Author: Alina Pintelie

Passionate about innovations, I am constantly promoting smart ideas and technologies that make our life easier and our environment friendlier. I'm a B2B marketer and content strategist based in the Netherlands. I write about geospatial technologies, agriculture, and the food industry while I help shape the content provided by experts as Content Expert Manager.
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Can Digital Technology Be a Driver for Sustainable Innovation in Fashion?

As the fashion industry is generally considered the second largest polluter in the world just after the oil industry, it’s no secret that a lot needs to change to make this industry more sustainable. In order to be profitable, brands are constantly anticipating which outfits will be sold, and try to order the appropriate stocks of the garment in question. Inevitably, however, huge quantities of excess clothing end up being destroyed. In an interview with Supertrends, fashion expert Heidi Svane Pedersen says one way for the industry to solve the problem is to go digital.

sustainable digital fashion

Heidi Svane Pedersen is a specialist in innovation, technologies, and new ways of thinking circular business models, working on building bridges between academia and the lifestyle industry. Some of her initiatives have seen her working on the future of retail in San Francisco, the metaverse in Seoul, digital fashion/furniture in Amsterdam, or tech experiments with blockchain, IoT, and virtual tools to understand where they catalyze the circular economy.

She holds a master’s degree in strategy and innovation and is the head of digital at Lifestyle & Design Cluster, a Danish national business cluster promoting innovation and sustainable growth, primarily in small and medium-sized housing and clothing companies as well as in the related creative industries.

(In the picture to the right, Heidi Svane Pedersen is wearing a digital hoodie.)



Supertrends: Heidi, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. To begin, could you briefly describe your work at Lifestyle & Design Cluster?


Heidi Svane Pedersen: Amongst other things, we help startups in the fashion, furniture, and design industry get a good start in their business. But on an everyday note, our lab’s purpose is to keep this sector in Denmark as one of the most innovative in the world. We apply for funding, we raise the means and the resources to support them in this transition, moving towards a more circular industry, making sure that they use the leverage of technology, but also that they stay competitive in the future.

S: Can you say a few words about the trend of on-demand fashion?

HSP: On-demand fashion can mean so many things. First of all, the most important thing is that when we do research projects, we have to make sure that the industry gets new insights on how to become more responsible. We need to change the way we’re working and strive for an industry whose products can be circulated a lot more, so on-demand fashion questions this linear way of working today.

Do we actually know, as a brand, what our consumer wants? And do we enough to produce what they want in a linear model and keep it in stock until people are ready to buy it? You don’t need to be a researcher to see all the sales and discounts being offered by retail stores or E-commerce platforms. The current business model of the fashion industry has flaws, and doesn’t quite suit the customers’ needs, hence the extra stock.

We need to change this model, and on-demand fashion offers this way of thinking that if we knew more about exactly what a customer would like or what a user wants to wear, we would produce exactly what they need. It instantly helps us reduce stock, reduce waste, reduce resources, manpower, and hours. And it offers new business models in the way that we can offer fashion to a particular user to suit their needs in a more precise way.

S: You mentioned improving productivity and better adaptation of what companies are offering to what the customer needs for a more sustainable approach. In your opinion, can fashion companies provide on-demand fashion and still remain profitable?

HSP: That’s a really hard question right now because being more responsible is still more expensive. The business model calls for new ways of thinking, either new ways of offering products or new ways of producing because it’s going to be difficult in that situation. Because it is more expensive to produce responsibly, companies need to invest large amounts of money in order to exchange their business model for a more sustainable one.

Using digitalization is one way of approaching that. Some of the models that we’re seeing today are very much inspired by the gaming industry. For example, we see more brands being curious about how to use 3D rendering. You can design 3D clothing as a skin for your avatar, or use it as an image, as a video, or as an augmented reality filter today on your web shop, or on Instagram. Already today, you could publish the product you want to offer online in digital form, and let consumers give you feedback. Do they want to buy it or not? With the technology evolving exponentially, that software will just become better and better and give a more neat and emotional reaction later on.

There is also the question of big data. If you want to do on-demand fashion, you have to look at mass customization models, where you’re not customizing exactly for the individual need. But you might have a bulk of data that could tell you that your client database has these items in these sizes, so you can offer products that are more customized for them. But then the last trend may be tapping a little into slow fashion.

S: What can you tell us about slow fashion from the perspectives of the consumer and the supplier?

HSP: Over the past 30 to 40 years, we have become so used to being just able to buy and throw away, then buy again and throw away, that we’ve kind of lost respect for fashion. When we buy a couch, it’s a craft, it takes time and we respect that we might have to wait for six, eight, or twelve weeks before we receive the couch. As consumers, maybe we need to refine that respect for fashion as well. We need to understand the craftsmanship that goes into creating a piece of fashion.

On the supplier side, in reaction to fast fashion, at least here in Denmark, we see the emergence of micro-factories that can help a design brand execute their idea. They can post their digital designs, models, or drawings or renderings to their community to get instant feedback and find out if people are willing to buy this.

And then they have the technology to produce fashion locally via these micro-factories that can create the garments locally. A lot of things are happening in this industry right now, but fashion on demand offers a lot of questions right now – maybe a few more questions than answers.

(In the picture to the left, Heidi Svane Pedersen is wearing a digital outfit.)

S: You mentioned that companies need to invest heavily in order to produce sustainably. Do you think that the future will favor those who are doing that?

HSP: For me, that’s a simple answer. Sustainability primarily means transparency. Traceability is a license to operate in the future, and for textile and fashion, this is being legislated as well. In 2022, the EU proposed a new textile strategy, which will in the future demand a digital product passport, it will demand eco-design principles, and it will demand traceability of your CO2 footprint. This is all part of proposed legislation that will most likely happen in some format.

It’s not just a matter of accommodating your consumer. You will also be legally required to protect the climate. We know for a fact now that if we want to change something in the fashion industry, we need to bring down new production by 75 to 95 percent. That means a lot of businesses have to reinvent the way that they’re making clothes.

I think a lot of brands are using digitalization to understand how can they use data to tailor their production more accurately to what is demanded and what is needed: How can we, within new business models, circulate the garment that has already been produced? Some of the startup businesses that we see being successful offer the consumer the possibility to go into their platforms and type in their measurements. But very likely, soon they will be able to do this by scanning and maybe even use an avatar that can automatically project their needs.

