Digital biodiverse agriculture: exploring contraditions and synergies

Biontensive cultivation through intercropping, often of heavy and light feeder crops

“Digitization… what?” Often this is the first reaction of farmers who practice regenerative or biodiverse farming when asked whether they use digital technologies on their farm. GPS-controlled tractors, drones, or the Internet of Things are rarely a lived reality. For others the question may arise in daily work how certain tasks could be simplified.

This subproject explores the possibilities and limits of digitization in small and medium-sized regenerative / biodiverse farming. It poses whether digital technologies with its premise of standardization and automation are fundamentally opposed to biodiverse farming approaches. Are digital technologies fundamentally useless because standardization and automation are not compatible with biodiverse approaches, and if so, how? Which digital technologies and tools already exist for small-scale and/or biodiverse farming, and which ones are still in need of development? Isn’t the cell phone in the farming field also a digital tool? And what about the ownership, protection and monitoring of data collected from these forms of agriculture?

Together with Dr. Sarah Hackfort and her research team at the Department of Agricultural and Food Policy at Humboldt University, and in relation to our Canadian sister project “Diversity by Design,” we explore these questions through an online survey, and a participatory workshop with farmers, and representatives from technology development, design, and policy. Among others, the aim is to develop policy recommendations to strengthen smallholder farms and their specific needs.

Impressions of the workshop “Biodiverse agriculture and digitalization – between contradictions and synergies”

 On October 14, 2023, we came together in the beautiful spaxes of ZIRKA, the Center for Interdisciplinary Spatial and Cultural Work, in Munich for a participatory workshop with practitioners from agriculture and gardening across Germany. The focus of the participatory design workshop was on whether, how and which synergies and contradictions exist between biodiverse agriculture and digitalization for small/medium-scale, regenerative and (agro)organic farms.

The 12 participants were invited to approach this topic by formulating visions of the future of agriculture and by using the speculative design approach. In order to better define the areas of work, as workshop team we expanded upon the graphic by Prause and Egger (2023) as a guide, and a selection of working areas formed the basis of the small group work (administration, direct marketing, knowledge transfer and everyday topics; Fig. 1.).[1]

In the first round, the four groups started off by create a mind map to reflect on what solutions are needed for sustainable agriculture. In the second step, the mind map was expanded to include the role of digitalization as part of possible solutions. This was an important sequence, as problems were defined first, and only then the role of digital technologies, which were understood as possible part of the solutions (Fig. 2.).

 

 

 

The next task was then more practical: based on their mind maps, the small groups were asked to specify what innovation would be needed in their specific farm work in 2035 to subsequently design it in a speculative way. Speculative design is a participatory method in which design is understood not (only) as a classically designed solution but as a critique of current realities of life. Here, ‘innovation’ becomes a provocation, and design functions not so much for production but for social debate.[2] In this practical activity, workshop participants therefore designed innovations that also functioned as a critique of prevailing knowledge, administrative, work and social structures in contemporary agriculture.

For example, one group that dealt with administration developed a so-called ‘data pool’ that would be owned by farmers and thus included not only agricultural data but also the very data infrastructure (Fig. 3.). Another group (on direct marketing) envisioned a rural community in which local politicians bear greater responsibility for providing public spaces for direct marketing, and with it, more opportunities for networking and consumer education (Fig. 4.).

 

 

 

 

Consumer education was also the focus of the third group on knowledge transfer, whose participants here saw an important role for digital information and communication technologies (Fig. 5.). The last group (daily themes and issues) was then dedicated to digital technologies for small-scale agroforestry systems, analysis and automation (e.g., drones), in which, crucially, humans always remain at the center as developers and controllers (Fig. 6.).

 

The workshop was a great success that was in large part due to the active engagement of the participants (and the sufficient amount of good food!), and we thank everyone for their time! We take away important insights for another workshop in Northern Germany soon, and look forward to presenting the analyzed data soon.

[1] Prause, L. und A. Egger (2023). “Digitalisation for a socio-ecological transformation in Agriculture.” In Jankowski, P., Höfner, A., Hoffmann, M. L., Rohde, F., Rehak, R. & Graf, J. (Eds.). Shaping Digital Transformation for a Sustainable Society. Contributions from Bits & Bäume, 104-109. Along their technology criteria we defined 1) planning, 2) administration, 3) direct marketing, 4) consultancy/recommendatioins for farming praxis, 5) daily themes and issues, 6) excessive production, and 7) knowledge dissemination.

[2] Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming (2013, MIT Press); Carl DiSalvo Design as democratic inquiry: putting experimental civics into practice (2022, MIT Press).

 

Project leader(s):
Dr. Mascha Gugganig

Funding institution:
DFG