Access to healthy food is a staggering problem in the U.S., says Holger Kuehnle, executive creative director, at Artefact. Some 19 million Americans live in food deserts, while up to 40% of food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. It’s clear that the existing food system faces an overwhelming efficiency problem.
Growing food is a reasonably well-understood science that humans have iterated on for thousands of years, yet agriculture is still one of the least digitised of all major industries. There is enormous opportunity to combine agricultural technology with the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve access to food in underserved communities.
As IoT evolves over the next decade, we envision a world where IoT-enabled circular food production can democratise agricultural skills, improve efficiency, and be personalised to meet community needs. These community solutions would augment not replace the existing agricultural system, providing supplementary access to healthy foods to those most in need.
More accessible, efficient, and personalised food production
While existing personal and community gardens have an important role to play in food access and urban development, they can be unrealistic to scale. An automated IoT system could address this challenge by bringing specialised farming knowledge to laypeople. Imagine a communal rooftop garden on an apartment or commercial building where healthy produce can grow throughout the year. Yet rather than the people living or working in the building tending to the crops, the garden would be managed by a web of sensors, automated watering systems, and robotics for tasks such as sowing, pruning, and harvesting.
Specialised IoT sensors and fully connected system-on-a-chip (SoC) devices could take on specific tasks of measuring watering levels, soil nutrition, as well as plant ripeness and health. Having the time-consuming task of tending to plants carried out by electronics rather than humans reduces barriers to access and allows more people to participate in, and reap the benefits of, urban farming.
Humans are increasingly developing novel and more sustainable ways to farm that involve less or better managed water, light, and soil. By 2030, we can expect systems of IoT-enabled devices and sensors to have the capacity to work together in harmony to measure water and nutrient levels for each plant and communicate with connected pumps and other delivery systems, while machine learning aggregates these vast amounts of data and drives inputs that ensure ideal growth conditions in almost any location.
Just as the IoT system in aggregate could predict climate and resulting crop yields, it could also determine consumption patterns based on daily habits and anticipate the irregularities of a family and community’s schedules.
Machine learning could detect patterns and anticipate food supply needs across a community, in order to allocate space to the produce in highest demand and efficiently distribute available produce within the community.
Addressing risk areas
Implementing such a complex, interconnected solution requires not only an understanding of human needs and technological constraints, but also the broader economic and social impact.
The overall cost of establishing such a sophisticated IoT system is significant but not prohibitive. Start-ups like AeroFarms and Vertical Harvest are already leveraging technology to bring vertical farming to urban communities in the U.S., and governments are taking note as well, Singapore aims to triple domestic food production by 2030 through the use of technology-backed systems like multi-story urban LED farms and recirculating aquaculture systems. Industries from retail to healthcare could see a case for pursuing the positive long-term health outcomes of providing people with access to healthier food options.
Any system that relies on tremendous data collection in order to fuel machine learning models needs to be fortified against misuse of data and have a clear perspective on who retains control of it. Privacy concerns may also be more significant for some communities than others. Lack of trust in government and centralised organisational bodies may be a barrier to adoption of a system that assumes people would be comfortable letting something as personal as food be handled by robots that are invisibly managed.
Access to healthier foods alone does not ensure that people will use them. What we eat is a very personal decision with social, cultural, and educational impacts. Providing healthy produce is only one aspect of systemic change that helps people build new, sustainable eating habits. As designers, it’s critical to engage with communities of use when considering such systems, elevating their needs and lived experiences, and ensuring that we design with, not for, them.
IoT for greater food access
While there are important challenges involved in creating infrastructure that impacts something as important as our food systems, IoT represents a unique opportunity to solve some of the inefficiencies of food production and distribution, and with that, the ability to address inequities in food access.
The author is Holger Kuehnle, executive creative director, Artefact
About the author
Holger Kuehnle, executive creative director, Artefact. He is leading project teams through complex design challenges and helping envision strategies and design solutions that empower people. He strives to shape technology so that it allows humans to accomplish what they have not been able to do before. Prior to Artefact, Kuehnle was a project manager at Volkswagen and manager of the Windows Core UX design team at Microsoft. He has a master’s degree in human computer interaction from Carnegie Mellon University, and has presented on data visualisation and emerging technology at conferences such as IxDA and All Tech is Huma