To top it all, in 2017, Amazon filed a patent application for fashion on demand, where they would use data from their Prime customers and from all their sources of data to determine what type of fashion customers they want. This would allow them to launch their own fashion brands and accommodate this fashion on demand. This wouldn’t be possible without the power of digitalization, of mastering big data.

S: Will the companies dream even further and offer digital applications that you could use to design your own outfit application before placing the order with a supplier?

HSP: It is always interesting to think about designing your own clothes. What we have to take into account is that being a designer is a craft and an education. There are so many compromises you have to make in order to make a piece of fashion that is both beautiful and put together with the right material.

When we’re talking about involving the consumer in the development phase, we have to think about the user journey. This is where we see artificial intelligence and especially virtual technologies come into play. Because you can simulate fashion easily with an algorithm or with an augmented reality filter, which makes it way easier for customers to understand how their choices impact the design.

Let’s say they were to write, “I want long sleeves, I want a dress with draped skirt, I want it with this specific material.” They’re not designers, so it’s difficult for them to understand how the dress becomes beautiful. But these newer technologies, which are maturing extremely quickly, make it possible for them to use something almost like a Snapchat filter, try the model on, and see if their creation is what they want and reflects their choices. That being said, I don’t think this possibility is that far in the future. But implementing it demands that brands think about how they can make these collabs with their users.

S: You mentioned all sorts of digital technologies like artificial intelligence, digital clothes, augmented reality, and virtual fitting rooms, but you focused mainly on the benefits. Can you think of some pitfalls of using those?

HSP: Yes. First of all, we are talking about technologies in the fashion and textile industry, which is a really hands-on business and has not been very good at accommodating new competencies for academia or technology competencies. It is historically an industry primarily oriented toward fashion competencies. There’s a gap between utilizing these new technologies, digital or otherwise, and having the competencies to actually make a good business out of them.

Very often, if you ask the industry, IT projects are too expensive. They haven’t really shown great results. They demand much more than the organization is capable of lifting. That’s the biggest challenge in including these technologies into the pool of core competencies right now. It almost feels like it’s two different industries. We’re trying to match technology and fashion.

Second of all, technology is still expensive. We’re talking about artificial intelligence or blockchain technology that is only 10-15 years old. Our research shows that the technology of blockchain is kind of at the level that the internet was in the 1990s, so it’s still very much evolving. We’re talking about 3D technology and 3D rendering. These do not provide photorealistic results yet. A lot of people say: “Well, I can’t really use it, I need it to be faithful to reality.” My point is we’re still in the maturity stage of a lot of these technologies, but they’re maturing way faster than maybe the industry is.

And then there’s a cultural thing, right? Fashion is something personal, it’s something that people use as an identity, so there are so many customer demands out there that are really, really different. We are working in a world where the tech giants are keeping their data close. I think some of the brands in the world today are a little bit challenged on when to do open innovation, and when to keep it close to your business.

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Digitalization for Greener, More Efficient, and More Profitable Agriculture

There is no industry in the world that has not been touched to a lesser or greater extent by digitalization. Agriculture may be one of the fields where digital technology adoption is slower than in others, but advanced digital technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data, or the Internet of Things are nevertheless being integrated into agricultural practices. Here are some projects where digitalization is a stepping-stone for taking farming into the digital era.

Cloud-based AI platform for sustainable agriculture

Given the challenges facing farmers today – including climate change, lack of skilled labor, and increasingly stringent environmental regulation – there is a need for new tools and methods that can make agronomy more sustainable as well as more efficient. To this end, a team of researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) in Germany are developing a cloud-based platform with open interfaces that can be used by the agriculture and industry sectors and providers of specialized service solutions in those fields.

The cloud-based data aggregation platform will enable a series of agricultural applications that can give the process of digitalizing Germany’s agriculture a much-needed sustainability boost. Together with partner organizations, the HHI scientists have launched the NaLamKI (Nachhaltige Landwirtschaft mittels KI, “AI-Based Sustainable Agriculture”) project with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. Its purpose is to build a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform where data gathered by machines and devices can be collected and analyzed to provide an information base that will assist prognostics and decisionmaking in the farming sector.

The NaLamKI platform will aggregate sensor and device data collected by satellites and drones, ground sensors, and robotics, as well as manually collected statistics and legacy data, into a broad data pool that can be used to deploy Artificial Intelligence (AI) for streamlining agricultural processes and making them more sustainable. For example, the information will help farmers to analyze the state of crops and soils across broad swathes of farmland and to tailor activities such as watering, fertilizing, or pest control in a way that provides sufficient high-quality crops, and reduces emissions and safeguards biodiversity. Measures such as these not only raise crop yields and bring down costs, but also protect resources and the environment.

Beyond concerns about sustainability, the data platform will also help farmers utilize AI to compensate for a lack of skilled labor. By aggregating and modeling drone, satellite, and robot camera data, the planned cloud service will provide them with an overview of soil and plant conditions across large areas. The farmers will also be able to interact with the AI to ask questions and receive recommendations, for example, based on soil moisture or symptoms of crop blights.

The SaaS platform and AI services will be based on GAIA-X, a cloud infrastructure subject to European data sovereignty, together with a distributed-learning AI using farmers’ locally stored data. This will allow them to exchange AI models and transfer them to the NaLamKI platform and improve the algorithms. The platform will be open to third-party solutions, which could be provided by startup vendors of innovative AI applications, for example.

Green-on-Green Tech – Algorithms Fighting Crop Weeds

digitalization agriculture

Weeds are still among the most potent enemies of productivity in agriculture. Over the ages, farmers have constantly been looking for new ways to fight them. Digitalization of weed-control activities seems to bring a new promise of efficiency.

“Green-on-green” technology, a new innovation in agriculture developed and tested in Canada, instantly identifies weeds in growing crop fields, generating real-time maps and allowing for spot spraying. Besides reducing the costs related to human labor and pesticides, this technology has a positive impact on the environment, as it limits the amounts of pesticides released into the fields, leading to more sustainable agriculture.

This innovation builds upon “green-on-brown” technology, developed a few decades ago, which uses algorithms to identify green patches (i.e., weeds) on brown surfaces of soil. The algorithm then triggers a device that neutralizes them with pesticides. Despite the cost savings and efficiency afforded by this method, farmers rarely use it. The initial algorithm, which relied on identifying the color green imparted by plant chlorophyll, couldn’t differentiate between crop plants and weeds. Therefore, the fields first needed to be mapped manually, and the patches of weeds identified by human workers. However, due to the seasonality and changes in soil composition, new distribution patterns of weeds would appear every year, requiring additional efforts and resources for mapping.

