How do we grow more than just leafy greens? How do we create viable business models, when costs are so high? These are just a couple of examples, and there are many more worth considering. But in many, if not most cases, the answer has to lie in unlocking that potential in complexity.

But here’s the thing: complexity is just hard to manage! It’s hard to make competing and/or divergent elements and goals work together. Even if you can trying to then fit them into one business model, is only making it harder still!

Let me give you an example, in the form of aquaponics. Now aquaponics is a circular system, which is fantastic. But it is a basic one nonethless. So what about if you want to put more into it? You might want to add insects to your system, or mushrooms, or algae. Pretty quickly it gets enormously complex to manage all the different systems. It also requires a substantial number of different areas of expertise – you might, for example, also want to bring in research,  to ensure you have the latest information.

So the first question is, how do you bring all that expertise and all those systems together? The second is how on earth do you make a viable business model out of it? The answer, think , is also a question: why does it all have to be done by one organisation? There’s a kind of blindness here, by which any business can be afflicted – the assumption that everything has to be done in-house. I see why that’s the case: the old saying is, after all, if you want something done properly, do it yourself. But in a hightech industry like VF, that just isn’t realistic to be honest.

It’s not just aquaponics of course, that’s just one example, and they’re already ahead of the curve by integrating two systems! But there’s also policy, there’s research, there’s education, and many other possible areas to consider. Co-location means that we can bring together all these elements and unlock the potential of the industry, of this movement (because that’s what it is, as much as an industry). The simple fact of it is, we are all interdependent: no vertical farm is an island!

I think the questions anybody looking at co-location ought to start from are these:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • What challenge are you trying to address?
  • What barrier do you wish to overcome?
  • What, ultimately, are your goals?

Once you know that, you can start to look at what is needed to succeed. You can figure out what you can do, and then you can figure out what you can’t do. This latter is of course where you need someone else. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, co-location? What can you bring, and what can they bring? By combining those things, you can unlock the next level of complexity, and so all the potential value that contains.I sincerely believe that this collaborative, interdependent approach is absolutely crucial to the long term success of vertical farming, and indeed to figuring out how that fits with other food growing – be that conventional field agriculture, glasshouse, urban, rural or whatever else – to build truly resilient and regenerative food systems.

Co-location is one small, but very important piece of that bigger picture. So I think we need to have a great deal more of it. I see many example of that starting to spring up all over the place, and I am very hopeful that more and more will appear in (the near) future.


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