Connected Seeds and Sensors: supporting sustainable food-growing in the city

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: Sch of Electronic Eng & Computer Science

Abstract

In this proposal we investigate the ways in which Internet of Things can support more sustainable food production and consumption in the city. Using participatory design methods, we will co-create, conduct, and evaluate our research with Spitalfields City Farm , an urban grassroots food-growing community. We will use connected sensors and tracking technologies to support the telling of stories of seeds and plants, as well as the people who grew them. Through the development of a smart seed-bank we will interrogate how the combination of smart sensors, data collection, and participatory co-design can help raise awareness, empower communities and increase participation in sustainable urban food practices.

A report of The World Health Organisation on urban agriculture found that the ways in which London's residents feed themselves are fundamentally socially, economically and environmentally unsustainable, and that the city of London requires the entire surface area of the UK in order to feed itself (Petts, 2001), which is certainly not sustainable. Sustainability here refers to the definition of the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

To further compound the problem of unsustainable food-practices in the city, proposed changes to EU legislation will make it more difficult for small-scale farmers to save and exchange seeds. The new laws favour distinct, uniform and stable varieties, and require an annual registration fee for each type of seed. Some such as the Soil Association argue that this will favour large corporate seed monopolies such as Monsanto, and will impact negatively on biodiversity.

Seed banks (also known as seed libraries) exist as a way to preserve genetic biodiversity, (Tanksley & McCouch, 1997) in the face of dwindling numbers of plant varieties sold by seed companies. They provide a resource to people wishing to grow their own food from seed, without having to rely on buying them. Despite relative affluence and food security, consumers in the West are described as living through an 'age of anxiety' provoked by a range of food scares and farming crises (Jackson, 2010). Seed banks provide a sense of security due to knowledge of provenance and reduced risk of disease, GM and chemical contamination. Gardeners can choose seed from plants that have adapted to local climates and micro-climates. Seeds are shared as part of the gift exchange (Mauss, 1954), therefore contributing to social, economical and personal well-being.

We will work with Spitalfields City Farm to identify how best to capture information about food-growing practices with a focus on seeds. Together with the farm community we will create an interactive seed-bank for connecting users to the stories of the seeds on the farm and across the web in simple, accessible, and intuitive ways. We will iteratively build, refine and evaluate the smart seed-bank prototype in collaboration with the farm, exposing the research solutions to the end-users at a number of workshops and seed-swap events. We will use qualitative and quantitative evaluation methods (including thematic analysis of interviews; statistical analysis of user and sensor data). We will disseminate our findings through a public exhibition, a toolkit, a short film, a panel discussion for the food and food-technology industry, and an academic workshop to seed the growth of a UK network of researchers interested in Internet of Things for sustainable urban food practices.

Planned Impact

Communal and individual food-growing is a rapidly growing phenomenon. The number of community gardens in England in 2010 was four times greater than in 2005. Allotment growing is thriving in Britain, with demand far outnumbering supply. Research into the Internet of Things for sustainability has thus far paid little attention to urban and small-scale agriculture, despite the fundamentally unsustainable food practices in urban centres such as London.

Our project seeks to increase the participation of both novice and more experienced gardeners in urban food growing, thereby helping UK cities to become more sustainable. It will provide opportunities for people to interact with other gardeners at a series of workshops and seed-swaps, where they will help to develop, test and refine a smart seed-bank prototype. During seed-swap days, the wider public who is interested in urban food-growing will have a chance to influence the development of the tool and share knowledge. The final tool is aimed to increase people's skills and knowledge about growing diverse crops in a UK climate. In turn this will help empower communities by connecting them to their heritage through stories around food. It will decrease their reliance on consuming shop-bought produce, and help contribute to a healthy diet of freshly grown local vegetables. Such practices also help reduce CO2 emissions by reducing the miles that food must travel from the site of production to the supermarket shelf.

