Designing Technology for an Agroecological Transition
Take a moment, if you will, and imagine the healthiest landscape that you possibly can. What does it look like? Are there trees? Is it teaming with life? A garden of Eden? I’m going to hazard a guess that you were able to do this without too much difficulty. Perhaps you were inspired by your own experiences, perhaps snippets of imagery belonging to a David Attenborough documentary. Regardless of how you came to be able to visualise this, the sights, sounds and sensory experiences of a healthy environment exist within you. Within us all. We all know what a healthy earth would look and feel like. It is part of us. In the face of our 21st century challenges our task is simple — we must recreate this vibrant landscape in every possible place and way that we can.
The vision is the easy bit. There is no doubt we must steward our earth in this way. How we get from here to there is much harder, though certainly we could do worse than to focus on our food and agricultural systems. Occupying around half of the world’s land and consuming 70% of our global fresh water, our current methods of agriculture have, for thousands of years, been shaping our earth away from Eden. Our agricultural relationship with this earth has not been one of nurturing the most possible abundance of life. It has been a trajectory of control in the name of productivity. Produce more — food and profit — for less — fewer people and lower costs.
This underlying intention in agricultural ‘progress’ can be seen in all the great innovations that have shaped farming — the plough, the tractor, distribution logistics, agrochemicals. Each invention increases productivity. Such productivity has enabled our highly specialised civilisation. With so few people taking care of our food needs others can get on with landing on Mars, missing COBRA meetings or writing philosophical blog posts. So long have we celebrated these gains along the productivity metric that even now, as we pass tipping point after tipping point, we’re still merely toying around the edges of food system transformation. We are victims of our own success. Now, however, inertia on climate action is no longer an option. We produce enough food for 10 billion people. Productivity is not the problem we need to solve. Imagine if we shifted our collective design intention away from productivity and put ourselves at the service of regenerating this vibrant natural world we all hold in our imaginations. Imagine if we could shift from design for productivity toward design for diversity.
Designing for diversity not only means designing for healthy ecoysystems or designing for more opportunities in social diversity. True diversity happens outside of our ability to plan for diversity. It means designing in such a way that unexpected things can happen. Designing such that this diversity can emerge means actively trying to reduce the amount of order, control and control we impose. Fortunately for us, such uniformity is not a natural pattern of this world of ours. Such order requires huge energy to maintain. We’ve tried to dominate chaos with order for centuries, in a false dichotomy of biblical proportions. Greater diversity wants to exist. Perhaps our role is not to impose order, but to steward complexity.
Seen in this way, it is clear that we have been inadvertently designing all diversity out of our world. Designing for productivity has meant designing for uniformity, dominating uncertainty so that fewer things that can go wrong. It has meant scaling up controlled systems to enormous proportions. We can see this pattern in the millions of hectares of monocultured fields. We can see it in the handful of companies controlling global food systems. Our economy and our environment are both dominated by a small number of vastly scaled, efficient productivity machines that leave most humans and all of the more-than-human world powerless.
The idea of shifting our design intention toward the regeneration of a diverse world is not new. John Thakara speaks of designing for all life, not just for human life. Cassie Robinson has carried alternate design principles that nurture ecosystems and collective awareness through her work. Designing in this way means understanding and considering as much of the whole as you can. Such thinking is innate to indigenous world views. In his book Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta speaks of the pattern-mind, a skill of his Aboriginal ways of knowing as “seeing entire systems and the trends and patterns within them, and using these to make accurate predictions and find solutions to complex problems.” By stopping and looking at the food systems that dominate across the globe we can begin to see patterns that emerge, and inspecting these patterns is key to unlocking transformative design strategies.
The current systems of food production and consumption have specialised and grown to unprecedented scale because economies of scale feed productivity metrics. Scale enables each unit to have lower time and cost overheads as fixed costs are shared between more units. These fixed costs tend to be infrastructure — machinery, premises, equipment. Within this paradigm bigger scale means bigger infrastructure means more productivity. This is the source of so much inertia to change our food systems. Our task, therefore, is to identify the types of infrastructure that can enable a diverse ecosystem of actors to achieve some of the same or similar efficiencies.
Given the role that technology has played in enabling design for productivity, and given our cultural relationship with technological ‘progress’, it is pertinent that we put designing for diversity at the heart of design in technology. This applies to farm and processing machinery, to logistics capacity and to digital solutions. Inspiring groups across the world are developing radical alternatives that prioritise ecosystems of interoperability over dominant scale. The Small Robot Company develops robots for sustainable, precision agriculture in which farmers don’t own the robots but subscribe to a robot service. The Seed Saving Network enables small growers across the UK to grow and exchange seed and data creating a more diverse and resilient seed supply. The Data Food Consortium, pioneered by Open Food France, have created open interoperability standards for the food system to enable food sale platforms to interoperate and collaborate instead of competing. Though while the grassroots networks grow resilient diversity, big tech has grown faster.
In recent years big tech has started to enable diverse ecosystems of actors as a mechanism to attain dominance. By enabling many drivers/homeowners/musicians to easily access ‘consumers’ they have all been able to unlock economies of scale for small businesses and individuals, by essentially replacing whole sectors — taxi/hotel/music. They have taken data that was previously invisible and chaotic, ordered it and turned it into a commodity more valuable than oil to the global economy. We are seeing the same pattern play out again at the level of tech platform by a handful of companies that now have turnovers larger than the budgets of most countries. The food system has thus far not been consumed by big tech however it is just a matter of time, unless we can invest in the infrastructure to prevent this.
Reversing this trend toward dominance requires, among other things, investing in the necessary infrastructure to support alternatives. It means investing in collaborations that enable ecosystems of communities and technologies to interoperate. This is no small task. It requires building trust. It requires creating ways for people to confidently and safely share data within a trusted community to enable collaboration and innovation outside of any single tool. It takes a commons based approach to managing this data, with the collaborators building and creating the agreements. And it all must be done in a way that is open source and open to public scrutiny. All of this must be true if we are to nurture diversity throughout all of our human and more-than-human systems.
If it sounds difficult, that’s because it is. Control and order have been ingrained in the very fabric of cultural conditioning. Enabling genuine diversity to flourish requires that us folks that have been taught to be certain in our beliefs and controlling in our approaches see these behaviours and beliefs for what they are — dominating. It takes courage and boldness to believe that we are stronger by collaborating and to let go of our need to predict and control outcomes. It takes self-compassion when we fall back into old patterns and patience when we see things we don’t understand. It is in no way easy. But unless we do this we’ll continue to create the same controlling systems in the outer world as exist in our inner world. And the vibrant, diverse world we imagined will fall further into the confines of our imaginary realms.