SEALEAF – Floating Farms for Coastal Megacities
Royal College of Art & Imperial College London
SEALEAF – Floating Farms for Coastal Megacities
“An interesting vision for a not far future. A meta-project that tries to look at the world food system crisis through a fresh lens and shows what design could mean within a complex world.
We are very close to this project. We believe that it could help humanity in a not far future. We think that that the students have got a great idea.”
SEALEAF – Floating Farms for Coastal Megacities
SEALEAF is a floating agricultural platform designed to enable growth of crops along urban coastlines via a modular, expandable system. It comprises of 2 design typologies: a module for hydroponic farming and a walkway pontoon. SEALEAF is designed to deliver 3 key benefits:
- Create true mass agriculture inside greater urban areas
- Eliminate carbon miles incurred from mass importation of everyday produce
- Contribute to food security of nations through the creation of a local agricultural industry
It challenges the existing system of agricultural land use and promotes a new continuity between food production and its place of consumption.
At the core of the project was a desire to design creative solutions to ensure Food Security in the midst of Urbanization and Climate Change. One of our key goals was to propose an acceptable alternative to the problem of food miles. By 2015, a projected 340 million people will reside in the worlds top 21 megacities, of which 18 are located along the coast and feeding these cities against a backdrop of explosive population growth, rising sea levels, desertification and a demand for abundance will become a challenge beyond that of our existing infrastructure. But we at SEALEAF believe that while our working urban space decreases and land prices increase there is a bigger, underutilized 'land' around our cities - Water.
To prove this, we took the prime example of the city-state of Singapore – once a country of 20,000 farms but today imports 93% of all its food. Recent price fluctuations in basic commodities and geopolitical issues have alerted Singapore to the true fragility of their food security. Importing food does increase food security but it introduces a secondary, more globally destructive consequence of Food Miles. Mass transportation of basic produce around the world injects the food on our plates with an unnecessary carbon footprint. All these practices increase food prices and contribute to the original causes of the problem. Hence to render the concept of local food production for a local population, at a reasonable price – a reality, was the biggest challenge posed to us.
Our perspective for this project was that overpopulation may be handled by building vertical cities, but growing crops that way is unsustainable and an extremely expensive proposition on commercially valuable land. Considering 18 of the 21 populated centers are coastal, accessing the surrounding water – the oceans – to grow vegetables, we devised a system that potentially is cheaper than land farming and requires no power from the mainland.
While there are many projects around the area of urban farming using hydroponics, most are focused on being reliant on commercially expensive land, power and water intensive needs and expensive permanent infrastructure. As a group of design students, our new point of view was also to address the problem of food miles and natural local production by basing our ideas around simple, inexpensive solutions and use as far as possible locally available resources such as solar energy, rainfall abundance in the tropical region (water resource) and local fish farming industry. In addition to this we wanted to make sure that all of our future visions were realized as economically and environmentally viable interventions in real world scenarios of uncertain climate extremes.
1. Initial research and ethnography: Our initial research began at flooding and submerged land such as parts of Bangladesh and Lagos - and how communities sustained themselves with traditional methods of floating farming methods and agriculture during these extreme times. With more hurricanes, and extreme weather conditions prevalent in megacities and surrounding parts in Europe, USA and Asia, we decided to further probe the idea of floating farms that were weather resistant and reduced food miles and delivery times. We started to experiment with hydroponic farming system in our studio and began to grow spring onions both hydroponically as well as traditionally in soil in a 1 cubic meter box resulting in the hydroponic system yielding faster growth times. At the same time, speaking to a hydroponic farming expert dealing with seawater based greenhouses; we further understood current practices and advantages of the saline environment for agriculture. The conclusions also helped us in selecting existing fish farmers as the best choice for initial adopters for this new system.
2. Materials exploration + technology: The hydroponic farming method of Deep water culture was best suited to our application of farming at sea due to its limited power (1W solar cell) and water requirements; supplied by an annual average rainfall of almost 2400mm in Singapore. We experimented with bamboo, concrete and grass-fibre structures, eventually selecting recycled HDPE given its strength to weight ratio, cost effectiveness, product lifespan, harsh sea environment and mass manufacture the SEALEAF modules and pathways. Kayak and pontoon manufacturing technology greatly informed the engineering behind the modules.
3. Prototypes and Iteration: From full-size cardboard mockups of the module to understand different parts of the farming process, we quickly started prototyping in scale the main plastic water container. This highlighted all the problems with designing and engineering a small structure while dealing with almost 100kg of water on the ocean. We collaborated with a marine engineer from Netherlands to better inform our design and incorporated bulkheads, underbody air pockets and selected ideal greenhouse materials.
4. Proof of Concept & Testing: A 1:3 scale concept was created with all the compartments to test user interaction and real world behavior in water. Unfortunately given the short time frame, we could not improve on all fronts of marine engineering a product for sea. We kept a full size visual prototype in our studio to investigate how we can simplify and improve the farmer interaction with the module, as they would have to attend to many in a day.
5. Stakeholders: The major stakeholders in our system are a new generation of farmers, existing fish farmers and fresh produce retailers like restaurants, hotels by the bay and local food markets. We aim to provide an additional means of livelihood to local citizens and fish farmers as well as provide consumers a better and higher quality of vegetables. Manufacturing of the modules could be based in neighboring countries like Malaysia or even China to provide economies of scale.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
We are focusing on the topic of food security in the face of climate change. Rapid urbanization is pushing for more unsustainable food growing and delivery practices, but taking the opportunity of vast expanses of water surrounding these cities, floating farms provide an exciting solution pointing to the future of urban farming practices. Many of our unsustainable consumption patterns stem from the disconnect between ourselves and the land that sustains us. To constantly provide a fresh and natural supply of vegetables which haven’t been frozen or travelled long distances increases the nutritional value being provided to us. Keeping it economically viable, we have worked out our business model such that we could retail each module for as much as $90 or rent an entire farm on an annual basis. All this would ensure the project becoming commercially viable and an environmental boon to overcome the uncertain weather patterns that threatens existing land based farming practices.6. Did the context of your project change throughout its development? If so, how did your understanding of the project change?
A modular farming system is potentially desirable for a small farming community, but our values of water based, off shore farming that we are pushing today; will be extremely desirable to larger communities and governments as sea levels continue to rise. Water based farming is already practiced today, but given the opportunity to package this system in a cubic meter pod does widen its application and potential users. Traditionally in India and other parts of Asia, eating fresh food is an extremely important part of the culture, and the element of eliminating food importation as well as eating food in the same garden as its grown was highly desirable for most people who interacted with SEALEAF. Hence we think that in as little as 5 years, our values of sustainable food cultivation on water - next to the heart of consumption will be shared by the mainstream. With our current stakeholder analysis, user scenarios and further testing of the concept we could cement this belief.7. Does your project have nutritional elements? If so, are these elements available and affordable on a global or local level?
Hydroponic vegetables are grown in a nutrient solution, foregoing the use of soil. This provides a greater control over growing conditions as well as provides an ideal growing environment for vegetables. Hydroponic farming has almost 2-3 times the yield compared to conventional farming. We incorporate the deep water culture of hydroponic farming which studies have shown to produce vegetables superior in nutrition and taste. By varying the strength of the nutrient solution, the method also ensures a better product than conventionally produced land vegetables. Depending on the source of the nutrients, adequate sunlight and the right surrounding temperature - a nutritionally rich produce can be grown in an affordable way at a global scale using one sealeaf module.