The OpenAg Future

The OpenAg Future make consumer's home an active role in the food system; it's a kitchen suite that empowers independent farmers and consumers to build a robust food chain.

14 week individual project

Role: Future-casting, User research, UX+ID design

As the environment struggles to withstand climate impact and modern farming, technologies such as genome engineering have come into play to shape the future of food and agriculture.

This project explores two possible futures of food: the current trajectory where industrialized practices dominate our food supply chain and industry innovations versus another alternative where the food system is composed of a network of independent organic farmers, with the support of infrastructure in the digital age.

The project was inspired by the OpenAg Initiatives.

An IoT Kitchen Suite that engages consumers in food production and distribution.

Growing personalized crops

Grow crops that tailor to consumer’s nutritional/medical needs, based on one’s bio-data.

Connecting with local farmer network

Directly connect food demand with a network of independent local farmers who are certified with organic practices.

Tracing food source information

Build trust through providing access to food source information.

Design Challenge

"What is farm to table like in 2025?" – A Project to Reimagine our Future Food System

Noticing the blooming technologies that are shaping the dynamics of food and agriculture, I wanted to use my design toolkits to forecast two futures:

1)  If we follow the current trajectory, what is the food going to be like in 2025?

2) If we don't like the future we're heading now, is there an alternative solution?

Research  Methods

To understand the current trajectory of our food system, I researched four critical factors: climate, biotechnology, farmers, and consumers, with field studies specific to the Central Valley in California. The Central Valley is one of the most agriculturally rich regions in the US and one of the most productive in the world.

_Field studies: Independent organic farmers in the Central Valley

_Expert interview: Climate scientist (JPL), neurobiologist (Caltech)

_User interview (using generative tools): 5 consumers with different         

                                                                    dietary needs

_Secondary: Biotechnology, AgTech, climate impact in the Central Valley

Field research at an organic farm

Affinity map of primary research

 Research Context

The Food System

What we are going to eat in the future is at stake.

By 2050, as the world's population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion, food production will have to increase by 50% (UN). To meet this increasing food demand, we must build a food system that is robust to climate variability and minimizes harm to the environment.

Currently, there are three major roadblocks:

Climate Challenge

Climate impacts such as extreme weather events and warming temperatures have contributed to the loss of crop yields and the loss of arable land.

Industrialized Farming

Industrial farming took off in the 60's and has dramatically increased yield, using monoculture planting and synthesized fertilizers. However, this intensive method came at a price: a decline in food variety and nutritional value, and the degradation of land.

Food Logistics

To accommodate the global supply chain, food is engineered and processed to have a longer shelf life. For example, grapes may have traveled 2,100 miles to get to your plate. This entire distribution journey requires ‘cold chain’ storage and the carbon footprint of this is massive.

Emerging AgTechs

AgTech is alleviating this challenge, but these tools mostly benefit a few large corporations.

Advanced technologies continue to transform the traditional food industry, ranging from biotechnology to AI and robotics. However, these innovations mainly belong to major biotech/infotech giants. This proprietary approach is limited as it makes the necessary transition slow and incompatible between companies. 

Gene-editing:

Climate Resistant Seeds 

PrecisionAg

Vertical Farming

Transparency + Connectivity: Sensing Technologies + Blockchain

key players: Benson Hill Biosystems, Corteva (division of DowDuPont), Yield10 Bioscience

Key technologies: Gene-editing: CRISPR

key players: Farmobile, JohnDeere, Cibo, Microsoft, AgEagle

Key technologies: Sensor technologies, IoT, Machine learning

Key players: Aerofarms, Gotham Green, infarm

Key technologies: Aeroponics/hydroponic, IoT, sensors

Key players: IBM Food Trust, WWF x BCG, Walmart

Key technologies: sensor technologies, blockchain

Photo: IBM

Photo: MIT Tech Review

Photo: Microsoft

Photo: Aerofarm

Future-proofing

1. What if food is sufficient, healthy & nutritious, and sustainably produced?

2. What if food innovations can benefit the majority of farmers?

Research Synthesis 

Current Pain Points

The lack of time, distribution network, and technology make independent organic farming hard to sustain.

The severity of climate impact on agriculture is vague for consumers.

We are on the cusp of crossing the climate threshold. A variety of climate-sensitive crops won’t be able to grow anymore, such as peaches. Since a majority of consumers live in urban areas, climate impact on agriculture is hard to grasp.

The struggle of independent organic farmers.

Organic farming is labor-intensive. With limited time and capital, farmers struggle to produce and distribute crops to the market efficiently. As environmental challenges intensify, some farmers are giving up organic practices for industrialized solutions to increase yield.

Consumers are losing faith.

Unlike our ancestors, most people don’t grow their own food. As this disconnection deepens, and mixed information becomes more widespread, consumer distrust of the food industry grows.

