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The growBot Project: Imagining the Future of Organic Farming

Originally published at the GreenUpgrader.com.

by Becky Striepe on January 19, 2010

What do you get when you combine robotics and small-scale organic farming? Atlanta foodie Lady Rogue is examining that very question with her growBot project.

Lady Rogue is a busy woman! She’s a cook, social provocateur, community organizer, asker of questions and maker of plans. She runs the underground food community rogueApron, its corresponding entrepreneur networking group, and serves on the communication board of Georgia Organics. She’s also a grad student at Georgia Tech, and we were fortunate that she could take some time to talk about her new project: imagining what happens when you combine robotics with organic farming.

Here’s a short video to give you an idea of what the project is about:

growBot Symposium – Spring 2010 from Rogue Apron on Vimeo.

It almost sounds like some crazy science fiction future, and that’s no accident. The growBot project is part of the Public Design Workshop with Dr. Carl DiSalvo, and the whole idea is to imagine the future how you think it ought to be, and then figure out how to make it happen. Lady Rogue explained that imagining and a whole lot more when we chatted last week:

gUP: Can you tell me a little bit about the program?

Lady Rogue: The Public Design Workshop is a series of project studios based at [Georgia] Tech around participatory design. The growBot project grew out of a Speculative Robotics course last semester where students imagined ways in which robotics could be used to impact a community.

Lady Rogue: This is a process known as design fiction – which is really fun. A great example of design fiction is “Minority Report” – where Tom Cruise used his fingers to use his magical computer. This fiction influences both the general public, and designers, who incorporate things that they have seen in movies into their real life ideas. So our job is to create participatory design fictions, in which we guide the community (in this case food producers/farmers) in the process of imagining a robot.

gUP: So, how in-depth does this imagining go?

Lady Rogue: That’s what’s so exciting about this process. It literally democratizes the process of new technology creation. An engineer has to get a bunch of fancy degrees and learn quite a lot about what is “possible” in order to create their designs, whereas a layperson has a completely different perspective. Their imagining might be illustrated in construction paper, pipe cleaners, and sketches versus technical specifications that an engineer might produce, but a layperson might come up with a better idea or one that is more suited to solving a problem in organic farming, because they come at it from a different perspective than an engineer. It’s just a different *kind* of imagining. Our role as public designers is to guide the process, and document the result, and publish the ideas, which is a profoundly democratizing force.

gUP: So you sort of facilitate this conversation between imaginers and engineers?

Lady Rogue: In many ways, yes. We will put on a workshop in the spring with food producers and get all of their imagineering documented. In future workshops, we bring in the engineers to talk with the food producers The food producers can bring their ideas to the table and get engineers to think about them and work on them, which is profoundly different than using off-the-shelf technologies.

Lady Rogue: Our job is to make the conversation happen: to make it fruitful, to provide all the resources to make sure that each group knows enough about each other, and then to publish the results of all of these processes in order to facilitate future public participatory design projects.

gUP: I was reading on Organic Nation about the misconception that organic farming is inherently anti-technology. I’m sure you come up against that perception from time to time. How would you answer those folks?

Lady Rogue: I think we commonly conflate “technology” with “industrialization,” and we forget that tools like plows, rakes and tractors are technology. Organic farming is an alternative to industrial food production. we’d like to strengthen the viability of organic farming by helping to create new tools and technology.

Lady Rogue: The future of industrial food production is clear: genetically identical plants will be harvested by robots. This future is about 15 years away, give or take a recession or environmental collapse.

Lady Rogue: Our food is already processed by plants, packaged by robots, shipped with sophisticated RFID embedded pallets to centralized distribution points that are increasingly controlled by intelligent algorithms. That is the clear-cut future progression of industrial food production. Our job is to help organic farmers to imagine tools that will help them create a viable production model as an alternative to this future.

Lady Rogue: I haven’t met a farmer yet who isn’t interested in a way to preserve their way of life. I haven’t met a farmer who isn’t hoping that young people take up the siren call and become food producers themselves. So, no, I don’t think that farming is anti-technology at all. It’s just tainted with a wee bit of mistrust because the technology in recent years has tended to benefit industrial food production, and not organic.

gUP: I’m sure you’ve done your share of imagining on the topic of robots and organic farming. Do you have a vision of what that might look like that you can share?

Lady Rogue: Well, I have this fantastic pipe dream. Wired farms, powered with solar energy and the heat emanating from compost piles. Sensors that continually provide information about the pH levels of plants. A wonderful iPhone gamelike interface that allows people all over the world to care for the farm by issuing commands to the small robots, built from recycled scrap parts, that enable the solitary farmer to produce enough food to feed a few city blocks.

Lady Rogue: All of these technologies exist, right now. it’s a matter of creating an ecosystem of interconnection that is sustainable and affordable for the wired farmer.

gUP: I love how you worked social media in there. What a great way to connect food consumers with food producers!

Lady Rogue: It is completely possible for someone to care for their garden while they wait for a bus. It’s completely possible to earn a share in a CSA by ‘tending’ virtually to a farm: reading through plant data nightly, and sending messages to the robots and farmers to help them grow your food.

Lady Rogue: The project in many ways is about the magical power of ideas. Would consumers want ‘gesture interfaces’ like the iPhone if they hadn’t seen Minority Report years ago? What will people wish for if they are introduced to the idea of a robogarden?

Lady Rogue: There was a ’96 project that has similar ideas. VERY ahead of it’s time. Of course, you’ve never heard of it. Our job as speculative designers is to make sure that people *do* hear about the ideas, even if we illustrate it instead of building a prototype.

gUP: So, what’s the plan to get your ideas heard?

Lady Rogue: Well, the specific technologies will be the ideas of the farmers and gardeners … but we’ll end up creating a series of materials, depending on the ideas. For sure we’ll put together a website and videos. Most likely we’ll also create ‘brochures’ and other print materials to help convey the ideas. In many ways the form of the design will be dependent on the ideas, but overall, we’re going to include the public in as many events as possible and use social media communication to maintain the communications.

gUP: Is there somewhere that folks can find information about your project online?

Lady Rogue: Well, right now we’re on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and we have a blog. Part of the project ethos is to communicate with people where they already are…very different than most of academia.

gUP: Very! The whole thing takes such an interesting approach. Thank you so much for taking some time to chat about the Growbot project! Definitely keep me posted on how things are going! Is there anything you’d like to add?

Lady Rogue: Nope … I think that is it. Thanks SO much for the interview … it will definitely be a huge help in creating awareness.

The growBot Symposium starts this spring. They’ll first sit down with farmers to brainstorm, then they’ll get those farmers together with engineers and facilitate a conversation between those two groups. We’ll be checking back in with Lady Rogue, so stay tuned!