The problematic nature of traditional agriculture is being addressed through a winning combination of technology and creativity.

The importance of trees in our lives need not be underlined more boldly. Through history and culture, one of the earth’s oldest living species has existed beside humankind. As well as their profound effect upon the environment, human wellbeing is heightened through proximity to our monumental friends; lowering blood pressure, slowing down heart rate, reducing stress. Their prominence in urban landscapes is not simply one of beautification. But what if those trees did even more for us?

In a bold concept by Norwegian innovation studio, Framlab, urban ‘trees’ can provide neighbourhoods with direct access to fresh produce. And they’re not talking about apples. The Bergen- and New York-based studio’s conceptual project, Glasir, sees a series of greenhouse modules stacked upon a stand with a footprint of just four square feet; the modules using the same aeroponics technology that is found in vertical farms to yield year-round nutritional vegetables conceived to be grown as part of a communitydriven project.

It is estimated that world population will reach 10 billion by 2050, and to accommodate that, an already-problematic agriculture industry will need to almost double in size. Already deeply unsustainable—most of the world’s land is already claimed, arable land is degrading rapidly, precious water resources are being sucked up at alarming rates—the deforestation and loss of biodiversity simply cannot be sustained, which is why many see urban and vertical farming as the only conceivable future. Framlab’s inspired concept might be a fanciful too far, but that doesn’t mean that the sort of straight-to-community approach to farming it is founded upon is not already well under way.

Brother of Elon, Kimbal Musk knows a little about technology. The brothers sold their second company to Compaq for $307 million in 1999, and were early investors in X.com, the company that would merge with PayPal in 2001 and in turn be acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion the following year. Whilst the former has turned his attentions to sci-fi missions to Mars, Kimbal’s next move has been one of more humble—but ultimately effective—intentions; his indoor farm project, Square Roots, pushing boundaries in a sector that may soon become critical to sustaining life on Earth.

From a hydroponic, controlled-climate container farm located in a Brooklyn parking lot, Musk’s project is a platform from which to empower farmers and their own ambitions. Rare herbs, micro-greens, edible flowers … the specific needs of innovative chefs can be met under the corrugated metal roof of a shipping container just a short bike ride from their restaurants. Musk’s brand of urban agriculture can not only positively impact the environment, but the quality and taste of food, too. One farmer, for example, has recreated the summer of Italy, 2009, inside his container, controlling oxygen levels, temperature and humidity to recreate a vintage year for basil; an unlikely urban setting now producing the most premium aromatic herb in all of New York.

From New York City to New Jersey (where Bowery lays claim to being the world’s most technologically sophisticated indoor farm, with robotics, machine learning, and predictive analytics), Singapore to San Francisco (vertical farming startup, Plenty, boasting 20-foot-high towers brimming with perfectly formed kale and herbs), such farms are seeking to transform our perceptions of agriculture in the modern age. In London, Growing Underground occupies a former World War II shelter 100 feet below Clapham High Street; Britain’s first underground farm demonstrating that potential is only as limited as imagination.

As they say, mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Concepts like Framlab’s may seem like the stuff of fairytales today, but as projects such as Square Roots change the landscape of contemporary farming, in the near future anything is possible. As technology empowers creativity, innovation and imagination are the tools that can transform the problematic nature of agriculture as it is today. In our quest for a brighter future, creativity is once again the answer.

By James Davidson