The farm is located in the inner-London borough of Tower Hamlets, which is one of the most deprived economically in the UK. It has been characterised by high population density, large-scale immigration, ethnic diversity, and poverty and huge divides between rich and poor. Adults in Tower Hamlets are more likely to have diabetes compared to the rest of London and England. Gardening provides opportunities for people to get together and engage in gentle exercise in co-located space. It has been shown to contribute to mental and physical well-being, as well as increase a sense of community. Spitalfields farm, and other urban community gardens offer opportunities for people to recover from illness, overcome social isolation and improve their mental and physical health. Our research aims not to replace opportunities for face-to-face interaction, but to support the already existing work that the farm does to bring people together in shared gardening activities. By designing a connected seed bank that is accessible, intuitive and inclusive, our project has the potential to benefit a wider range of people than if we were designing a smart-phone app. The results from this research have potential to impact on information and communications technologies for diversity (of age, ability, language) as well as for rural regions (where people may not have access to mobile phone networks). We also believe the research will encourage inter-generational and inter-ethnic learning, providing opportunities for older participants, who may have greater experience and knowledge of food-growing, with younger participants who are keen to learn how to grow.

Part of our public engagement strategy includes producing a professionally curated high-quality art exhibition that will engage a broad audience with our research and raise awareness around food-growing and seed-saving, and the Internet of Things as a possible mechanism for empowering food-growing communities. As part of our strategy to impact on others wishing to get involved in urban agriculture, and build their own smart seed-bank, we will design and print a toolkit document. We have allocated resources to hire a professional film maker to make a film about the project. The film will help us disseminate the research to a wide audience by sharing it through online media, as well as showing it at the exhibition.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Connected Seeds Documentary Film 
Description Documentary film about the project, the local participants, the technology developed, and the impact of the project on local communities. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact @Ekotopfilm selecting documentary to screen at film festival 22nd - 26th May! Documentary will be screened at SEFF - Smaragdni Eco Film Festival 6 -11 June in Croatia @SmaragdniEcoFilmFest 
URL https://youtu.be/fp2m0LyLR7E
 
Title Connected Seeds Exhibition 
Description The Connected Seeds exhibition is currently on at Rich Mix Cultural Foundation in east London. Exhibition dates: 31st of January to the 12th February 2017. With the interactive Connected Seeds Library, photograph and text from fourteen Seed Guardians. The exhibition also contains the Connected Seeds documentary film, made by Donna Lipowitz. The exhibition also includes the interactive data visualisation of the sensor data. Copies of the Connected Seeds book are available to take for free. There is a seed swap in the exhibition. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Around 500 people visited the exhibition. Amongst them were members from the London Freedom Seed Bank, who were inspired by our project and went on to successfully apply for funding from Heritage Lottery Fund to do a youth project around seeds, including the creation of their own interactive seed bank. 
URL http://www.connectedseeds.org/connected-seeds-exhibition-rich-mix
 
Title Connected Seeds Library 
Description The Connected Seeds Library is an interactive artefact that lives at Spitalfields City Farm. Visitors to the library can hear the voices of guardians talking about their experiences of growing, and see pictures from their gardens. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact The seed library has been exhibited at Rich Mix Cultural Foundation for 2 weeks in February 2017. It has since been used by the farm in its public engagement and outreach. For example, it was entered into competition by the farm at Capel Manor agricultural festival in 2017. It was shown at Rich Mix Cultural Foundation at a family day in 2018. And it has been part of public events at the farm each year, for example at the International Fascination of Plants Day Celebration at the farm in May 2018. 
URL http://www.connectedseeds.org/about
 
Description This work contributes to an emerging body of work that seeks to involve citizens in the design of sustainable smart cities, particularly in the context of marginalised and culturally diverse urban communities.

A key finding of the project was the development of methods to co-design Internet of Things with urban agricultural communities. This led to identification of three ways in which design can participate in the right to the sustainable smart city through designing for commoning, care, and biocultural diversity.
Exploitation Route Within Human-Computer Interaction we are starting to see alternatives to the visions of top-down, managerial, efficiency-led sustainable smart cities. The research in this project could be used by others to increase citizens' participation, access, governance and bottom-up understandings of sustainability in smart cities.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description Engagement with minority culture groups in East London in seed saving and urban agriculture workshops
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Heritage Seed Library 
Organisation Garden Organic
Department Heritage Seed Library
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Collaborate with Heritage Seed Library on sharing knowledge about seed saving.
Collaborator Contribution Bring expertise on seed saving.
Impact Seed saving workshop with local East End community urban farmers in 2015.
Start Year 2016
 
