CIIC, 3 March 2018, Auckland


The workshop started with a brief introduction of the Open Space concept, followed by an overview of the submitted problem statements. It was great to see a growing number of regular participants as well as a growing number of students and researchers from AUT and beyond attend.


Participants agreed on consolidating the problem statements into three topics, and on sequential treatment of these topics, as everyone indicated an interest in all topics.

  1. The externalities of intensive industrialised agriculture, and the roles of nutrition and urban agriculture in relation to human physical and mental health.
    – Jorn Bettin, Pete Rive
  2. The opportunities and limitations of vertical farming and lab based agriculture, including the specific question of how we might improve the electrical efficiency of aquaponics and vertical farming systems.
    – Ira Munn, Jorn Bettin
  3. How can New Zealand agriculture move from unbranded commodity food production to high value products that meet consumers’ requirements for high quality ethical food products?
    – Nic Lees

Nic Lees (Director of Lincoln University’s Agribusiness and Food Marketing programme) outlined the significant role of food exports within the New Zealand economy.


We had a great combination of first-hand agriculture domain expertise in the room, including Nic Lees, with his experience in food marketing, Amy Newkirk, with farming experience in her immediate family, and Tobias Heeringa, who is a former Colab student on the verge of starting or joining an aquaponics venture.

Externalities of agriculture and the role of nutrition

In order not to get side-tracked by the details of specific externalities, we decided to identify relevant values that relate to health and to agricultural production and food. The discussion yielded the following values.


Values that are accessible at least to the privileged members of society:

  1. Longevity and physical health
  2. Low cost food
  3. Food safety
  4. Convenience
  5. Culinary pleasure and diversity
  6. Individually optimised diets
  7. Vitality and freshness of food

Values that suffer as a result of current practices:

  1. Happiness and mental health
  2. Non-human health in the broadest sense
  3. Biodiversity
  4. Knowledge about food production and preparation
  5. Democratic production
  6. Ethical considerations, transparency, and fairness
  7. Communal rituals


The potential of urban agriculture

Jorn started the discussion by outlining the potential of urban agriculture to displace a sizeable part of current production and also to disrupt food distribution systems and logistic processes.

The results of the extended discussion is captured in the following two diagrams.




Many thanks again to Amy for producing these great maps of the flow of our discussion!


Electrical efficiency of aquaponics systems

In the afternoon Ira Munn demonstrated a prototype device that seems to have the potential to increase the electrical efficiency of LED lights, and thereby to reduce the energy costs of aquaponics systems, vertical farming systems, and related emerging production techniques.


The luminous efficiency of white LED lights currently is around 20%, whereas the theoretical limit is 44%. This means that theoretically the efficiency of current LEDs can still be improved by a factor of 2 via better voltage transformation and current stabilisation technology.

We did not have the time to explore aquaponics and vertical farming systems in detail, and have earmarked this topic for in-depth discussion in a future workshop.


Towards self-sustainable population centres

We briefly touched on different connotations associated with the term sustainability.

  1. Ecological / environmental sustainability
  2. Social / cultural sustainability
  3. Economic sustainability

Whilst the term sustainability has its origin in biology and ecology, over the last 15 years it has also been appropriated by social scientists and economists. This recent development can be seen as a counter-movement to the grass roots ecological movements in the second half of the last century. Specifically the broadened definition provides a vehicle for dismissing ecological sustainability as “too expensive” and potential cultural changes as “too disruptive” when convenient.

Jorn explained an interesting definition of a city that focuses on sustainability:

A city is an area with a very high density of human population that is not self-sustainable in terms of resource and energy needs and in terms of waste recycling.


This definition can be used to conduct a thought experiment that relates to the potential of urban agriculture:

Given current technological capabilities, what is the minimum area required [around Auckland] to sustain a population of the size of Auckland?

The answer to this question depends on many factors:

  1. The specific local geography
  2. The local climate
  3. The distribution of the population within the area
  4. Physical characteristics of the built environment within the area
  5. Land ownership structures and access to public and private land for agricultural production
  6. The distribution of agricultural production within the area
  7. The distribution of energy production within the area
  8. The structure of the logistic infrastructure and systems within the area
  9. etc.

Some of these factors are beyond immediate human control, whereas others are fully within human control. The rates at which the latter [cultural] factors can be adjusted ultimately determines how rapidly or how slowly techniques such as urban farming are going to be adopted.

We briefly discussed how the heavy reliance on a single metric (money) makes it very difficult to assess which potential changes hold the potential for significant progress towards the health-related values identified at the start of the workshop.


