Will ‘Farmbot’ Cost Jobs or Create Them?

Whether you buy organic produce, grow your own, buy from farmers’ markets or even watch your own veggie patch fill with weeds because you’re ‘too busy with stuff’, you’ll have an opinion about this piece.

I came across this new startup whilst in NZ last week at a conference. Ironically I learnt about this not from the conference but from a tourist sidebar to a local glass artist, and during an hour of chatting about sustainability he told me about ‘Farmbot’.

 

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The Farmbot trials have begun. Click on the image to hit the site.

 

Farmbot is a a tech startup in the US and is touted as ‘Humanity’s first open-source CNC (Computer Numerical Control) farming machine’ – in effect a DIY farming robot for your own back yard.

When I first heard about this I thought ‘wow – game changer’, yet when I opened the first Youtube clip to find out more about it I had an instant gut reaction along the lines of ‘… but why can’t people get their hands dirty and plant the food and tend it? Are we giving up on kids learning how to grow food?’

I’ve written many posts over the past few years on the benefits of growing our own food, not only for sustainability outcomes but also for personal physical, psychological and even social  health… are we now saying that we should surrender all of that to a robot?

After a week of letting this idea gestate I’m now starting to see that there could actually be a range of benefits to deploying Farmbots, as yet untapped. Keeping in mind that this is a newly launched open source DIY technology, clever humans will naturally tinker with the design & coding etc. and no doubt create a diverse array of applications.

We could see derivations of Farmbot emerge on public lands to grow community food, installations for social or affordable housing, back yard veggies for people who are literally unable to tend a garden, and in particular scaled-up infrastructure for farming communities. One of the key tasks of the Farmbot is that it removes weeds without chemicals – therefore chemical free and zero labour costs.

farmbot-system-people-automate-growing-vegetables-gardening-destroys-weeds

Farmbot identifies weeds and buries them… could a future version somehow deter possums and thieves…? ; >

In reality, as with much of the emerging tech that we’re now presented with, I think there will be a perfect balance somewhere between human and robotic farming, a partnership. Imagine the Urban Farmer commanding a fleet of Farmbots to help with the workload.

And when (not if) someone blends this new tech with mobile drones then we’ll really be onto something interesting… : )

 

Eggspress Yourself – Free Range Buildings

Firstly this is about eggs. They can teach us a lot, and by the end of this post I’m going to draw a link between free range eggs and how we procure buildings. But eggs first.

And before I go further: The chicken came first. Something to do with zygotes. Apparently.

So the eggs thing… If we were to line up samples of all of the eggs on the supermarket shelves I’d have to confess that they all look pretty much the same. Equal. A taste test might reveal a little more – there are certainly different tastes between ‘cage’ and ‘organic’ etc., and I know that for many consumers ‘certified organic’ is a clear and reliable label that they will not waver from.

But what’s the deal with ‘free range’?

When I shop I take the time to read labels – I earn this time by racing around like a maniac between products… man on a mission and all that. And the labels on eggs have become increasingly confusing of late. So looked into it. The ‘formal’ national standard that defines ‘free range’ was clarified in March this year – and it means each chook gets at least 1sqm each. What you’ll usually see on labelling is ‘1 hectare per 10,000 chickens’.

Hmm…

Have you ever had chooks? I have, and I can tell you that if they only had 1sqm each the ground would be bare within a day and they’d be at each others’ throats within the week. Chooks are social animals – arguably pretty stupid at times but charmingly smart in the social department.

But the national standard says 1sqm per chook. So that’s what ‘free range’ officially means. According to CHOICE and PETA however the new standard is nothing to crow about, and 1,500 chooks per hectare is a more appropriate maximum.

CHOICE free range chart

Be warned that an increasing number of egg carton labels don’t state how many chooks per hectare – they’re now simply saying ‘free range’. You be the judge. I vote with my $, and personally I’m happy to invest a little more in keeping chooks happy, supporting caring businesses and feeding my kids happy omelettes.

So, what’s this got to do with green buildings?

Everything! As an industry we’ve become increasingly adept at energy and water efficiency and many of the physical attributes that comprise a building. We’ll keep getting better.

