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Autonomous Food Networks across Shanghai, and Beyond

A future where our food is grown in our own homes, neighbourhoods and towns – with more care for our health, and that of our planet

Photo of Ali Murtaza
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Xavor Corporation

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large company (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Nachmansohn Consulting & Co.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.china.xavor.com – www.joachimnachmansohn.com

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Under 1 year

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Shanghai

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

China

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Shanghai

What country is your selected Place located in?

China

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

With a population of over 24.2 million, Shanghai is the most populous urban area in China, and the second most populous city proper in the world. It is a global center for finance, innovation, and transportation. 

As of 2018, Shanghai had a GDP of US$494 billion, and a GDP per capita of US$20,425.
six largest industries—retail, finance, IT, real estate, machine manufacturing, and automotive manufacturing—comprise about half the city's GDP. 

In 2018, the average annual disposable income of Shanghai's residents was US$9,695 per capita, making it one of the wealthiest cities in China, but also the most expensive city in mainland China to live in.  

Perhaps more surprisingly for people outside China, more than 25% of Shanghai's 6,341 square KMs is still rural land, with its second largest district, Chongming, having a population density of around 500/ square KM.

And while Shanghai retains some of its cultural similarities with Jiangsu province, which it was once a part of, mass migration from all across China and the rest of the world has made Shanghai a melting pot of different cultures

A combination of Shanghai’s vast population with relatively diverse demographics, immense technological and social development, and a projected population of 50 million by 2050 makes it the perfect place for us to develop our tech-powered food vision.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

6340

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

24000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Environment

Food production is one of the biggest sources of the environmental degradation of our planet. Besides direct effects like carbon emissions and usage of natural resources, the very enterprise of food-production entails interference in natural ecosystems. When practiced at scales that aim to efficiently feed the world’s ever-increasing population, dangers such as soil and groundwater pollution, lowering of biodiversity, worsening air quality and shortage of clean water become serious threats to our collective futures.

Moreover, with the world’s population set to rise to 10 billion by 2050, of which 68% will be living in urban areas, the distance between where our food grows and where it is consumed is set to grow beyond sustainable levels, unless we rethink the whole system.


Diets

Over the past two decades, China's prevailing diet has shifted away from grains like rice and wheat, in favor of richer animal proteins and a wider variety of exotic vegetables. Vegetable based diets are significantly more resource-intensive than grain based diets, with greater resource usage, more acute post-harvest management, and complex, time-sensitive logistics. With China’s natural arable land already suffering from low productivity, this change in diets has already become unsustainable for China.


Economics

One of the ways China has sought to deal with these changes in diet is to lease farms in North and South America, Australia, and Africa. 

However, while this move will take some of the strain away from China, it could have catastrophic effects on the global food supply. Most of the biggest population spikes expected by 2050 will be in developing regions in South America and Africa. Over the next 30 years, this is set to put immense pressure on regions of the world that were already projected to struggle with managing their increased food supply needs.


Technology

With some of the smallest average land holdings in the world, China’s farmers have historically struggled to incorporate modern technology into their practices. Apart from affecting productivity, this also adversely affects the quality and safety of produce.

For instance, a recent study found that agricultural chemicals are often used inefficiently on small farms in China, leading to financial losses and serious local, regional and global pollution, ranging from eutrophication to particle pollution in the air and global warming.


Policy

The Chinese government has started making policy changes to address problems associated with smaller land sizes. Since 2014 they have been promoting “appropriate sized” family farms of about 13 hectares.

New laws have also eased the ability of companies to acquire larger areas of land. But this change also has the potential to seriously unsettle China’s vast rural population, almost half of which works on small farms.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

OVERVIEW OF THE VISION:


2020 – Prototyping
With a team consisting of experts in fertilizer, soil & water management, technological innovation, design, embedded systems, and artificial intelligence, we have been working on building the first personal Autonomous Food Units for the last six months. Our physical unit is at the functional prototyping stage, allowing us to train our AI alongside. Our current prototype autonomously sends information about the plant’s progress, collected from various sensors and a camera, to our AI system.


2023 – First Units in Homes

As illustrated in the image titled “Autonomous Food Networks – the Timeline”, we envision that our first personal Autonomous Food Units (AFUs) will make their way into apartments in Shanghai by 2023. 

Each unit will be fully autonomous, using smart grow lights, highly precise demand-driven fertilization, and our trademark system that allows optimal spoon feeding of the crop. All these functions and more will be managed by an artificially intelligent system that curates the unit’s functions to each type of plant growing in it.


2025 – Connecting with Neighbours

Once a few people in the same neighbourhood start using personal AFUs to grow different herbs and vegetables of their choice, they connect with each other so form the first Autonomous Food Networks (AFNs).

They learn from each other, exchange and buy produce, and start building their diets and personal food systems around these networks.


2030 – Community Food Networks

As individual units become more efficient, with more control over their environment, and more options of foods to grow, the increased efficiency and variety allows new and old businesses to become part of the local networks. New organic restaurants open in the neighbourhood, growing their own produce on larger AFUs, buying from home users, and getting better at what to grow, cook and serve to their communities. 