Tom Wolf is the owner of Agrimetrix Research & Training, a Saskatoon-based company that specializes in the study of agricultural sprays. He says green-on-green technology is capable of differentiating between weeds and crops, generating the map instantaneously, and targeting only the areas where pesticides are needed. The technology is currently being adopted by an increasing number of farmers, who are able to use it with the equipment they already operate. Moreover, manufacturers of farming equipment have already started to build additional products that complement and enhance this digitalization initiative.

AI-powered sensor suite for more efficient agriculture

In an effort to alleviate the labor shortage and support the adoption of more sustainable practices in agriculture, the Canadian government has commissioned a CAN$419,000 project that will use digitalization technologies and AI to help farmers manage resources in a more effective and efficient manner. The Eye-Box project is a suite of AI-powered sensors and software that will automate agricultural data collection and processing, leaving the farmers more time to focus on other tasks.

Mojow Autonomous Solutions won the digitalization project to build a system comprising multiple cameras with GPS capabilities. These will transmit the collected data in real time to a powerful computer for processing.

digitalization agriculture

Based on these automatically collected images, which are subsequently interpreted and classified, Eye-Box will develop a digital twin of the farm that will be updated continuously and will help farmers make decisions on various issues related to agricultural work.

“By supporting innovation solutions for Canada’s agriculture sector, we are helping our farmers improve the efficiencies within their business while finding ways for them to respond to challenges such as labor shortages. With investments in businesses such as Mojow Autonomous Solutions Inc., the Government of Canada is helping to strengthen the competitiveness and resilience of the sector for the long term,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.

New sources of revenue for farmers with carbon credits platforms

Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been following the formula of planting seeds and harvesting the produce that grows from them. Now, some of them are being offered a different deal: bury carbon in the ground and get paid to ensure it stays there. Major agro-corporations like Cargill and Bayer are offering to sign up farmers for a program to harvest not cash crops, but carbon credits that can be sold to greenhouse gas emitters looking to offset their carbon footprints.

By planting cover crops during off-seasons, growers can improve the quality of their soil, raising nutrient levels and enabling it to hold more water. Increasingly, however, another aspect is gaining attention – the ability of the soil to sequester atmospheric carbon. In combination with the sparing use of fertilizer and less tilling, this practice can be used to extract CO2 from the air and ensure that it remains in the ground for extended durations.

Farmers can log these activities on a digital platform and rack up carbon credits, or certificates permitting emissions in increments of one tonne of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gases, which can be bought and sold or used to offset the farmers’ own business activities in other areas.

While carbon capture and storage (CCS) is only one of many measures for mitigating climate change, it appears to be gaining traction as a commercial proposition, backed by major corporations in the agricultural sector or related areas, including providers of fertilizer, seeds, and chemicals such as Nutrien, Yara, Corteva, Cargill, or Bayer. The latter has contracted with farmers to sequester carbon on approximately 1.5 million acres of land, mostly in the US, according to Reuters. Cargill plans to offset emissions released by its supply chain operations by about one-third by 2030 and will enroll 10 million acres in sustainable agriculture programs by the end of the decade.

The CCS platform may be the best example of a business embracing the digitalization trend in agriculture by offering farmers a welcome opportunity to gain revenue while also improving the health of their soil.

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Novel Chip Can Process Two Billion Images Per Second

Artificial intelligence can be used to improve a wide range of systems, but this also entails additional hardware requirements. To replicate the ability of biological neural networks to recognize or classify new data points such as images, robust hardware with enhanced speed and capabilities is needed.

Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science (Penn Engineering) have developed a chip that, despite its minuscule size of just 9.3 square millimeters, can detect and classify an image in less than a nanosecond, without the need for a separate processor or memory unit.

Speeding up the ability of any computer to process images is very important for many applications, such as face recognition algorithms, automatically detecting text in photos, or even enabling self-driving vehicles to recognize obstacles faster and better.

The new chip made by the Penn engineers not only classifies and recognizes images significantly faster than conventional chips, but is also scalable. The new level of performance is achieved by using an optical deep neural network that directly processes the light received from the object of interest.

“Our chip processes information through what we call ‘computation-by-propagation,’ meaning that unlike clock-based systems, computations occur as light propagates through the chip,” said Firooz Aflatouni, a member of the research team. “We are also skipping the step of converting optical signals to electrical signals because our chip can read and process optical signals directly, and both of these changes make our chip a significantly faster technology.”

Furthermore, as Aflatouni notes, eliminating the memory unit that stores images also increases data privacy. “With chips that read image data directly, there is no need for photo storage and thus, a data leak does not occur.”

Currently, the team is exploring the scalability of the chip and also further developing its three-dimensional object classification capabilities.

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Bright Innovations Based on Smart Materials that Blur the Border Between Sci-Fi and Reality

To collect data you need sensors, to make moving machinery you need actuators or electronics. But what if all the functions are already supplied by the very material you build with? Here are some smart materials innovations made possible today thanks to advancements in nanotechnology and precision manufacturing.

Also called intelligent or responsive materials, smart materials are designed to sense and react in a controlled way to temperature, pressure, impact, and other variables. Some of them can send data to the cloud, others can reconfigure themselves as needed or even self-heal. Due to their responsive and flexible properties, these new materials will change the way we live and design products. Here are some amazing innovations based on smart materials that are poised to disrupt the products and services of the future.

Shapeshifting materials – Autonomous land vehicles can morph into a drone or even a submarine

If you’re thinking that such morphing vehicles exist already, try to take the gears, motors, rotors, and other moving mechanisms out of the equation. A team at Virginia Tech led by Michael Bartlett, assistant professor in mechanical engineering designed such a morphing vehicle approaching the shape-changing function at the material level. They started by developing a smart material that could change, hold the new shape, then return to the original form over and over again without losing function.

Inspired by an old Japanese art of paper shaping, kirigami, they devised a composite made from a low melting point alloy (LMPA) endoskeleton set into an elastomer medium. Heat causes the alloy to be converted to a liquid at 60 degrees Celsius, but the elastomer skin keeps the melted metal contained while stretching. When the metal is cooled down, the stretching is reversed and the material is pulled back into the original shape.

The material could have many applications in various fields like soft robotics, environmental services, healthcare, or even defense and security where smart materials are the key to achieve the sophisticated functionality needed for complex requirements. The team used their innovation to already create two proofs-of-concept in the lab, by building with it a functional drone that autonomously morphs from ground to air vehicle and a small, deployable submarine that can retrieve objects from the bottom of an aquarium.

