Startup Profile: Food and Innovation Grow on a Farm in a Window
July 20, 2011 | Melinda Clark
Windowfarms will not save the world. But even in the big picture, every little piece counts.
That’s the thinking of The Windowfarms Project founder Britta Riley, a technology designer with myriad interests ranging from product development to social media to agriculture. Riley, along with Rebecca Bray, started Windowfarms in February 2009 as a way to foster consumer involvement, collaboration and innovation in food production and the environmental movement.
What exactly is a windowfarm? At the most basic level, it’s a vertical hydroponics system; rather than growing in rows, in soil, outdoors, plants within the system grow in columns, in water, indoors – in a window to be exact. The nutrients crops would get from the soil are instead dissolved in water and delivered to the plants with the help of an air pump.
On a more profound level, windowfarms are a powerful tool for changing the way consumers relate to their food.
The Windowfarms Project has two main goals: “to empower urban dwellers to grow some of their own food inside year-round,” and “to empower citizens to collaboratively & openly innovate online toward more sustainable cities and improved urban quality of life.” This second goal of mass collaboration is of particular fascination to Riley. All of Windowfarms’ diagrams and instructions are free to download on their site. People who have the time and enthusiasm to create their own windowfarms and techniques are encouraged to do so, and to share their findings with the online community (although Windowfarms also sells kits to help out those with less time or motivation).
Windowfarms combines this concept of crowdsourcing and mass collaboration with what it has dubbed R&D-I-Y – research and develop it yourself. Individuals conduct their own experiments with windowfarms and share their results and experiences with a network of other windowfarmers, allowing for a variety of different designs that can be duplicated by others. Rather than having to reinvent the wheel themselves, new windowfarmers can go to the site and see what those before them have done. And if they’re feeling particularly innovative, they can take the existing information and run with it.
Riley says that one of her favorite examples of this comes from an enthusiastic windowfarmer in Chicago named Tony, who loves strawberries. Tony decided to compare nutrient solutions (with this type of experimentation in mind, Windowfarms made separate reservoirs for the nutrients, so plants that are sitting right next to each other can be fed different solutions) to see which best prolonged the life of his strawberry plants. The result? He was able to grow strawberries off of one plant for nine months of the year.
“Not everyone’s that gung ho about it,” says Riley, “but the people who are are providing all this awesome knowledge. Other people follow Tony – they can read his posts and learn from the things he did.”
Windowfarms itself is an example of customizing existing systems to fill a different niche.
“We did not invent hydroponics or hydroponic nutrient solutions,” says Riley. “What we did was to reconfigure it. Most hydroponic systems are horizontally-oriented and used in large greenhouses. Oftentimes they’re having to add in a bunch of supplemental lighting… we’re using vertical spaces so you can use some existing window light. We use a different kind of pump and we’ve engineered these systems so that they can use organic nutrients.”
Using Every Puzzle Piece
While sustainable agriculture is generally considered the antithesis of conventional agriculture, what The Windowfarms Project is doing can be seen as more of a supplement. A windowfarm won’t entirely replace trips to the grocery store, but it will grant consumers access to healthy, affordable, homegrown food regardless of the season or where they are located. And there is a need for that, and for the innovation that The Windowfarm Project is working to cultivate.
“Regenerating the agriculture system from the ground up, we are going to need as many different approaches as possible. We’re all going to learn from each other,” says Riley. “We’re one really tiny piece in a really big puzzle.”
Windowfarms hopes that one outcome of all of this collaboration will be consumers who have more say in what they’re being sold.
“The typical way of coming up with environmental solutions is to have a whole bunch of engineers and scientists and marketing people coming up with solutions, in a vacuum, and occasionally checking in with people and asking, ‘Are you going to buy this?’” says Riley. “We’re kind-of giving the ordinary consumer permission to be more a part of this process.”
She says the takeaway message is that being sustainable isn’t enough; agricultural producers need to “do a better job of integrating the consumer into our processes.”
She’s not just referring to the stereotypical health-food consumer. Windowfarms opens up the sustainable agriculture movement to people who may previously have thought they couldn’t play a role, either because of their urban location or their lack of time and gardening skills.
Riley says that in her previous work with museums, she saw firsthand the difference between being told something and learning it on your own. Windowfarms uses the second approach; windowfarmers “learn as a consumer in a very active way what it is that farmers are wrestling with… You’re actually just discovering if for yourself,” says Riley. She adds, “That is always the most powerful way. That’s where the mind-changing moments happen.”