Britta Riley: A garden in my apartment

Britta Riley: A garden in my apartment
Image credits: Agriculture by Islam, need Flickr attributions
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"Interdependence is an extremely powerful social infrastructure that we can actually harness to heal some of our deepest civic issues, if we apply open source collaboration."  --Britta Riley in her May, 2011 TED talk

Britta is an artist and technologist from New York, and owns a company called Windowfarms.org. The company makes hydroponic platforms for growing food in city windows, designed with the help of more than 1,800 enthusiastic collaborators from all over the world.

Britta took her inspiration from NASA, which uses hydroponics to explore how to grow food in space. She reasoned that many apartment windows have less than stellar conditions for growing plants, especially in a Northern winter. Conditions in any particular window would limit what could grow there—but perhaps hydroponics could contribute to food security on earth.

NASA (or a large corporation) would be able to fund their own research and development (R&D) to solve the problem, but Britta took a more egalitarian approach.

"When we hand over all of our problems to specialists, we cause the kind of problem we see with the food system," she said.

Britta decided to open source the project. She published the design on the web and invited anyone from anywhere in the world to improve the system. With no intellectual property issues, it was open to co-developers. Collaboratively, they have developed a system that grows a salad a week in an apartment window and allows an individual to cut their carbon footprint nearly in half.

On a global scale, the project has taken on a life of its own. Enthusiasts in Finland are working to customize the system with LED grow lights--also developed collaboratively--so that they can continue their gardens during the long, dark winter. Other contributions include air pumps to replace water pumps and optimum nutrients for strawberries that result in fruit throughout a New York winter.

The company offers three well-tested sets of instructions, so that anyone in the world can build their own window garden for free. They will also sell products to those who don't have time to build one. But Britta says that the real reward from working with this company is the joy of collaboration.

Instead of R&D, she calls the process research and do-it-yourself (R&D-I-Y). She says, “It's time to ditch the term 'consumer' and get behind people doing stuff.”

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