One of the major ways to achieve the necessary scaling up is through considering how best to harness technological advances. There has been an exponential growth in technologies, and these are creating new ways of looking at urban food production. Many existing grass roots initiatives fail to use any of these technologies and are based on traditional farming techniques. While these are important, it is also necessary to be able to explore emerging technologies to better understand the diverse systems that could be used to produce food in urban environments.
In order to explain this more fully, it is necessary to introduce the idea of the Biosphere. In 1875, the Swiss geographer Edward Suess coined the word Biosphere to mean all of the parts of the earth in which life is found Living organisms are connected to the environment and seek opportunities to create life as part of a whole system made up of smaller ecosystems that are mutually supportive. The new discipline of Biospherology aims to learn more about biospheric processes and webs of relationships, in order to make systems such as food systems or cities, mimic the natural principles that are found in Gaia. Biospherology has radical potential to be able to answer the major ecological questions of our time by developing an integrated discipline that is connected to a range of different fields, including ecology, microbiology, engineering and social systems. This is a ‘new integrating scientific discipline’ that explores biotic cycles, which have varying levels of complexity and closure Biospherics has the potential to develop a scientific basis for being able to create a harmonious relationship between humanity, technology and nature, which could re-imagine food production in the 21st century.
Biospherology brings together an array of academic disciplines and applied researchers in order to connect the needs of humanity, technology, and nature. There have been a number of significant action-led research projects that have been developed in the attempt to understand how we integrate biospheric and technological methodologies in order to better understand how to create resilient adaptive environments. Importantly, these programme’s question how to evolve and stimulate such environments, aiming to construct sustainable life support systems. One of the major areas of focus of this approach is how to use artificial ecological systems to develop technologies to solve pollution problems in our urban areas and to develop high yield sustainable agriculture. This approach is very different to those currently seen in the development of sustainable cities and through existing local alternatives.
It is the intertwining of the Bios and the Technos, the hardware and software, the Biosphere and Technosphere that is of interest in this programme of investigation. When these two networks truly connect there is significant potential for new ideas and innovation that could transform the city into a neo-biological era, in which the natural and built environments adapt It is a whole system approach that brings together technological and ecological design to create a deeper ecology and moves far beyond the reductionist approaches that are implemented through monoculture systems, even through local alternatives. This programme of investigation has drawn upon a range of different schools of thought and disciplines to develop technologies in order to deliver a system that is diverse, multi-layered and based upon a closed-loop system.
The Need for Closed Loop Systems
A system is a set of parts and things collaborating within an interconnecting network – a complex whole. Within human and natural contexts, there are many different systems on a variety of scales. Examples would be the human brain or heart, forests, coral reefs, a city and the Biosphere itself. The Biosphere is the global sum of many ecosystems, including many developed by humans as well as natural systems. Systems that sit within each other, like the brain or heart in a human body, are smaller systems within larger systems and can be called nested systems. Regarding food production there has been some research, but there is a failure to connect sophisticated systems and closed loop processes with the potential necessary at local scales within a city context.
Existing models that aim for a localisation of food production and distribution can often fail to ensure connectivity between systems. For instance, the Kindling Trust has a farm in a rural location, which distributes its produce in a suburban shop where there is particular demand. When the distribution system is separated from the production system there is no opportunity for the waste from one system to be fed back in to close the loop. This is just one example, but many of the existing initiatives fail to recognise the importance of having a closed loop system.
When a network of technologies is created, the relationship between the networks may eradicate the production of waste – for instance the waste from one technology becomes a nutrient that supports the connecting network. This idea of relationships between technologies potentially reduces carbon emissions as it becomes intrinsic to the functioning of the whole system and not an externality of one particular system or network. The principle of a closed loop system is, therefore, useful for food production and distribution. It means that the system is connected, which means it is more circular and efficient and based on more natural systems. This means that there is less waste in the system and therefore provides principles that can guide ideal food production when developing local alternatives to the industrialised agricultural model.
There have been several innovations in developing closed loop systems that can be drawn upon. The approach taken by action-led research programme’s, such as Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) and Biosphere 2, are fundamentally investigating how to close loops between systems. They integrate natural design principles with human needs and ecological design. For local alternatives to be able to contribute towards systemic change, it is important to be able to consider the different ways in which this could be implemented within a city context, and in particular in areas of urban deprivation where the need is most acute.
Closed Ecological Systems
A life support system that approaches complete internal sustainability and which is biologically based is termed a closed ecological system. This means that it is essentially energetically open and materially closed, and recycles its major elements and nutrients. So, although energy may enter and leave the system, everything else remains within it by being recycled. Some examples of closed ecological systems are outlined below.