Currently, the team is on working on solving challenges like manufacturing and component integration optimization so their smart composite material could go into the commercialization phase.

Acoustic garment – Your t-shirt could be also your phone

What if instead of having a phone in your pocket, you could actually wear one? A research team from MIT and Rhode Island School of Design set out to answer this and similar questions when they developed a new type of fabric that can not only cover your body but also convert sound into electric signals. Like a microphone, the material captures vibrations and can be made to display reversed properties, such as transmitting sounds to another receiver.

smart materials innovations

An MIT team has designed an “acoustic fabric,” woven with a fiber that is designed from a “piezoelectric” material that produces an electrical signal when bent or mechanically deformed, providing a means for the fabric to convert sound vibrations into electrical signals.
Image: Greg Hren

The fabric is made from a piezoelectric material that reacts to deformations by producing an electrical signal. It can capture sounds in a broad decibel range and also identify the direction from which they are coming.

“Wearing an acoustic garment, you might talk through it to answer phone calls and communicate with others,” said Wei Yan, lead author of the study. “In addition, this fabric can imperceptibly interface with the human skin, enabling wearers to monitor their heart and respiratory condition in a comfortable, continuous, real-time, and long-term manner.”

The technology could prove to be revolutionary for making hearing aids or garments that can communicate or track vital signals for health benefits, but it can also be used as a “listening ear” in the construction of spaceships, vehicles, or even buildings.

Energy harvesting fabric – Your movements could power your devices

A new type of stretchable, waterproof, perovskite-based material has been shown to transform the energy generated by body movements into electrical energy. The 3×4-centimeter prototype was able to continuously light up 100 LEDs. According to the research team, it could be worn as a base layer or integrated with shoe soles and used to recharge small devices or wearables.

Numerous attempts have been made to develop smart materials that can harvest energy from movement. However, these were unable to retain their electrical output when they were washed or crumpled. The energy harvesting device developed by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore produces energy when it is pressed, squashed, or when it comes in contact with other surfaces (e.g., skin, rubber, etc.). It can generate 2.34 watts per square meter, maintains its function even after multiple washing, folding, and crumpling cycles, and produces a viable output for up to five months.

Professor Lee Pooi See, a material scientist, and study lead said the breakthrough could eventually reduce or eliminate the need for batteries in wearables: “Despite improved battery capacity and reduced power demand, power sources for wearable devices still require frequent battery replacements. Our results show that our energy harvesting prototype fabric can harness vibration energy from a human to potentially extend the lifetime of a battery or even to build self-powered systems. To our knowledge, this is the first hybrid perovskite-based energy device that is stable, stretchable, breathable, waterproof, and at the same time capable of delivering outstanding electrical output performance,” she stated.

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The Road to Sustainability is Paved With Good Inventions

Saving the planet and the environment is a serious challenge, and scientists all over the world are working hard to find ways to tackle the various issues of pollution, over-consumption, and preserving natural resources from all angles. Materials science contributes new discoveries on a daily basis, and sometimes, sustainability in materials science is approached from an unusual direction.

Wood-based foam could help offset air-conditioning costs

Using air-conditioning devices to keep buildings cool is expensive, wasteful, and overall bad for the environment. Researchers at the American Chemical Society have developed a material that reflects sunlight, emits absorbed heat, and acts like a thermal insulator that could be used to keep buildings cool.

The novel material is made from wood-based cellulose nanocrystals and has the form of lightweight foam. The results of the study show that by using it to coat the building, cooling energy needs could be reduced by 35.4 percent on average.

sustainability materials

Coating the building with the novel wood foam could offset the high energy consumption of air-conditioning devices.

The wood-based foam has special properties that are superior to those of other materials built for this purpose, and it presents none of their disadvantages. Unlike similar materials, the new coating admits little heat to the buildings when the weather outside is hot, and it works well even in humid, hot, or cloudy weather. Reflecting 96 percent of visible light and emitting 92 percent of absorbed infrared radiation, the new materials proved to be robust and very efficient in preventing heat from passing through.

The foam is produced by connecting cellulose nanocrystals together with a silane bridge and then freeze-drying them under a vacuum. During the process, the nanocrystals are vertically aligned, resulting in white, lightweight foam.

While conducting the tests, researchers noticed that by compressing the foam, they were able to modify its properties so the cooling parameters of the foam could be adapted to various purposes and a wide range of environments, allowing this innovation to contribute even more to the common goal of sustainability.

Pollen-based paper can be erased and reprinted

Although the world is moving toward pervasive digitalization of communications, paper still has an important place in our economies. The conventional process of making paper, which involves cutting down and pulping trees, accounts for 33 to 40 percent of all industrial wood used in the global economy, so finding alternative ways to make paper could have a huge impact in terms of stopping deforestation and mitigating carbon emissions. A novel pollen-based paper developed by scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) could offer a solution to this issue. Their paper is not only produced in a more environmentally-friendly way, but also allows images to be printed and then erased, with the paper being reused to print on again multiple times.

The team of researchers printed colored images on the pollen paper with a laser printer, then removed the toner with an alkaline solution without damaging the paper. After drying, the paper could be reused for printing. This process can be repeated up to eight times before the surface of the paper shows signs of loss of structural integrity and the quality of printed colors declines.

The conventional recycling process of laser-printed paper involves many steps that cost time, energy, and human resources and are a source of carbon emissions as well. The pollen paper could significantly reduce these costs and negative effects by shortening the process and skipping steps like re-pulping or reconstruction. Also, the process of producing paper from pollen is simpler than the conventional method and consumes significantly less energy.

materials sustainability

Nature produces pollen in large amounts, so it is a raw material that is not only easy and efficient to produce, but also cheap and sustainable.

“Through this study, we showed that we could print high-resolution color images on paper produced from a natural, plant-based material that was rendered non-allergenic through a process we recently developed. We further demonstrated the feasibility of doing so repeatedly without destroying the paper, making this material a viable eco-friendly alternative to conventional wood-based paper. This is a new approach to paper recycling – not just by making paper in a more sustainable way, but also by extending the lifespan of the paper so that we get the maximum value out of each piece of paper we produce,” said Prof. Subra Suresh, NTU President and lead author of the paper.

