From online food retail to big ag-data, technology is creeping ever further into food and farming systems. In this blog Lynne Davis CEO of Open Food Network UK explores what it takes to shift the design imperative of technology toward a 21st century agroecology. This article is a part of our column, Agroecology in Motion: Nourishing Transformation

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 teeming 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 clear – we must create 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 the earth toward abundant health. 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 global fresh water, industrial agricultural methods actively shape our earth away from Eden. The industrial agricultural relationship with the 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 – labour and cost.

Resetting the Design Intention

This underlying intention in agricultural ‘progress’ can be seen in many of the great innovations that have shaped industrial farming – the plough, the tractor, distribution logistics, agrochemicals. Each invention increases productivity. Such productivity has enabled the highly specialised civilisation of the industrialised world. With relatively so few people producing food others can get on with landing on Mars, missing COBRA meetings or writing philosophical blog posts. So long have champions of modernity celebrated these gains along the productivity metric that even now, as earth systems pass tipping point after tipping point, leaders in these countries are still merely toying around the edges of food system transformation. Now, however, inertia on climate action is no longer an option. Globally, enough food is produced for 10 billion people. Productivity is not the problem that needs solving. Imagine if the institutions of the wealthy world shifted their collective design intention away from productivity and put themselves at the service of regenerating this vibrant natural world we all hold in our imaginations. Imagine shifting from design for productivity toward design for diversity.

Designing for diversity not only means designing for healthy ecosystems, (agricultural) biodiversity 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 uniformity we impose. Fortunately, such uniformity is not a natural pattern of this world. Such order requires huge energy to maintain. Civilisations have 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.

Designing for Complexity

Seen in this way, it is clear that diversity is being inadvertently designed out. Designing for productivity has meant designing for uniformity, wishing uncertainty away so fewer things can go wrong. It has meant scaling up systems of control 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. The global economy and our environment are both dominated by a small number of vastly scaled, efficient productivity machines that take power from most humans and all of the more-than-human world.

The idea of shifting our design intention toward the regeneration of a diverse world is not new. John Thackara 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 peasant and indigenous world views. Agroecology, or more specifically peasant agroecology, is a ‘way of life that treats the Earth with respect and understands that the intimate relationship that humans have with their local ecologies’. 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.

A big chunk of 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. A key 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.

People Powered Technology

Given the role that technology has played in enabling design for productivity, and given western culture’s 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 FarmBot develops robots for sustainable, precision agriculture sold in open source kits so the data, technology and power to repair are in the hands of the farmers. 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 exploit diverse ecosystems of actors as a mechanism to attain dominance. By enabling 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 industries – 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 in terms of global GDP. We are seeing the same pattern play out again at the level of tech platforms by a handful of companies that now have turnovers larger than the GDP of many 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 domination and control requires, among other things, investing in infrastructure designed with the specific objective to serve the transition to agroecology. Such service requires more than just clever tech green-washed as environmental. It requires power structures to be dismantled by design. It requires technology to be owned collectively, as in the platform cooperative movement. It means investing in collaborations that enable ecosystems of platforms to interoperate. It requires building trust between organisations. It takes a commons based approach to managing this data, with the collaborators building and creating the agreements. It takes a commitment to open source and an openness to public scrutiny. And it takes a myriad approaches yet unconceived to nurture diversity throughout human systems such that human systems can better align with more-than-human systems.

If it sounds difficult, that’s because it is. The ambition for control and order have been ingrained in the very fabric of much 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 humanity is stronger by collaborating, to let go of the need to predict and control outcomes. It takes self-compassion when falling back into old patterns and patience to see things we don’t understand. It is in no way easy. But these controlling systems that manifest in the outer world are mirrored in the inner world of so many of us raised in the industrial mentality. There is a lot to nurture if we are to ensure the vibrant, diverse world we imagined doesn’t fall further into the confines of our imaginary realms.


Teaser photo credit: By Photo by DAVID ILIFF, CC BY-SA 3.0,