Description Spitalfields City Farm 
Organisation Spitafields City Farm
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Share knowledge about seed growing and IoT sensor usage.
Collaborator Contribution Time and effort of volunteers at farm to help with workshops and brainstorming. Use of facilities for workshops. Use of farm as test bed for sensors.
Impact Too early.
Start Year 2015
 
Title Connected Seeds Internet of Things Software and Hardware designs 
Description Circuit design, sensor specifications, and code from the project are available to view and download on GitHub. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2016 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact Creation of a novel 10 node environmental sensing network in gardens in the East end of London. 
URL https://github.com/haddadi/cs-sensor-unit
 
Title Connected Seeds Library 
Description The Connected Seeds Library lives at Spitalfields City Farm in east London. A seed library works a bit like a regular book lending library. In order to borrow seeds from the library you will need to become a member. Members can take seeds home to grow, and are encouraged to return some of the seeds to the library at the end of the season, in order to maintain the stock of available seeds. The Connected Seeds Library is augmented with physical computing to tell stories of the seeds and their growing recorded by local community gardeners. 
Type Of Technology Physical Model/Kit 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact The Augmented Seed Library is now permanently hosted at Spitalfields City Farm and is available for members of the public to interact with. 
URL http://www.connectedseeds.org/visit
 
Title Connected Seeds online seed library 
Description The Connected Seeds Library is a community seed library that lives at Spitalfields City Farm in east London. Explore the website to find out about the seeds that are held in the library, as well as stories from the Seed Guardians who grew and donated them. The Connected Seeds Library was produced as part of a research project called Connected Seeds and Sensors, exploring how co-designing digital technologies with urban agricultural communities can support more sustainable food practices in the city. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Collects and shares the growing information from 14 community gardeners in the East End of London. 
URL http://www.connectedseeds.org/seed-library/info
 
Title Sensor Data Visualisations 
Description At the end of the growing season we hired a data visualisation company to make sense of, and visualise, the data we had collected over this period, in an engaging, interactive, easy-to-understand way. In addition to the quantifiable data produced from the sensors - represented by a graphical animation across a timeline - the visualisation also includes images and audio clips from the Seed Guardians. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Visualisations of growing data from 14 local gardeners in the East End of London. 
URL http://www.connectedseeds.org/data-visualisation/
 
Description A Celebration of Seeds Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact To celebrate the launch of the much anticipated interactive Connected Seeds Library we are hosting a day of events, food, films, and workshops.
The day offers opportunities for networking with experienced and novice growers around east London, stalls, free vegetarian lunch and exhibition tours. Come along to learn about seed-saving, seed sovereignty, and community growing spaces.
Combined with the Tower Hamlets Food Growing Network's Winter Gathering, this event is the culmination of an 18- month community research project based at Queen Mary University of London and Spitalfields City Farm exploring new technology to support urban agriculture in east London. The research produced a Connected Seeds Library, which is an interactive community resource that links the seeds within to the stories of the east London growers who grew and donated them. The library will be on display in the cafe gallery at Rich Mix, along with photographs and audio documenting the research process.
In the evening we will walk over to nearby Spitalfields City Farm for the book launch, herbal drinks and music.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.richmix.org.uk/events/spoken-word/celebration-seeds
 
Description Co-design event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Long-term participants in the research (seed guardians), as well members of the general public and farm community were invited to participate in a workshop in which we presented some initial design concepts for the Connected Seeds Library artefact. They could provide feedback and help improve the design.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Community garden visit 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We organised a visit to 2 community gardens that participated in the research, and involved around 10 people from different community gardens to vist the other gardens and discuss seed saving and food-growing
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Connected Seeds Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Through an interactive Connected Seed library, photographs and sound, this exhibition tells the stories of east London food-growers and seed-savers.
This exhibition is the culmination of Connected Seeds and Sensors, a research project exploring digital technologies to support more sustainable urban food practices.
The exhibition contains photographic prints, audio, and a playful seed library cabinet that visitors can interact with to learn about the stories of the people who grew and donated the seeds.
The exhibition is produced by Sara Heitlinger, artist and lead researcher on the Connected Seeds project. She has been working with volunteer Seed Guardians around east London, collecting stories, images and seeds for the Connected Seeds Library. Her interest lies in designing digital technologies for connecting and empowering communities, and in supporting more sustainable and healthy cities.
The Connected Seeds and Sensors research is based at Queen Mary University of London. The team consists of Sara Heitlinger, Hamed Haddadi, Nanda Khaorapapong and led by Nick Bryan-Kinns. It is funded by EPSRC.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.richmix.org.uk/events/exhibitions/connected-seeds-and-sensors-exhibition
 