The pollen-based paper is hypoallergenic, easily recyclable, and can be made from a highly renewable source. Nature produces pollen in large amounts, so it represents a raw material that has all the benefits of scalability, economic efficiency, and sustainability. “By integrating conductive materials with the pollen paper, we could potentially use the material in soft electronics, green sensors, and generators to achieve advanced functions and properties,” said Prof. Cho Nam-Joon, another lead author of the paper.

Your clothes could be dyed with microbes to keep the rivers safe

The dyes that are currently used to color our clothes play a huge part in the textile industry’s overall image as a polluting and unsustainable sector. Artificial colors leaking during production or even in the washing process are degrading the planet’s water resources by inhibiting plant growth and increasing the toxicity, mutagenicity, and carcinogenicity of the water consumed both by animals and humans. As an indirect contribution to pollution, the wastewater treatment that is necessary for removing the textile chemicals from the water is energy-intensive and carbon-emitting.

A better and healthier alternative is to use natural dyes extracted from plants. However, that is not a sustainable option, either. Now, scientists have proposed a completely different solution – obtaining dyes from microbes.

Companies like Colorifix, Pili, and Textile Lab are studying how to engineer such microbes and brew them in vats, in a process similar to beer production, then use them to naturally deposit dyes directly onto fabrics. Colorifix claims that its microbial dyes use at least 49 percent less water and 35 percent less electricity than modern cotton dyeing processes, potentially reducing carbon emissions by 31 percent. The situation is even more promising when it comes to synthetic materials like polyester or nylon.

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The Future of Construction is Digital

According to the United Nations, by 2050, around 68 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. The pressure on municipalities and builders to make sure that houses and offices are safe, sustainable, affordable, and livable is growing daily. The trend toward smart buildings is gaining traction globally, but which digital technologies have the potential to deliver the biggest impact on the construction worksites of tomorrow?

Recent world events have exposed with painful clarity the vulnerability of supply chains to disruption, which resulted in work stopping at construction sites, either due to scarcity of materials or labor shortages. The increased costs and inevitable delays have caused significant financial losses for many contractors. On top of that, the rise in energy costs poses a real challenge for future maintenance and management of buildings.

Digitalization could be the answer to many of these issues. IT solutions can help with keeping track of supplies (materials), improving the efficiency of operations, and saving money at all stages of construction, starting with the design phase and ending with the exploitation phase.

Although only a few players are currently using advanced digital tools to improve their operations, technologies like Building Information Management (BIM) systems, digital supply networks, digital twins, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and others are slowly but steadily becoming established as best practices in the field. Here are some examples of how digital technologies are already foreshadowing the future of the construction industry.

Artificial Intelligence for sustainable and healthy work environments

A 17-story office tower in Boston will be fitted with floor-to-ceiling smart windows that use AI to manage light intake, optimize occupants’ comfort, and reduce energy consumption. The project aims to set an example for sustainable and healthy work environments in the future. The 10 World Trade building, developed by Boston Global Investors (BGI) and its partners, will mainly offer office space in downtown Boston.

Its smart windows, delivered by View, Inc. – a provider of intelligent building technology – use AI to adjust their opacity automatically in response to the brightness of the sun, allowing occupants to enjoy maximum comfort at any given moment of the day. AI will also help to reduce the energy consumption from lighting and air conditioning systems that are 40 percent more efficient than required by the energy-saving guidelines imposed by the Massachusetts Department of Energy.

According to a study made by researchers at the University of Illinois and SUNY Upstate Medical University, employees working next to View Smart Windows slept 37 minutes longer each night, performed 42 percent better on cognitive tests, and had significantly fewer headaches. As an additional benefit, the smart windows eliminate the need for blinds, which helps with lowering overall costs, but also keeps offices cleaner.

Although this example is focused on maintenance, many building projects in the world now showcase the fact that digital technologies in general and AI, in particular, have the potential to help builders increase value throughout all project stages. Better design and smarter financing, online procurement and smart construction, better operations and asset management, as well as remote management and maintenance – all these can be achieved with the help of state-of-the-art technology.

According to McKinsey Global, digital transformation of the construction projects and companies can result in productivity gains of 14% to 15% and cost reduction of 4% to 6%.

Digital twins and real-time visual management of buildings

Modeling the real world in a digital environment even up to the tiniest detail offers many perks to builders, especially in complex projects. Buildings that will host medical facilities, for example, need to be very sophisticated in order to accommodate specialized medical equipment, meet elevated health codes and strict security requirements, and allow the use of business systems. Although still under-adopted, systems such as BIM are already less capable of real-time building status updates and handling big data volumes.

The new clinical center for Shanghai East Hospital affiliated with Tongji University was built with the future in mind. The 2019 construction project centered on the principle of the “continuous lifecycle integration” method, allowing the building managers to see the status of the building at any time, in a visual tool, over its full lifecycle.

Using a Digital Twin (DT), the builders integrated static and dynamic data from over 20 management systems that optimized all phases in the building lifecycle, from design and construction to the operations and maintenance phase. The control center of the building runs on a DT software solution that allows for real-time visual management and is enhanced with AI-powered diagnostic modules.

The benefits of using the DT in the design and building phase were not published, but by the end of 2020, management data collected from the system showed significant improvements in energy consumption, fewer facility problems, and repairs as well as better daily maintenance work.

Although there are still aspects that need further research, the project showed that DT has much more potential than BIM technology in terms of its real-time information management capabilities at all stages of a building lifecycle.

For players affected by recent disruptions in the supply chain, labor force, and new construction standards pressure, these two examples show that digital technology solutions could help them to stay afloat or even increase their profits and decrease their costs.

If you want to stay informed on technologies with the potential to disrupt the future of construction of other industries, consider subscribing to the Supertrends newsletter.

Five Technological Innovations Inspired by Nature

Animals, plants, and nature in general often have brilliant solutions for problems that engineers all over the world are trying to solve. This is why inventors and researchers in multiple fields study natural mechanisms and structures in order to understand how nature deals with specific challenges. The imitation of nature to solve human challenges is known as biomimetics. In the following, we present a few recent technological innovations inspired by nature, which show us that sometimes, the answer is in plain sight, if we only know where to look for it.

Super-material stronger than steel

Spider silk may seem fragile, but measured at scale, it has the tensile strength of a super-material and is stronger than steel, with properties that no manmade material can match. For years, scientists have tried to replicate these fibers with their unique qualities, but all attempts were thwarted by challenges in the manufacturing process.