But one of the next major surges for us is going to be how we deliver buildings. We’re now asking ‘what were the social and community impacts that resulted from the manufacture of this product?’. Think ‘Fair Trade’ for buildings. In my view this has always been the ultimate goal of sustainable development – how can we use development as a vehicle to restore communities and help people who really need help?

A good place to start up-skilling on this is the Australian Supply Chain Sustainability School – they’re doing some cool things that you should know about. Click the logo below to get there.

Australian Supply Chain Sustainability School

So the next time you buy eggs – look at the detail on the label. You need to be able to sleuth your way past the marketing and the fine print. As with eggs, so with anything else you buy.

Rather than ‘the ends justify the means’, it should be ‘the means are the ends’.

Happy egg hunting.

The End of the Servo?

In May 2015 there were 6,358 servos (petrol stations) around Australia, ‘… up from a more than 50-year low of 6,092 stations in 2013-14’ according to IBISWorld, with the prediction being 7,005 by 2020.

That sounds like a significant growth being projected for a retail outlet that is primarily based on selling petrol and gas.

But hang on… there are other sectors predicting that within the next decade, all of our cars will be fully electric. Thanks in part to Elon Musk’s gifting of his electric vehicle protocols to the internet we’re seeing the start of the EV gold rush, with literally every major car manufacturer announcing plans for imminent release of their own full EVs within the next few years.

electric-charging

So, in the event that this might be true – why would we need the servo?

If we’re charging our car at home (the charging kit comes with the car purchase), the servo seems like a venue that is conveniently avoidable unless we’re desperate for some bread and milk or a warm pie after hours (if that’s your thing)… hardly the recipe for retail success.

Gas station closed

There are many factors and interests at play and I won’t attempt to unravel the many complexities of retail spending, profit margin trends or the vagaries of convenience shopping.

What does interest me though is the mental exercise of trying to re-imagine the servo in a near future where petrol sales have plummeted and can no longer support the business.

Here are some thoughts;

  • Super-charger stations for EVs? These high-rate chargers can give your EV around 100km range in 30 minutes. But, if we can charge at home, why bother with the servo..? Unless…
  • The charge is free if I spend a minimum amount in the new-and-improved retail outlet. Would the shop now specialise in food and beverage? Groceries? An evolved version of the local market? Maybe, although I’d suspect all of the existing retail markets are already fully catered for in each location.
  • Convert wholly into a retail outlet? Cafe or restaurant? Maybe, although when I picture the vast majority of urban service stations I shudder at the thought of spending time in those buildings – they’re far from humane architecture and are designed as nothing more than transient spaces… they’d need a significant forecourt-blitz to re-imagine them. Cost prohibitive in most cases.
former-gas-station

The Filling Station, Oregon, CA. It works when the setting is right.

  • Demolish and build some apartments? I’d say very likely in many locations – notwithstanding the site decontamination costs, your average corner dual-access servo site would fit around 6 or more apartments, some would fit many more. Digging a basement car park would readily solve the decontamination issue.
  • Convert to local battery storage site for the new neighbourhood renewable energy grid? Local sewerage mining and treatment facility? Possibly, although I can imagine a web of planning and zoning controls and neighbour concerns that might need confronting…
  • Headquarters for the local Urban Farmer? (yup, this one just won’t quit – it’s going to happen soon : )
  • Convert to the local hyper-market garden? After a full decontamination (let’s ignore the inevitable human culture issues) and a full-scale rejuvenation of the site, perhaps they could produce high-intensity urban food.. think aquaponics, high rotation crops, permaculture, bee hives etc. Hmm…. might be the poetic response? I’d love to see this but I can’t see it being financially strong – would need subsidies.
Whole-foods-greenhouse-and-solar-on-rooftop-in-Brooklyn-NY-store-e1387056953450

Rooftop farm, Brooklyn, NY

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see most if not all of these options come true… it will come down to each location needing the right reaction.

Any other ideas? This is still rattling around in my head.. so if you have others please let me know. The internet seems very dry on this topic and my curiosity needs feeding : )

As to why the major fuel retailers are investing literally billions in building new petrol stations around Australia – they must have a plan up their sleeve, mustn’t they? Are they land banking? Have they identified a superior use for the near future that they’ll reveal with a flourish at the right moment?

Only time will tell.

