Agritecture Has Become A Global Phenomenon: An Interview With Henry Gordon-Smith

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The Energy Bit recently interviewed Agritecture’s Managing Director, Henry Gordon-Smith.

Henry Gordon-Smith is the Founder and Managing Director of Agritecture – a well-known figure in the modern Agricultural World. He took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us – Thanks Henry! I think that this is a super interesting subject that affects everyone and as such, is well worth a read. Do remember to also have a read of our other interviews, as well as pop over to the Agritecture site for more interesting info!

What’s your story? How did you get to where you are today?

I have always been fascinated by cities and their potential to inspire and lead societies. During my undergraduate degree, I began designing concepts of cities that integrated more agriculture into buildings and spaces. I very quickly learned that for my concepts to ever become real, I needed to learn a lot more about agriculture and architecture. So, I started a blog called “agritecture” where I shared the knowledge I was learning with the world. Along that journey, I started getting consulting requests to advise on urban farm design and launched our consulting practice. Now, we have an interdisciplinary team that has consulted on over 100 projects in more than 20 countries! 

What was the original idea behind Agritecture? Did something change along the way?

Agritecture originally started out as a blog that aimed to discover and share new forms of urban agriculture with the world. The hope was to inspire a new generation of “agritects” that could follow and expand on these concepts. After some time of continuous research and posting, a significant group of agriculture entrepreneurs and enthusiasts emerged. Following consistent inquiries and curiosities from different parties, the idea for Agritecture the company was formed.

Could you briefly explain the Agritecture business model?

Agritecture is a data-driven, technology-agnostic consulting business designed to accelerate the work of urban agriculture entrepreneurs. We provide feasibility studies, economic models, and farm designs for entrepreneurs and clients.

What is the most challenging aspect of integrating agriculture into urban areas?

A problem across the board for farmers is difficulty in finding access to land in urban regions. As one can guess, urban areas were not built while keeping in mind agricultural practices. Finding land that can be converted or can accommodate a greenhouse or vertical farm is complicated and frustrating for many people. Likewise, agriculture is not a high priority for most third parties; competing interests and values often overshadow those of an urban farmer.

When you start a new project, how do you determine which concept to use?

We begin each project by talking in great depth with the client. There are dozens of routes we can take in terms of concepts, but they all depend on the client. We take time to understand their goals, their previous exposure to agriculture, and the feasibility of their vision. From there, we go through an iterative process to find the appropriate concepts, technologies, and solutions for the project.

What is the most popular concept at the moment?

Because urban agriculture is developing rapidly as a field, there are a lot of different concepts that are rising in popularity. Vertical farming is certainly one, as many people are drawn to the innovative, high-tech aspects of it. It has spread quickly and now companies around the world have implemented vertical farming concepts into their operations. Also, rooftop farms in residential areas, known as “agmenities” have become popular among landlords and residents. Urban farms come in different forms, and many of them are gaining traction globally.

Which comes first – practicality or aesthetics? How do you balance these?

When it comes to implementing systems for urban growing, practicality will always be the starting point. The unique thing about this industry, however, is that even the practical solutions still have an element of aesthetics that come with them. Vertical farms, greenhouse, aquaponic systems, and community gardens can all fit different needs, but they also showcase the aesthetics of its technologies and growing processes.

How is your community? What are your preferred platforms? Are any parts of the community involved in the development?

Agritecture has built a strong digital community and works with many organizations and companies that focus on urban agriculture and food systems. Our social media (Instagram), blog, and podcast are just some examples of how we connect with others. We frequently communicate and collaborate with these communities and companies in order to better understand their needs and how we can continue developing in a way that’s beneficial for different areas. In many cases, food is intricately connected to urban inequalities, such as race, and Agritecture ensures that community listenings are held to address these issues and incorporate them into its solutions.

How widely is Agritecture used at this moment? Where do you see the most growth happening?

Agritecture really has become a global phenomenon. We have 90,000 followers around the world, have done over 100 consultations, in 44 cities and 26 countries. Growth is happening everywhere, but we also acknowledge that every city and region needs something different. There is no one size fits all solution; adaptation and scalability is key in facilitating this growth and ensuring that it is sustainable.

Which technology development do you see as the most important for Agritecture? Do you see AI and machine learning taking any part?

Of all the types of Agritecture, indoor commercial farms will see the greatest growth as a business. Those types of farms will require automation and the use of decentralized energy to advance forward. Yes, AI will become valuable in that process, and already is in farms like Plenty, AeroFarms, and Bowery. All of these farms are using a combination of agricultural science, data science, and robotics to optimize plant growth regardless of outdoor weather conditions.

How much of an impact can Agritecture have on urban areas air quality?

Through photosynthesis, plants consume carbon and release oxygen. Some plants, however, consume carbon on a much greater scale than others. Plants grown for agricultural purposes are typically not those that absorb excess carbon; if the goal is to clean the air, then focus would need to shift towards non-edible plants. However, while agricultural crops may not have a sizable effect on air quality, those farms do have the ability to reduce heat island effect and also serve as a local food source.

Can Agritecture be implemented into existing buildings as well? If so, where are you working on these?

One of the concepts within Agritecture that are continuously being developed and worked on is scalability. While many projects may have the flexibility to start from scratch, many others work around pre-existing structures. Scalability is essential in these cases. Finding different ways to integrate and scale systems into buildings is one of the challenges that companies are finding unique solutions to.

Which country or city is at the forefront of this implementation at the moment?

There are a lot of countries that are tackling this, but some of the ones that stand out are New York (Sky Vegetables in the Bronx), Brussels (BIGH in synergized with the building), and Paris (circular economy systems in many companies).

Can you give a brief explanation about the maintenance procedure? Are there any complications?

Every farm is hard to navigate in terms of what to expect. Farms and locations are all different and frequently have to deal with issues such as pests, food safety, and technological difficulties. The one large issues across all farms, however, seems to be the fact that labor continues to be the highest cost.  

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