A Californian startup, Bolt Threads, has now achieved a breakthrough with the launch of Microsilk, an artificial fiber produced by genetically engineered micro-organisms that can modify their properties to create different types of fibers, mimicking the natural process spiders use to make their webs.

The resulting material is stronger than nylon but smoother than cotton, and the company is currently using it to manufacture garments that are light, soft, and durable. As the production process is scaled up, the material could have many other applications, for instance, to make biodegradable items, to design improved bulletproof vests, or even for use in infrastructure projects.

A sharkskin suit for airplanes

In a quest to reduce the costs associated with fuel consumption, engineers from Lufthansa Technik and BASF have taken inspiration from sharkskin and developed a new material that mimics its water-repellent quality. Sharkskin is covered with millions of “riblets”, which shape its surface geometry in a way that helps the animal consume less energy when moving. By applying the same principle to fluid mechanics in aviation, the engineers developed a similar “skin” for aircraft in the form of a thin, clear coating containing millions of 50-micrometer-high riblets. The novel coating can reduce drag when applied to the surface of an airplane. The thin coating, called AeroShark, serves to reduce the fuel consumption of the plane by improving its aerodynamic properties.

Lufthansa Cargo plans to equip its entire Boeing 777F freighter fleet with AeroShark coating in 2022.

Retina-inspired sensor

Machines and robots that need to navigate real-world environments are helpless unless they are able to gather images and measurements that can inform their movements and operations. The ability of the human eye to capture the environment even under highly variable lighting conditions was the source of inspiration for a team of researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Peking University, Yonsei University, and Fudan University. The team developed a new sensor that replicates the way the retina functions in the human eye, and which could enable superior vision in robots or surveillance technologies under a broad range of illumination intensities.

After a series of improvements and modifications, the bio-inspired innovation can now effectively imitate the function of a human retina and enhance machine vision with high image recognition efficiency, while simultaneously reducing hardware technological complexity. Currently, the vision sensor is in the proof-of-concept stage, and the team is working to integrate it with the control circuits. Once this has been achieved, the sensor could be introduced for practical applications.

Pathogen-repellant surface

Another brilliant technological innovation, an effective pathogen-repellent coating inspired by the water-repelling surface of the lotus leaf was invented at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada in 2019. The new material imitates the structure of the lotus at a microscopic level, enabling it to shed tiny organisms that come into contact with it, including viruses and bacteria. The material can be used for wrapping high-touch surfaces like railings or elevator buttons or in the manufacturing of medical devices. It could be extremely useful in reducing the spread of harmful pathogens and preventing contamination.

Self-cleaning packaging

The beautiful lotus also inspired the development of an innovative type of plastic at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, which has great potential for solving the worldwide problem of pollution generated by packaging material. The new material stands apart from existing bioplastics on the market by being yard-compostable, easy to manufacture, and self-cleaning.

Plastic materials produced from renewable biomass sources have been on the market for a while now. While they are branded as sustainable, most of them require special recycling facilities to be broken down as they don’t degrade under normal air-sun-soil conditions. Because most countries do not have enough recycling capabilities for these kinds of bioplastics, most of the wrapping ends up in landfills, where they pollute the environment just like regular plastic does.

The self-cleaning bioplastic developed by Australian researchers could solve this problem. The new material preserves its form well, repels dirt and liquids, and breaks down easily once buried in the soil. Made from starch and cellulose, two cheap materials that are easy to source, the new bioplastic is ideal for packaging fresh food and takeaway meals. According to the authors, the new material does not require heat or complicated equipment to manufacture and has the added economic benefit of being easy to adopt and scale-up.

The self-cleaning properties of this flower are often referred to as the lotus effect and they are a source of inspiration for many technological innovations. Its leaves and petals are ultra hydrophobic, which makes the surface of the flower very difficult to stay wet. As dirt particles are trapped under the water droplets due to the nanoscopic architecture of the plant, they get expelled too.

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autonomous vehicles

Five Cities Say Yes to Autonomous Vehicles

Enthusiastically welcomed or subject of huge public controversy, it is by now clear that autonomous vehicles are here to stay. More and more cities are seeing driverless vehicles as a good solution for ensuring better and safer services for their citizens. Here are five cities in the world that have made real progress in adopting autonomous vehicles as part of their transportation network.

PARIS

A driverless passenger shuttle was launched in Paris Ile-de-France in a pilot project running from 31 March 2021 to June 2022. The autonomous public transport line serves passengers traveling from the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines-Montigny-le-Bretonneux train station to several local business parks. The free-of-charge service will operate Monday to Friday from 7.30 am to 8 pm, and the buses will arrive and depart every eight minutes in rush hour and every 17 minutes at off-peak times. In order to comply with current legislation, a human supervisor is present in every bus during the whole operating time.

The multi-modal transportation company Keolis was selected to run the new line with Navya autonomous electric shuttles that can carry 11 seated passengers. The minibuses use vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology to communicate with traffic lights and navigate across busy roads.

MOSCOW

As part of a larger project of modernizing transportation infrastructure in Moscow, the local government has announced plans for a driverless tram network that would link several nodes of the capital. As the legislators are already at work to ensure that the laws and regulations are updated to allow such a system to exist, the driverless trams could be tested in Moscow starting as soon as the end of 2022. Tests will be done at first in depots, during the night, and later on with passengers.

The transportation optimization plans are focused on moving towards autonomous transport, including the use of “robotaxis”. Other forms of Russian transportation could benefit from driverless technologies in the near future. Russian Railways has announced plans to adopt automated control technologies in order to reduce headway, at least on some of their routes.

TORONTO

Toronto’s Municipality approved its Automated Vehicles Tactical Plan as early as 2019, with the main goal of making Toronto “AV Ready” by 2022. The plan consists of several stages, which will include population studies to find out how health might be impacted by the introduction of automated vehicles, as well as research on best practices for AV trials, culminating with a real-life trial on the streets.

The trial is currently taking place in the West Rouge neighborhood. It provides an automated shuttle service with an attendant on board at all times. The quiet and emissions-free AV used in the trial is Olli 2.0, a 3D-printed, electric, self-driving shuttle produced by Local Motors that seats up to eight passengers. Olli drives at a speed of 20km/h when in autonomous mode and 40km/h in manual mode.

autonomous vehicle

To navigate autonomously in normal traffic, Olli uses tools such as digital mapping of the route, a pre-programmed track, and redundant LiDar and radar sensors to analyze and respond to road and traffic conditions around it.
The trial is scheduled to end in February 2022. It will be followed by a period of assessing how the automated vehicle performed in various weather and road conditions.

