Increasing Access to Indoor Farming Technologies to Decentralize Food Production
Today, we are aware of the consequences the traditional food system has on our environment — perhaps indoor farming technologies can help. For a world of 9 billion people by 2050, we have to drastically transform our food supply chain, as urbanization rises and the number of people involved in farming decreases. In the case of fresh produce, from the moment we harvest a plant, it begins to lose its nutritional and medicinal properties. After an energy-intense cycle of refrigeration and transportation to cities, 50% of fresh products go to waste by the time they arrive at a consumer’s table.
People are already developing solutions targeting these issues, especially aiming to cut down the distance between producer and consumer with healthier products. Many of these technologies come from greenhouse farming and vertical farming industries which have shown steady but slow growth over the years. This market growth is slow because of scalability factors in terms of infrastructure, personnel, and technology, which are not available everywhere and are reserved for companies that can afford to make long-term investments in the field. So, how can we provide an increasing demand for fresh products by 2050? What other factors are influencing life in cities? Why is only 2% of the population (in the US) working in farming-related activities? Why have young people lost interest in farming?
We spend 90% of our lives indoors, in low-quality environments, cast into frenetic cities completely disconnected from nature. Such a disconnect has a heavy impact on our lives. We are stressed, dietarily disturbed, unproductive, and unable to nurture societal relations. We pay doctors, yoga teachers, and therapists to improve our wellbeing and turn us into the most productive version of ourselves, but the walk towards a happier, healthier, more productive way of life still looks like a never-ending hike. So, the question is: if there is no magic pill that will take the stress away from our lives forever, what about a plant?
Psychoterratica describes how a lack of nature can make us sick. Adults spend from one-third to one-half of their waking hours at work. The office space is often perceived as the most stressful environment, impacting employees’ health and businesses’ financials. Many organizations don’t consider employee wellbeing, but improvements in staff’s physical and mental health have a significant positive financial impact. For example, challenges such as loss of productivity, absenteeism, and disengagement at work have a cost €25K per person annually for “unwell” employees, compared to roughly €5K for a healthy employee. Healthy employees have more energy, get more done in less time, and are more likely to be engaged and in a good mood. At Hexagro we see this problem as an opportunity to build an exponential platform to increase access to technologies like indoor-soilless farming, which can bring nature closer to us in cities.
The concept of biophilia suggests that as human beings we have an innately emotional affiliation to the natural world. In fact, in the last twenty years, studies have provided convincing evidence that when we connect to nature, our mental and physical health, as well as our job performance, significantly improve. A report by Interface reveals that simply introducing greenery and natural elements allows a business to increase employee wellbeing by 70% and productivity by 15%. Moreover, absenteeism decreases by 10%, generating enormous cost-savings for companies given that 90% of business overheads are linked to staff and salaries.
The act of farming is an interaction with nature; people take care of the plants and the plants provide the nutrients we need.
The connection between people and nature, through activities like gardening and farming, provides a physical and psychological benefit. Edible plants have a different value than ornamental plants, they require constant attention and provide an end product. The act of farming is an interaction with nature; people take care of the plants and the plants provide the nutrients we need. The regular and active interaction between growers and plants has direct benefits for people’s physical and mental health. Farming increases longevity and reduces stress. It’s not just about health effects, either: the social benefits of gardening can also increase wellness.
Because of these benefits, Hexagro strives to reconnect people to nature with interactive indoor farming experiences. We use an IoT platform to guide users in performing simple plant-maintenance tasks to achieve successful harvests and fill inert and empty spaces with plants. Using the biomimicry method, nature was the main source of inspiration for the development of our first product, the Living Farming Tree (LFT). With the Honeybee Hive’s hexagonal patterns and the 3D Node System of Trees, we developed a space-filling modular system that can be configured in “tree”, horizontal and vertical geometries using the same parts and same technology. We recalled natural elements in the LFT design, using the principles of biophilia. Hexagro’s objective is to make any available indoor space productive. The LFT displays beautiful living plants that grow on-site, and create an emotional connection with the people around it.
This gamified cultivation process drives employees to input data about how they feel in the workplace. Based on employee responses the LFT will recommend to harvest a particular mix of medicinal plants that can improve sick building syndrome symptoms (headache, eye irritation, nausea, etc.). The LFT becomes a focal point where people gather and share time close to plants inside places that were previously inert. Ultimately, the comforting presence of nature engages employees and visitors and increases productivity.
We are offering the LFT as a service to companies in Europe that are looking for ways to maximize their productivity by improving employee wellness at the workplace. The LFT monitors environmental data — such as air temperature, humidity, light levels, CO2 and airflow — which are relevant for plant growth but also for a wellness assessment of an indoor space. This information is provided to our customer’s HR manager, with a report including anonymous wellness-related data from employees.
Hexagro’s Living Farming Tree acts as multiple products at once:
- A natural element able to provide automated production of medicinal herbs, while saving costs of water, nutrients, light usage and maintenance fees.
- A plug & play technology increasing workers’ wellness and productivity, thus driving higher revenue for corporate clients. Workers increased engagement by 71% and productivity by 15% based on our customer pilot results.
- A data gathering platform to understand how workers feel indoors and how the quality of the environment affects them. Companies will be equipped with valuable information on workers’ feelings and engagement, thus remarkably improving their business activities.
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Our approach to corporate wellness sets up the base for a new indoor farming product-service platform. The technology and the service developed for the LFT are scalable to different markets and to industrial applications.. Our mission is to build an ecosystem of key stakeholders that will allow the collaborative urban farming model to thrive and expand exponentially in cities and transform consumers into prosumers and cities into vertical farms within a circular economy or as we like to call it the “Smart Urban Farming Network.” Our vision is a future in which anybody, anywhere can access healthy food. Agriculture has changed the path of humanity before, and we believe it can do so again.
Hexagro Urban Farming is a software and hardware product-service platform to increase the accessibility to indoor farming technologies. After the project was selected as one of the finalists of the first edition of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge in 2016, Hexagro was established as a Social-Benefit company in Milan. As part of Hexagro’s social mission, the know-how and automation technologies are being licensed to a social project in Colombia called Siembra Vertical that aims to provide low-cost and high-yield aeroponic solutions for traditional farmers trying to overcome climate change, soil degradation and the consequences of large-scale urbanization.
Hexagro was selected as the first Italian startup to join the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE 100 Emerging Innovators after Intesa San Paolo Bank awarded the team a prize during Seeds&Chips event in Milan for the participation in the Startup Initiative. Currently, Hexagro is offering the Living Farming Tree service to pilot projects in Italy and Switzerland with companies such as AccorHotels, Raiffeisen Bank and Intesa San Paolo Bank. By the end of 2019, Hexagro plans to finalize 50 service contracts in the current regions and to close their seed round so that they can scale-up across Europe during 2020.