“Climate change is definitely real, but luckily I don’t think it’s impacting our lives yet.”

– Alissa L.(consumer, vegetarian, waitress)

“Farming is a full time job already. It’s difficult to find the market ourselves and sell these (avocado and citrus) to people.”

– Alana K. (organic avocado farmer)

“You simply can’t trust the food we’re getting now. You don’t know what kind of chemicals or processing methods they use.”

– Jen W. (consumer, mom)

“We are pretty much at our climate threshold. This past year, we almost ran out of surface water and had to shut down agriculture.”

– Josh F. (climate scientist at JPL)

Opportunity

The Open Source Movement Could Transform the Larger Food System.

Emerging organizations, such as FarmOS and OpenAg, are providing open-source access to farming innovations. However, these resources currently focus on specific purposes or communities; including STEM education, research, farmers, and hobbyists. There is a great opportunity to use an open platform to transform the larger food system; from sharing farming resources to forming a food distribution network. 

OpenAg Personal Food Computer for education.

Source: OpenAg

Concept Development

Focusing on Consumer User Experience: A New Food Network of Getting and Growing Food From Home.

Based on the research learning, I defined three critical criteria for achieving this preferable food system:

1)   Engaging consumers to be part of the food system  2)  Empowering independent organic farmers

3)  Building trust through transparency

 

After three rounds of ideations, I decided to focus on the consumer’s experience at home, since it created a great potential to engage the masses and made this topic relevant to consumers.

Prototyping

Learning The Potential of Controlled-Environment Farming by Building a Food Computer

To understand the potential of indoor farming, I prototyped a Food Computer, using resources from the OpenAg forum. A Food Computer is a controlled-environment (CE) growing chamber. This process helped me understand how data could be collected to better inform both the consumer and agricultural system.

Four design criteria were determined:

1) Size modularity and scalability

2) Unobtrusively fits in the home environment

3) Ease of use for the consumer with little or no experience

4) Connects with a standardized open platform

Low-fi Sketches

Exploring options to communicate key user flows.

Mid-fi Iteration

I created a set of tap through prototypes and scenario boards to show this new experience of growing and getting food at home. The prototype was tested with both initial participants and new users. I received positive feedback for the overall concept.

Key iteration:

Task Flow

Before designing the hi-fi prototype, I cleaned up the flow of the whole experience, based on the learning from previous iterations.

User Flow

Design

The OpenAg Future

The OpenAg Future is an alternative proposal for our food system. Using an open-source platform, consumers can grow high-value, personalized crops, and source food directly from their local farmers, without relying on an industrialized food supply chain.

Key Strategies

01  A Collaborative Growing System: Open-Field Organic Farming + OpenAg Urban Farming

OpenAg Urban Farming in 2025 

In 2025, as solar energy and composting energy becomes prevalent, OpenAg urban farming expands exponentially. Lots of obsolete indoor spaces, such as parking lots or retail stores, are converted into controlled-environment farms to grow climate-impacted, ancient, or high-value crops.

The collected crop data has been invaluable for the extensive agriculture system. Scientists have been using this dataset to develop new crop models and farming strategies. Flavorful and nutritious food is back on the dinner table.

Personalized OpenAg Indoor Farming at Home.

Using the OpenAg Grow tool, consumers can easily customize food computers to fit in their kitchen. Some people use their bio-data to search or personalize seeds that tailor to their nutritional/medical needs, while some are just enjoying the novelty of growing exotic heirloom crops.

​The components of this modular CE farming system are based on the learnings from OpenAgTM Personal Food Computer.

OpenAg Grow: Home indoor farming tool

02   Farmers as Brand:

A Real-Time and Local-Focused Food Distribution Network.

In 2025, using IoT and sensing technologies, most kitchens are now connected to the OpenAg platform to manage food inventory. The platform allows a highly connected food network to form by monitoring crop availability and consumer needs. The food supply is distributed in real-time.

Any certified organic farmers, both open-field and CE farming, can easily register on the platform and join the supply source. As the OpenAg system learns from this ecosystem over time, the platform starts to give useful suggestions for the food chain, such as planting options and dietary management.​

With the diversified supply network, this new food supply chain has become more robust and adaptive to climate variability.

OpenAg Food: Food logistics service

Food managing hub

03  Rebuild Trust:

Striking a Balance Among Transparency, Proprietary, and Privacy.

To ensure best practices, stakeholders from food supply to distribution channels are integrated with the OpenAg Platform to map out the flow of the food product and transfer the information from each step. Consumers use the OpenAg Food app to understand along their food's journey, such as the origin, nutritional value, and the environmental impact.

The OpenAg system provides a standardized platform to house and manage these agri-food datasets. The datasets are anonymized and used to optimize the agri-food chain.

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All works © 2019 by Shu Ou