SEOUL

The Seoul Metropolitan Government has allocated KRW148.7 billion, or US$125 million, to be spent between 2022 and 2026 to build up the necessary infrastructure for autonomous vehicles throughout the city. In November 2021, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon presented the municipality’s “Seoul Self-Driving Vision 2030,” painting a picture of a future where the daily lives of the citizens and urban spaces are filled with autonomous vehicles.

The municipality has published a detailed plan that stated bold goals for the city, such as expanding the autonomous vehicle hubs, establishing self-driving buses as public transportation means, and introducing autonomous vehicle-based urban management systems in public services while building and improving the autonomous vehicle infrastructure throughout the city.

Designed to be adopted in increments, the plan will introduce more than 300 autonomous vehicles by 2026, more than ten robot taxis that the users can call using an app, and the city plans to operate more than 100 autonomous buses and self-driving taxis.

SINGAPORE

In its autonomous vehicle (AV) test center, which opened in 2017, Singapore is conducting various trials, as the government considers this technology to be crucial for the improvement of the transportation network and an important step in the city-state’s journey to becoming a smart nation. In the last five years, the center has tested around 50 autonomous taxis, shuttles, buses, and road sweepers in order to gather the data necessary for wider adoption.

On a slightly larger scale, a few on-demand bus services were made available to the public in 2021 specifically for commuters at Science Park II and Jurong Island. In January 2022, at the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA’s) AV-themed exhibition, URA and companies showed how Singapore was preparing for an AV transport future that may be within reach in the next few decades.

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modern technologies farmers modern technologies farmers modern technologies farmers modern technologies farmers

Can Modern Technologies be Life-changing for Smallholder Farmers?

In view of the major global demographic and environmental changes expected in the coming decades, agricultural technology (agritech) will play a crucial role in making farming ready for the challenges to come. Such solutions already exist, but they are not yet being adopted at the speed required to achieve a fundamental transformation of the sector. Jon Trask, CEO of agritech provider Dimitra.io, explains which modern technologies are likely to have a major impact on small farmers, and which obstacles need to be resolved to accelerate their uptake.

By 2050, humanity will need to produce 60 percent more food in order to feed the over nine billion people who will populate the planet by then. The agriculture sector, which provides the bulk of our food supply, will need to operate at unprecedented levels of efficiency in order to meet this demand while mitigating climate change in the process.

Many think that the way to increase food output significantly while preserving and protecting the environment is to harness more smart technology. Innovations in agritech aim to improve yield, reduce or eliminate harmful practices, and explore alternative sources of food. But is technology a solution for everyone? Big agricultural companies can certainly afford autonomous robots or analyze satellite imagery in order to improve their operations, but how about the smallholder farmers?

While the use of various technologies in agriculture is gradually increasing all over the world, their global adoption is slow due to a number of reasons, such as high implementation costs or a lack of knowledge among farmers regarding the requirements for integrating them into their businesses.

Supertrends discussed these issues with Jon Trask, CEO at Dimitra.io, an international company on a mission to deliver agritech to farmers everywhere. He shared with us some insights from the frontline on how smallholder farmers around the globe can make use of this technology.

Supertrends: What are some of the problems the farming sector is currently facing?

Jon Trask: We found that smallholder farmers, which include most of the world’s farmers, are underserved from a technology perspective. They operate about 570 million farms and represent maybe a quarter to a third of the world’s population. In terms of productivity and the potential for improving it, these are very different from your typical European or North American farms, which are slowly being bought up by large firms.

Smallholder farms produce 60 or 70 percent of the world’s produce and foods and tend to consume a large percentage of what they produce. Farmers in Africa, for example, depend on their crops as they can consume 70 percent or more of the products that they create and sell maybe only 25 to 30 percent of their produce on the market. By providing good information and use of modern technology, there are many areas where we can help them increase yields, reduce their costs, and mitigate risks. In doing so, we can help them play a different role in the community. After all, farming has been a community event for hundreds and maybe thousands of years.

How can modern technologies help in this situation?

J.T.: Our objective is to find out ways to do that. We’re working in a number of nations with investment partners, governments, software providers, NGOs, and non-profits to find ways to deliver technology directly to those smallholder farmers for free. We have two groups of customers: the smallholder farmers and the governments themselves.

To reach this objective, we created a mobile app called Connected Farmer that can be used to register farms, set up geofences, etc., which allows us to use satellite and other technologies to improve or evaluate conditions in order to recommend improvements for individual farms. The app allows farmers to set goals and extract information regarding crops or livestock. With that information, we can provide analysis and offer best practices for improving productivity.

modern technologies farmers
Farmers can use mobile devices to introduce information about their crops in the field

Farmers also face problems related to animal health. How can technology help them deal with these issues?

J.T.: Our platform includes a genomics and genetics module that initially was built for governments. It gives farmers access to the information we retrieved from breeding or operations and genetic research labs, which is continually improved. Farmers can compare and assess their livestock using genetic predictors available in the app, just like we do in human health.

The app tracks different traits passed from parents to offspring among cattle and other livestock. They can easily submit information including physical genetic markers, such as the birth weight of a calf, or other health-related events to track the health of an animal throughout its life.

Certain diseases are passed from generation to generation. We offer sample kits that farmers can use to gather DNA from hair or blood and send it in for lab analysis. This information can be used to predict whether the offspring are likely to suffer from the same illnesses or have similar physical characteristics as their parents, which in turn allows the farmer to predict potential health issues and raise healthier livestock, or reduce some of the associated costs by making changes to the animal’s diet, activity, or behavior.

Data such as the weight, health, or ease of birth of a calf or illnesses in its first two years of life can either be analyzed individually or supplemented with additional genetics or genomics information and markers. We collaborate with geneticists and livestock experts, who have designed an algorithm that can make recommendations based on the combination of these two sets of information.

modern technologies farmers
Farmers can share with visiting specialists cattle data they gathered in the app

How do you make these platforms secure both for the farmers and the governments?

J.T.: Our platform contains information about the identity and financial operations of each farm, which we need to protect by maintaining a secure encrypted environment. Many challenges, including security, can be solved in a decentralized format. We’re also dealing with governments who require high levels of security. They also want to have control over certain data, and in many nations, we want to have data near the location. In a decentralized format, we can do that by combining technologies like edge computing and blockchain to deliver services and genomics.

