Britta Riley: A garden in my apartment
May 23, 2011
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 .)
- Artist, urban farmer
Britta Riley designs and builds urban farms and other participatory artworks that explore the city. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
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,
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.
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.
- Artist, urban farmer
Britta Riley designs and builds urban farms and other participatory artworks that explore the city.Why you should listen
Britta Riley is an artist and technologist who makes crowdsourced R&D solutions for environmental issues. Her company, Windowfarms.org was named one of the top 100 businesses to watch in 2010 by Entrepreneur Magazine. Windowfarms makes vertical hydroponic platforms for growing food in city windows, designed in conjunction with a online citizen science web platform for with over 16,000 community members worldwide.
The original video is available on TED.com