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Open AgTech – a prelude

I recently attended to a workshop on AgTech innovation, hosted by the Canberra Innovation Network and the US Embassy. It was a fun and really useful day out – hearing stories about what drives the agriculture sector, what they see as innovative, and how niches in the sector are filled by innovators literally ‘on the ground’ and also tech people with ideas coming in from the outside.

I’m not a rural person. Over my life I’ve had a few snapshots of life outside the city – and gleaned from those was that people form communities. Communities of practice, communities of support, communities of innovation. People on the land have done this forever.

In the workshop, this basic concept was validated – forming communities was a huge theme!

A second huge theme was ‘farmers are busy running their business’; and don’t have IT support teams in the field. The biggest competitor to tech widgetry was ‘we’ve done it this way for 130 years…’. The next biggest competitor was lack of local support; and/or really bad user interface design, driven by almost-nonexistent interoperability. Many widgets just don’t talk to each other, which is a giant pain in the grass.

Pulling out a third theme, people who make their living farming don’t like salespeople. To wrap that into tech parlance, there’s heavy skepticism that some new platform or widget is going to make their life better – innovation needs to be proven, it needs to be understood, it needs grassroots input and adoption.

Interestingly, some research was presented about crop farming being fast to take up new technology but slow to actually exploit it – whereas animal-based farming was slow to take on new tech; but quick to exploit it when they did.

All of this is seasoned by a liberal sprinkling of agronomists, startups, and big old companies all trying to make a buck. Apparently AgTech is going to be worth astronomical amounts in the future (yes, we’ve all read those kind of reports…).

…excuse my skepticism. Merging technology and agriculture actually go hand in hand – they’ve always done so (recall that we only gained agriculture due to our ability to develop and share technology)!

What surprised me most about everything there, though, was a lack of understanding of open systems – despite ten thousand years of sharing ideas in order to make agriculture happen, grow, and create how we live today. The sale of Red Hat to IBM was cast as ‘hey, you can make money with open source things’.

…but we all know that. Myriad businesses thrive on open systems (see Planetlabs, for a media-worthy example). Entire organisations are built on the construction and promulgation of open standards (the Open Geospatial Consortium, for example). Huge communities of practice have emerged around open software (see the Open Source Geospatial Foundation). And importantly, these communities emerge – in some cases almost spontaneously! Grassroots adoption counts for everything.

I’ve been woolgathering (pardon the pun) about this question ever since:

What is the real power of open systems in the context of agtech?

The open source business model seems antithetical to the whole startup/venture ecosystem – you mean to give away all the IP? Of course!

…but resonates extremely well with the small window I have into the agricultural community. Open systems allow communities to grow. Open systems allow and encourage ‘field innovation’, which the agricultural sector is famous for! Open systems work to engage and build local communities of practice. Open systems lower financial barriers to implementing or creating bleeding-edge tech solutions. Open systems disrupt vendor lock in, and power interoperable systems from the ground up (not as a bolt-on afterthought!)

This works for knitting, welding and cake baking. It can work for technology too! We know this. It’s proven in geospatial business. It’s proven in high performance computing (that famous recent sale I mentioned earlier). Open source software underpins the entire internet! Unlike Chook Coin, it’s really no joke.

I will boldy contend that the future of AgTech is open. To meet long-term planetary challenges requiring rapid change in how we think about food production, supply, open standards and open systems are the only way to generate the scale of innovation; and harness the diversity of thinking required to construct a sustainable future. The challenge for the AgTech industry is how to break down models which worked well for so long, but won’t soon.  Of course, the big stick of risk management and liability looms over everything.

However – it’s a known challenge, we can see the size and scope of it, we can mitigate.

The wicked problems – the unknown unknowns ahead are far more important and difficult. These require exactly systems which allow for as many collaborators and innovators as possible to engage, and work out myriad solutions without needing to wait for a vendor update cycle. One of those wicked problems is an open approach itself! How can a community developing serious tech be managed effectively? It’s an issue even in long-standing communities.

I’m really looking forward to AgTech Innovation workshop 2.0, the conversations which happen between now and then, and the conversations to come.

Of course, I’d love to talk to you more about building an open AgTech future. While right now now I’m a tech guy blowing smoke – and writing is easy – I have a hunch. I think the key phrases ‘open standards’, ‘open systems’, ‘open source’ are coming to the AgTech conversation. In order to achieve the incredible dreams of the agricultural community and keep innovators in the fields, they need to. And of course, you can do whatever you like with them.

Finally – stay tuned, there’s an incredible (we think) open source AgTech project in the brewing… nothing talks like a proven concept, right?