2035 – Food Networks Across Towns

Once various communities in different parts of Shanghai have their own localized Autonomous Food Networks more deeply entrenched in their larger food systems, they start forming connections with each other – buying, selling, exchanging produce, sharing ideas, building larger communities around food, nutrition and environmental responsibility.


2040 Onwards – Shanghai as an Autonomous Food Network

We envision that once a few of the 106 towns around Shanghai form their own Autonomous Food Networks, that effect will organically grow across the whole city, forever changing the landscape of Shanghai’s food systems.


THE INTERCONNECTED THEMES


Environment

With China’s urban population set to grow by 255 million in the next 30 years, the adverse effects of mass food-production, such as high carbon emissions, lowering biodiversity and worsening air quality will continue to multiply unless it can dramatically reduce the distance between the production and consumption of its food.

Shanghai is already the center of China’s drive to clean up its food production, with projects like the 100-hectare vertical farm known as the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District already underway. 

Our vision is to bring the benefits of a localized food production ecosystem into people’s houses and neighbourhoods. We see our individual Autonomous Food Units, and the larger networks they will form, as an even more environmentally friendly way of feeding Shanghai’s population in 2050, which is projected to reach 50 million by then. Moreover, since our units’ spread across the city will largely depend on its ability to use artificial intelligence to manage resources across the Autonomous Food Network, its use of resources will keep getting more efficient as it spreads.


Diets

In light of the strain China’s move away from its traditional diets has caused its food supply systems, we envision a future where larger food systems will be able to autonomously adapt to the needs and choices of individuals, their families and their communities.

Individuals with no particular interest in or knowledge of farming will be able to grow what they want to eat, with all the work being done by our system’s various technologies, including: automated demand-driven fertilization, environmental and nutritional sensors, and the ability to connect with and learn from other systems on the larger Autonomous Food Network. 

This will mean that more people will have access to more varieties of food that is free of pesticides and additives, more nutritious and more sustainable.


Economics

Our vision is for the personal Autonomous Food Unit to form the individual building block of a city-wide food network incorporating not just other autonomous systems, but traditional food businesses, and all kinds of food growers. 

We envision that soon after the first individual systems make their way into apartments in Shanghai, users in close geographical vicinity will start trading seeds, produce and resources, in barter as well as monetary exchanges. Once local systems develop around these, they will form the basis of similar cross-neighbourhood networks, and so on. Once these networks start spreading across the city, they will become a major driver of Shanghai’s food economics, moving them from a much more centralized arrangement to a very democratic system.

Outside the immediate participants of the Autonomous Food Network, traditional farmers will experience far less strain on their small farms, while also benefiting from the cross-pollination of ideas that will need to happen for the network to grow.


Technology

Our first Autonomous Food Units use our trademark food production methods, based on Marcus Wallenberg Prize winning research, that enable spoon-feeding of crops. This method ensures no nutrient leftovers, while also minimizing the per unit resource input for healthy crop production. The efficient nutrient usage allows the system to not contribute to soil pollution and waste management problems.

Our system also allows maximum efficiency of water usage, which is predicted to be a major problem in China’s future food production. The system’s carbon efficiency is further improved by its ability to turn all the resources poured into the system into biomass – essentially ensuring zero waste.

We envision that these technology-enabled abilities of our first units will build up at exponential rates, since our units will not only be advancing with outside advancements in technology, but also constantly be learning from how users use them, and the networks they create and influence. 


Culture

We believe that as our vision for Shanghai’s food network pans out, there will be a sea change in the way residents think of their relationship with food, and the city at large. Individual urban residents, who are currently disconnected from where food comes from, and how, will be the ones growing it. They will also be active participants in the food economics of the whole city, and by extension of China as a whole. 

As average urban individuals become integral parts of some of the most complex food systems in the world, the responsibility each of us bears towards our surroundings, and the planet at large will become more deeply embedded in the population’s collective consciousness. 


Policy

By bringing the power of food production into the hands of individual citizens, our system will help ease a number of problems in their food system and its future that the Chinese government has been concerned about. We believe that this will encourage them to support our vision by offering incentives to individuals, neighbourhoods and towns for using our system. 

The ongoing success of the recent garbage disposal laws implemented in Shanghai can be a blueprint for how policy-level support from the government can lead to positive behavior change by individuals, benefitting them as well as the communities they’re part of.

Moreover, as the AFNs spread across larger regions, and more Chinese citizens start eating food grown closer to them, China will be able to drastically reduce its food imports, which currently make up 6.7 percent of its total merchandise imports. Reducing need for food imports, and less stress on China’s own agricultural land may also encourage it to halt its policy of leasing and buying arable land in the developing world – a policy change that could have positive socio-economic as well as health impacts around the world.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website

4 comments

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Spam
Photo of Zsofia Pasztor
Team

Hi, we are developing food growing systems that can be installed as parts of kitchen cabinetry. Maybe we can connect and help each other.

Spam
Photo of Gene Yllanes
Team

]Hi there! This is similar to our submission for Free.Tree,
https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/evaluation-1/free-tree

Although our vision is more focused on development of an open-source database for learned growing, perhaps we can collaborate, as both our visions entail an indoor solution!

The best way to contact me is email at geneyllanes@gmail.com

Thank you again for your contribution and I hope to hear back from you!

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