Britta Riley: Window Farms
Britta Riley: Window FarmsNov 25
Artist and innovator, Britta Riley, explains R&D-I-Y. Using social media and mass participation, the community has researched and developed her unique approach to growing food in small urban apartments using a window, plastic bottles and some plants. Her company, Windowfarms.org was named one of the top 100 businesses to watch in 2010 by Entrepreneur Magazine. Windowfarms makes vertical hydroponic platforms for growing food in city windows, designed in conjunction with a online citizen science web platform for with over 16,000 community members worldwide.
ABOUT THE WINDOWFARMS PROJECT
1) To empower urban dwellers to grow some of their own food inside year-round.
2) To empower citizens to collaboratively & openly innovate online toward more sustainable cities and improved urban quality of life.
Windowfarms: Growing Food Year-Round in Inner City Buildings
The Windowfarms Project operates in what seems a small niche, but the team hopes it might be what Buckminster Fuller would call a “trim tab,” a small part that turns giant ships by being particularly well placed. Growing some portion of one’s own food is a simple pleasure that can make a big difference in one’s relationship with nature. As we choose nutrients to feed plants we hope to eat in turn, we gain experience with a nearly-lost fundamental human art, get a microcosmic view of the food system, develop a stake in the conversation, and come up with new ideas for how to take care of ourselves and our planet in troubled times.
Researchers have argued that to grow some of his own food is the most effective action an individual can take for environment, not only because of the food industry’s heavy carbon footprint but also because participating in agricultural production cultivates a valuable skill set around sustainability issues.
Many neighborhoods (particularly low income ones) in cities around the world are considered food deserts, meaning little fresh food is easily accessible. Residents tend to consume processed, packaged, and canned food having depleated nutrients.
It is estimated that with current US industrial food production, it takes 7-10 calories of fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of food. Furthermore, many of the vegetables we get at the store have lost a good deal of their nutritional value in transit.
People in cities need to be exploring alternatives to these very real logistical issues.
Few other projects working in these issues provide opportunities for such direct personal involvement, make such productive use of existing construction, or so directly target urban dwellers estranged from agricultural issues.
Window farming city dwellers can grow their own food in their apartment or office windows throughout the year by means of these elegant, inexpensive, vertical, hydroponic vegetable gardens made from recycled materials or items available at the local hardware store. The first system produced 25 plants and a salad a week in mid winter in a dimly lit 4’ x 6’ NYC window.
R&D-I-Y: Mass Collaboration to Solve Environmental Problems
The ultimate aim of the Windowfarms project is not primarily to create a perfected physical object or product. Rather, the targeted result is for participants to have a rewarding experience with crowsdsourced innovation. The team is interested to learn from participants’ experience as they design for their own microenvironments, share ideas, rediscover the power of their own capacity to innovate, and witness themselves playing an active role in the green revolution.
The windowfarms project approaches environmental innovation through web 2.0 crowdsourcing and a method called R&D-I-Y (research and develop it yourself). Big Science’s R&D industry is not always free to take the most expedient environmental approach. It must assume that consumers will not make big changes. Its organizational structure tends toward infrastructure-heavy mass solutions. A distributed network of individuals sharing information can implement a wide variety of designs that accommodate specific local needs and implement them locally. Ordinary people can bring about innovative green ideas and popularize them quickly. Web theorists like Clay Shirky claim that this capacity to “organize without hierarchical organization” will be a fundamental shift in our society brought about by the web over the coming decades.
After only one year and with very limited funding the project has already been widely acclaimed and supported with features in Grist, Art in America, Wired Blog, Ready Made magazine, prominent food blogs, and upcoming documentary films. Over 13,000 people have downloaded the instructions worldwide and are building windowfarms in city windows all over the planet. Please check out the activity on the community website to see what’s happening.
Since the public launch last year, the community of windowfarmers on our.windowfarms.org have contributed innovations from the perspective of end uses that helped evolve the Windowfarms designs through more than 12 subversions. The designs are constantly becoming more efficient, more nutritionally productive, easier to maintain, quieter, and better looking. The community has grown to more than 13,000 members around the world. The project has been featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in dozens of publications.
History and Current Work
The Project was started by artists Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray in February, 2009 through an artist’s residency at Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology in New York and sponsorship by Submersible Design, Riley and Bray’s interactive design firm.
Riley came up with the idea for the project in 2008 after reading Michael Pollan’s “Why Bother?” article in the New York Times Magazine in conjunction with Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. She wanted to grow some of her own food but lived in a 5-story walk-up in Brooklyn. Rooftop growing was problematic, so harnessing the light in the window plus the year-round climate control of an apartment seemed promising. With limited space, dirt growing was not an option. So, the challenge was to make hydroponics vertical and optimized for the window space. The plan was to share any innovations with others so that the project could become the kind of ongoing mass collaboration Shirky talks about.
Riley has stayed with the project full time since and continues to drive the project with a team of volunteers, (recently, 2 new staff!) and the participation of hundreds of windowfarmers worldwide. Bray moved on to another exciting career last year but will serve on the project’s board. Today, sales of windowfarm kits, sourced locally in New York, and donations (such as those from more than 200 generous micro donors through an early successful Kickstarter campaign) help fund the project.
The Windowfarms Project Look Book
Learn more about the mission, theory, team, and more behind the Windowfarms Project in the Windowfarms Project Look Book. Download a copy for yourself here (pdf – 3MB).