Description Connected Seeds Library artefact at family day at Rich Mix 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Connected Seeds Library was taken to Rich Mix Cultural Foundation for a family day celebration, as part of Spitalfield City Farm's involvement.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Connected Seeds Library artefact presentated at the Women Environmental Network's Autumn Gathering 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Spitafields City Farm took part in the Winter Gathering, and brought the Connected Seeds Library along to present
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.wen.org.uk/blog/2017/10/wens-autumn-gathering
 
Description Connected Seeds website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The connected seeds website is the project website. It contains information about the project, the different seeds in the library and the people who grew them.

There were 4,345 new users reported as visitors to the website.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
URL http://connectedseeds.org
 
Description Design Research for Change [DR4C] Showcase at the London Design Festival [LDF] 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited exhibition of the project's Seed Library at the Design Research for Change Showcase 2019 at the London Design Festival, Old Truman Brewery, London from Thursday 19 to Sunday 22 September 2019.

Design Research for Change 2019 is a showcase of over 60 design-led projects that transcend disciplinary, methodological, geographical, and conceptual boundaries.
The projects illustrate wide- ranging social, cultural, and economic impact and highlight the signi cant roles that UK- based Design researchers play in some of the most complex and challenging issues we face both in the UK and globally and the positive outcomes that are being designed and developed.
The work showcased was developed by researchers and practitioners from a range of design disciplines including product, graphic, fashion, architecture, and textiles working with others in specialist areas such as healthcare, business, computing, engineering, and elsewhere. Many of the design research projects featured are based in one of the four Arts and Humanities Research Council's design-focused Centres for Doctoral Training, which are aimed at fostering the best design talent in organisations throughout the UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.designresearchforchange.co.uk/design-research-for-change-showcase-2019-at-london-design-...
 
Description Entry of research artefact into agriculture competition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The seed library artefact was entered into a competition for the category of education, by Spitalfields City Farm, at Capel Manor Harvest Festival.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.farmgarden.org.uk/london-harvest-festival-2017-taking-part
 
Description Initial presentation of the Seed Library 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We presented an unfinished version of the Connected Seeds Library artefact to Seed Guardians and members of the general public and farm community, at Spitalfields City Farm. People were invited to interact with the artefact and provide their feedback and opinions on it.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Presentation at workshop of Collaborative Economies: from Sharing to Caring. In Communities & Technology conference, 2017. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Connected Seeds work was presented by one of the researchers in a position paper called "Sharing and Caring within Community-based Sustainable Design" at this conference workshop
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://collaborativeeconomiesworkshop.wordpress.com/
 
Description Seed saving workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact We involved a seed-saving expert from our project partner, the Heritage Seed Library, to run a training workshop to interested members of the general public. The workshop took place at Spitalfields Farm. Participants shared knowledge and their experiences of growing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Seed saving workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Seed saving workshops at Spitalfields Farm brought together local community and international group of interested people to discuss seed saving practices.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Seed swap 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact We organised a seed swap event at Spitalfields Farm, where people could bring their own seeds and get some new seeds. We also discussed people's ideas, knowledge and skills for growing food from seed. We talked about some of the challenges and values of seed saving and growing from seed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Workshop on Community-based IoT 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact On Wednesday 1st of February, as part of the Connected Seeds project, we organised a workshop on Community-based Internet of Things and sustainable smart cities in east London. The workshop brought together researchers from diverse fields including computer science, informatics, anthropology, business IT, urban planning, new media, and Living Labs. Keynote speaker was Mara Balestrini, who presented a Contributive Approach to designing Community-based Internet of Things in the context of sustainable smart cities. The workshop was organised by Chris Speed (University of Edinburgh) and Sara Heitlinger (Queen Mary University of London).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.connectedseeds.org/workshop-community-based-iot