Jorn explained that the first four elements (activities) of the MODA + MODE logistic lens can assist in identifying useful metrics for human activities in relation to our values:

  1. Energy and food production
  2. Design, engineering and construction of systems
  3. Maintenance of human designed systems
  4. Transportation of resources and people, and communication of information artefacts
  5. Activities and living cultural practices with a primary purpose different from the other four categories (produce, design/engineer/construct, maintain, transport/communicate)

The first four categories of activities can easily be quantified with metrics relating to the physical world, and as a result desirable goals that relate to human values and progress towards such goals can be quantified with these metrics – without resorting to a simplistic reduction of physical metrics into abstract monetary metrics.

Quantifying living cultural practices and related intellectual knowledge and artistic output is difficult and often not advisable. Instead, in a world of zero-marginal cost communication, developing a global open source knowledge commons can be much more beneficial for human societies.


We discussed how micro-scale distributed urban production fits together with:

  • Thriving human-scale local communities of up to a few hundred people
  • Highly automated logistics for inter-community transport of produce and products
  • Rising levels of home-based online knowledge work and creative work, and a corresponding reduction in commuter traffic and office work in city centres

Corresponding trends are already visible in various parts of the world. The following short talk by Bernard Lietaer provides a good example of urban farming from Belgium that also illustrates how local and domain-specific currencies can be an essential ingredient to creating thriving communities and valuable economic activity.

This part of the discussion also relates to an earlier CIIC workshop in 2015 that explored how digital technologies allow us to connect supply and demand via multi-party transactions, such that the role of liquid currencies in economic activity is reduced.

Metrics in physical units that track human activities in the productive economy (produce, design/engineer/construct, maintain, transport/communicate) have the potential to be particularly useful for large-scale inter-community and inter-national coordination and fair distribution of energy and resource flows. The less such metrics are converted into globally tradeable abstract monetary units, the less potential there is for speculation and corruption. The more metrics from the physical world such as human carbon emissions or non-recycled waste are used to track progress towards human values, the less relevant the old and simplistic paradigm of economic “growth” becomes.

Towards high quality ethical food exports

The second half of the afternoon was spent on the connection between food production   techniques and health-related values. In this context the interests of the wider population in terms of access to high quality and healthy food and ecological sustainability significantly overlap with the export interests of farmers and the agriculture sector.

Towards the end of the day there were several discussions in smaller groups. The practical relevance of the work of Elinor Ostrom and David Sloan Wilson on the management of the commons and on multi level group selection was mentioned, This work, based on examples from biology and concrete examples of cultural evolution in groups of people, establishes the critical role of collaboration within groups and between groups as part of evolutionary theory.

We agreed that ultimately the most valuable export good of New Zealand could be health related products and services. Such services and products will in many cases be based on techniques and outputs from the agriculture sector, but they may also include other goods and services.

Relevant background material

The following resources provide pointers to related research, discussions, and concrete projects. Over the last few years in particular the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) has compiled a number of relevant reports:

  1. CIIC blog: Urban farming – the future of agriculture?
  2. CIIC blog: The role of nutrition in our lives
  3. IPES: What makes urban food policies happen? Insights from five case studies
  4. IPES: Too Big To Feed: Exploring the impacts of mega-mergers, consolidation
    and concentration of power in the agri-food sector
  5. IPES: Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power relations to build healthier food systems
  6. IPES: From Uniformity to Diversity : A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems
  7. IPES: 10 Principles to guide the transition to Sustainable Food Systems
  8. ABC Radio National: Urban farming – Transforming suburbia
  9. Ensia: Food by local farmers. Distribution system by ants
  10. Forbes: Economics is not always an accurate reflection of intrinsic value


We concluded the day with thoughts on further collaborations on the theme of the workshop, and identified concrete topics and next steps:

  1. Next CIIC theme: Human and non-human health as a key value and potential export
  2. Conducting a workshop with members of farming communities at Lincoln University as a way of sharing knowledge between rural and urban perspectives. Perhaps we can bring both perspectives together in a dedicated series of Open Space sessions on a regular basis?
  3. Organising farm visit(s) to obtain a better understanding of the different types of farming businesses in different agricultural industries and their particular concerns.
  4. CIIC topic suggestion: What would high quality food and related farming systems look like in the future?
  5. CIIC topic suggestion: Coming up with a good working definition of sustainability
  6. CIIC topic suggestion: Pro-social management of the commons
  7. CIIC topic suggestion: The potential of vertical farming and aquaponics technology

Calendar reminder: The next CIIC unconference will take place on 9 June 2018!