Free Petrol Treasure Map

This isn’t the flagrant click-bait you might expect it to be. There really is a map showing where you can fill your car up for free. But like all things in life, nothing is actually ‘free’… to get the free 6-pack you need to buy the carton (or join the gym); to get the free steak knives you need to buy the exercise thingy that makes you slim without sweating.

To fill your car for free you just need to buy the right car.

Of course I’m talking about electric vehicles or ‘EVs’. Once you’ve invested, you can embark on your own version of Pokemon Go with finding free charging stations.

This map (courtesy of plugshare.com) shows us EV recharge stations around the world, including Tesla’s Supercharge network which allows us to drive from Sydney to Melbourne on a couple of charges. Each tag on the map can be selected which will pop-up with the charging station’s details, e.g. address, how many charging ports, the type of charger, access details and whether or not there is a fee.

plugshare.com map

The savvy EV drivers will no doubt work out the most convenient network of free charging stations, many of which – thanks to our equally-savvy retailers – are located in shopping centre car parks.

Just a word of caution: you’re going to start wondering if you can drive between certain locations based on the availability of charging stations… it’s fun but time consuming, so don’t jump into this map unless you have some free time : )

The Tesla EVs have ranges between 370km and 500+km, and with the early signs of some hotels and motels also installing charging points (go-on, you want to find them on the map don’t you?), I’m seeing an emerging landscape that will let us roam the country in our EVs without sweating about running out of juice.

And one of the most poetic ironies will be seeing existing petrol stations start adding EV super-charge points – they’d be mad not to! It will be a fascinating retail dynamic to watch as it evolves.

We can’t get to Uluru yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Have fun with the map.

Avoiding the Poison Berries – Where is it Made, Mate?

If you live in Australia you’ve probably by now seen some eye-catching headlines about people contracting Hepatitis A from ‘poison berries’ being imported from overseas… with mention of un-controlled border imports, human faeces as fertiliser and images of poisoned waterways.

Berries

Yes, this makes me hungry, for berries ‘Produced in Australia’. For other countries you’ll need to research your own consumer laws.

Rather than throw fuel on the fire that’s currently raging in the media [do your own research on this one], I felt compelled to have a fresh look at how we might better welcome fresh, locally-grown, healthy and seasonal food into our own lives.

So where is it really made, Mate??

It was only last weekend that I ‘cracked it’ in an un-named supermarket because I literally couldn’t identify which product was actually grown and packed in Australia. So if we’re interested in buying only locally grown [and preferably locally owned] foods, what are we looking for on the label?

Here’s what I’ve been able to find out – and finding this was a lot like calling my previous Superannuation fund to cancel something; it took several steps from one authority to another before someone seems willing to make a decision ; )

It’s our ACCC [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] via Consumer Law that lays down the rules. The following is summarised from their fact sheet;

‘Product of / Grown In’ – significant ingredients are from the country claimed and almost all production processes occurred in that country. ‘Grown in’ is mostly for fresh food, ‘Product of’ is often for processed food.

‘Product of Australia’ – means it was grown/caught and processed in Australia.

‘Grown in Australia’ – means, well… what it says.

‘Made In’ – has a cost ratio to determine [long story], but can contain ingredients from other countries. That’s right;

‘Made in Australia’ can mean that the entire contents are from another country.

That’s gold isn’t it??!!

‘Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients’ – no requirement to disclose proportion, and often used to address seasonal shortages in Australian produce… [it happens to be this one that’s at the centre of berry-gate, to the detriment of Aussie farmers who are growing nothing but good gear all year ’round]

For your own sake, have a look at the ACCC fact sheet – it’s a one pager and gets straight to the point. It will change how you shop.

Bon Appetite : )

 

Native Advertising and Online Retail – Green or Greedy?

You’re standing at the bus stop, waiting for the 5.20pm 209 to take you home.  Busses now all run on solar electric (they top up at each stop when they stop over the wireless charging plates in the road, themselves networked back to the district grid) and you’re happy to catch them on your 3 days at the city office, especially since you sold off your 2nd car and are hiring out the remaining one during work hours to earn some credit.

Bus stop shelters all carry dynamic advertising boards that update products based on the people standing at the stop at the time. The hyper-connectivity of your hand-held and wearable tech with the city network means that the retailer’s advertising algorithms can flash up products that they know you favour, based on past spending activity. Bread, milk, a curry and some greenery for dinner.. oh yeah, and a selection of fresh-cut flowers and cards given that it’s your partner’s birthday tomorrow.