The Controlled Environmental Life Support System (CELSS)
Early laboratory experiments with biological regenerative systems were based on monocultures of unicellular organisms. They were not successful in that the systems used did not attain a stable, steady state and could not provide a significant portion of the human diet. They did, however, provide significant new knowledge that will be drawn upon throughout this programme of investigation in developing a whole system approach to urban farming (Olson et al, 1988).
NASA initiated the CELSS programme in 1978. There were three main aspects of this programme. At the Kennedy Space Center the ‘Breadboard’ provided a test bed for plant cultivation experiments in a closed ecological system. The Johnson Space Center focused on food processing and human diets in space, and the Ames Research Center was connected with basic research in system controls. These programmes included traditional agricultural crops, higher plants, as the core element in their bio-regenerative life support systems, although they were still, essentially, very simple systems because they included just a few species of plants and/or algae as their biological components. Systems such as these must be energetically open as entropy (see Glossary) is always increasing. So light needed for photosynthesis comes from outside of the system, and excess heat from the system needs to be removed to external heat sinks. Having said this, any energy that can be produced from within the system will reduce the need for energy to be supplied from external sources.
CELSS and other closed ecological systems contain essentially only one type of ecosystem – an agricultural one – for human life support. In this respect they differ from ‘biospheric systems’, which include a number of internal ecosystems. Biospheric systems are essentially materially closed, and energetically open, like a closed ecological life support system. However, their internal complexity provides additional buffering capacity for air and water regeneration, and increases the long-term prospects of a system resistant to catastrophic decline. It also enhances the ‘live-ability’ for its human inhabitants. These systems offer new opportunities for research into the complexity of ecological mechanisms operating in our Earth’s biosphere. Morowitz et al argue that closure is a concept that is frequently used in the physical sciences, yet receives little attention in ecology, so there is plenty of scope for development here. Examples of biospheric systems include the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, and the Japanese Closed Ecology Experimental Facilities (CEEF). Here the focus is on Biosphere 2.
Biosphere 2 was a £100 million project funded by Ed Bass, in which an artificial living system was created. Within it, there was ocean with coral reef, mangrove wetlands, tropical rainforest, savannah grassland, and fog desert in an area of 3.14 acres. The groundbreaking research ran for two years from 26th September 1991 to 26th September 1993. It was situated in Arizona, with eight people being sealed into the glass environment with over 3500 species. The people who lived in the system for the two years were called biospherains. They attempted to create the second closed system known to man, the first being the Biosphere itself. The Biosphere2 project was materially closed, while being energetically open like a closed ecological life support system. The internal complexity, however, provided additional buffering capacity for air and water regeneration.
This man-made closed system was not just biological it was also highly technological. A super-computer monitored everything that the system would do, ensuring that the biology was safe: the technosphere supported the biosphere. This reveals the significant potential for connections between the built and natural environment that are not being explored sufficiently through the existing local alternatives of food production in the UK.
The importance of Biosphere2 project in relation to sustainable urban futures cannot be underestimated. This research opens a gateway to understanding the development and dynamics of ecological systems in a true controlled environment. This is not fully possible within the natural environment as it is nearly impossible to understand all the elements that may affect the processes in order to be able to determine and isolate particular causal factors.
The research also enables greater understanding of the connection between living and artificial life and how that can be monitored, captured, analysed, and visualised, in order to gain a deeper understanding of interconnectivity. Ultimately, it can provide very useful tools for developing urban food systems. The ecotechnics who designed this system and the biospherains, who lived in the closed system, learnt many things about closed loop systems. What was most interesting, however, were their insights into what is needed to create a biosphere, called the ‘Principles of Biospherics’.
The Principles of Biospherics include three major points of learning that can be drawn upon:
- Microorganisms do most of the work
- Soil can be viewed as an organism which is alive and breathes
- Diversity increases gradually
This is highly interesting because in action-led agroforestry research, it has been found that the development of complex woodland and forest systems have very similar rules. These points also highlight the difference of such systems from monoculture food systems. In the latter, diversity is reduced and the soil becomes a redundant system. Therefore it seems completely viable to think about these processes when developing urban food systems, either on land based systems or within buildings, as a means to confront the challenges created through the industrialised model of agriculture and provide true innovation.
There is significant scope to apply these principles within an urban food production context to create a platform for developing original knowledge about how integrated systems thinking can enhance the development of sustainable technologies. This can address the question of how to achieve more sustainable communities in a local context, in a way that is far from being achieved through existing practices in the UK.