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Image from JCDecaux, York St, Sydney (now I feel like Tim Tams!)

You take the bait and wave your phone over each selected image, confirming the purchase and immediate delivery. The items will be dispatched by drone and arrive home within 40 minutes.

What’s just taken place is known as ‘native advertising’, and most of what you just read is already real and happening out there.

Native advertising is an online advertising method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the user’s experience. Native ad formats match both the form and function of the user experience in which they are placed (Wikipedia)

This is an emerging dimension of online shopping, which is the fastest growing mode of retail in the developed world. We can already make purchases through our computer, tablet device or hand-held… in many cases without even visiting a store.

And the current mode of native advertising is only the beginning. We’re already on the way towards what I’d call ‘ambush native advertising’; you’re sitting on the bus and are feeling like you have a cold coming on. Your clothing has enough sensors built in that it can measure your increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and it knows you’re getting a cold. This information then triggers a push advertisement onto your handheld right before your eyes… ‘Feeling Flat? Try Mr Trippy’s Blue Pill. Select Enter to make your purchase and activate delivery’.

Will native advertising break down our already weak guard and convince us to spend more, or will it simply prompt us to make more targeted and useful purchases as we need them? Whichever way it goes, it’s likely that the push of retailing into our devices is going to reduce the need for physical shops.

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I actually look forward to some aspects of this connected future, but seeing images like the one above, when ‘fresh food’ becomes nothing more than an image on a wall, fills me with a touch of sadness (but a dose of resolve). We are already too disconnected from nature, and much of this trend threatens to cut us off altogether – a dystopian future? As with all things – appropriate technology is the way.

Is Retail Under Threat From the Sharing Economy?

Are you an e-bay addict? Been to a garage sale? Picked up something cool from the kerb? Simply swapped something or given it away?

There is a growing sub-culture of ‘sharing’ that may threaten to undermine the traditional retail outlet and drive down shop sizes, if by no other mechanism than by reducing the demand for new goods. In instalment #3 of our look at ‘Green Retail Trends‘ we explore the culture of ‘collaborative consumption’.

green retail

I first got connected with this idea of ‘collaborative consumption’ when I heard Rachel Botsman present in Sydney a few years ago. Collaborative consumption is the notion of sharing, borrowing, swapping, leasing etc. as distinct from buying something wholly then keeping it forever. At least theoretically the growth of this approach to procuring goods (and services) would be reducing the demand for new goods via traditional retail.

And this approach to temporary ownership seems to be gathering pace – it seems that wherever we look now we can find channels for sharing. Here are just a few;

Car Sharing (e.g. GoGets] – if you live in Australia you might have already seen these around. Rather than own a car, you join up with the scheme and just borrow the car when you need it, based on a booking system and user-pays rates. This scheme has taken off like crazy over the past few years [now Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney]. Other brands have set up also.

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Car sharing – Car Next Door: With this scheme, you put your own car up for loan, and when a neighbour borrows it you get a little cash in return. You can also borrow a neighbour’s car and pay them. Think of this one as a community version of GoGets. Many of us have cars sitting idle in the driveway during the working day – this one’s a good way to get a little more value out of them.

car next door

Food sharing; Grow It Local: I’ve posted about this movement before – people sharing their back yards to grow food, and food swapping in the neighbourhood – all using web-based platforms. These sharing schemes have sprung up all around Australia.

Adelaide SA: RipeNearMe

ripe near me

Sydney: Grow It Local:

grow it local

Even Google is in on the act with Urban Food Maps – showing where you can find food growing on public land or hanging over fences. Obviously only as good as the info people put in, but a great idea nonetheless.

Tushare – an Australian start-up that facilitates the giving away of stuff we no longer want. Old bike for example? Post it on Tushare, and someone else can simply claim it and organise collection or pickup. This is not selling and buying – it’s simply giving away. Deal done. I love this one – have told my wife about this one in the hope that it dampens the household’s e-bay costs : )

tushare

This notion of exchanging, sharing, borrowing, leasing or even simply giving away is gaining traction.. we’re becoming more comfortable with the idea that we don’t necessarily have to own everything.

Have fun exploring these instead of heading to the shops : )