For example, the genome of a cow is three gigabytes. We don’t want that completely decentralized and stored on 1,000 nodes around the world; we want to store it on a handful of nodes on the edge, and then store the basic identity information on the nodes around the world. Edge computing gives us quick access to the data, while blockchain keeps the identity data very secure, and the two pieces can’t work without each other. One piece of data isn’t useful without the other data.

Secondly, we’re dealing with complex supply chains. We’re not only dealing with a farm, but each farm is selling to packing houses, markets, and exporters. We need interoperability with many types of systems and provide data to many types of systems. Blockchain is highly suitable for maintaining security and ensuring high levels of trust regarding the permanent record within the system. So blockchain really fits that quite well. It’s much more difficult to maintain the level of security that we require in a completely centralized platform.

What are the biggest challenges in implementing modern digital technologies in agriculture?

J.T.: Like previous emerging technologies, blockchain & AI challenge the status quo and are still evolving as a technology. Blockchain with web3 is designed in such a way that we can layer and stack our technologies and make traditional mobile technologies communicate with the blockchain. There’s a bit of a misconception that a blockchain app is just a blockchain. But in fact, it consists of many different technologies.

When we need blockchain capability, we try to limit blockchain’s role in the software to providing or meeting that need. When we need artificial intelligence, we may be reading data from the blockchain. That data is analyzed to generate a report, which may – depending on its sensitivity – be written back to blockchain or kept in a traditional database.

How about at the farm level?

J.T.: Most smallholder farmers don’t have access to much technology. In a best-case scenario, their record-keeping is based on Excel and maybe an accounting system. But for the most part, we’re their first try at implementing technology on the farm. Most farmers wouldn’t notice that our platform uses blockchain; for them, it looks just like every mobile or web app.

However, not every farmer has access to the internet or cellular service, though most now have smartphones. How do we provide services that meet their infrastructure needs, not necessarily related to blockchain technology, but services where one farmer can log in live on their phone, potentially with offline access? Now, that’s a technology challenge.

Our ecosystem will allow other platforms to provide their software through the Dimitra portal itself. If you are a programmer located anywhere in the world, say in Kenya, and you have great software, and you want to use our team, use our distribution, and see how your product can align with our product, you can actually already publish your software within our platform itself. In the long term, we’re looking to have that in a hybrid open-source model, where any company can put their platform within the Dimitra platform itself.

If you had to single out the most significant challenges in helping smallholder farmers adopting technology, what would those be?

J.T.: I think as we grow as a company and get adoption around the world, language is of the first and simplest ones. In India alone, for example, our customers speak three or four languages, and that may cover only a percentage of the population. We’ve got the same issues in Africa and South America. The language issue is not difficult to overcome, but it does take time, effort, and money to publish the software in a number of languages and make it accessible.

The second challenge is the varying literacy levels in different areas of the world. How do you help those in need if their reading skills are lower than the typical average that we’re used to dealing with? We have to work with literacy experts to find different ways of helping farmers. How do you do this AND train all of those farmers? The solution we found is to outsource to knowledge partners, like, for instance with governments, NGOs, and non-profits. We train them so they can train the farmers, and allow them to play a role in distributing the software and helping people be effective with that.

In some of our projects, we need technology like sensors or DNA tests, and we get ecosystem partners who can go out and take a soil sensor reading on a farm, because a farmer may not be able to afford a soil sensor. We train that individual to show the farmer how to upload a soil sensor reading, and maybe show them a couple of tricks within the system to get more benefit for their farm in a very farm-specific analysis.

I think the human aspect in software in general, at least in my career, has been the hardest part. Developing the software is relatively easy. Communicating to thousands or millions of people who all have different communication styles, languages, and levels of literacy requires a certain touch.

When do you think that farmers using a simple app to manage their farms will become the “new normal” worldwide?

J.T.: I think that’s going to be different from region to region. It’s becoming normal in North America for farmers to use an app to do a number of things. I’m sure in the Netherlands, a large percentage of the firms are already using technology in that way. In India, we’re seeing adoption, and the levels are increasing. In some African countries that we’re working in, they don’t yet have the necessary infrastructure to make it normal. We’re going to learn the adoption levels of the country as we enter different countries and find our way around the local infrastructure capabilities.

I think there are generational aspects to it, too. Many young farmers are leaving the farming business, and older generations are looking at technology as a method to keep young farmers in the farming business and keep farming and agriculture exciting. It’s a new method for younger people in their late teens or early twenties to help the farm they’ve worked on – the farm that has belonged to their fathers, grandfathers, or their family for years and years.

When I grew up on my grandfather’s farm, my role was a laborer. I was the young guy who could throw the bales of hay on the wagon or whatever the case may be. Now the youth can teach the parents and teach the grandparents and teach those generational firms how to use technology to increase output. This way, the adoption rate could be much, much higher. It’s a new role, and it’s a new paradigm that we have to deal with.

For more interesting content on modern technologies used in agriculture, download our free publication about Innovation Trends in Circular Agriculture.

Sustainable Gardening and Permaculture – the Key to Restoring Urban Land Vitality

When speaking about sustainability, regeneration of resources, and permanent agriculture, people often think of fields and farms. We often forget that cities also occupy large swathes of land, and their landscape plays an important role in our entire ecosystems. Limiting our efforts to making open-field agriculture sustainable would not only be short-sighted, but also overlook massive benefits for us and the environment.


We spoke with Caleb Gruber, Supertrends expert in permaculture and owner of a business specializing in landscape designs for urban properties, about the challenges of restoring the ecosystem in the urban environment. We complemented his ideas with a few tech innovations that could benefit consumers in creating and maintaining their own home green spots in a sustainable way.

Supertrends: What is permaculture and why is it important for us?

Caleb Gruber: Permaculture gives us a system of ethics and principles which we can use to guide our urban land use decisions. For example, conversion of irrigated turf grass to wildscape and food production can have enormous environmental benefits.

In order to restore vitality and stability to our urban land, we must consider re-wilding as much of it as possible. Truly wild landscapes are at the heart of ecological sustainability – they provide the buffer for everything that we do, and it is the sheer beauty of these wild areas that grounds us and reminds us of our role as a humble species of Planet Earth.

Permaculture gives us a toolbox and a language for harmonizing with the rhythm of nature, for becoming stewards and caretakers of Earth rather than just taking resources from it, and for creating a new urban ecology which all beings of the Earth can benefit. Just imagine what we could do with all the land if we applied permaculture as a solution.

A NASA-sponsored study estimated that between 40% and 55% of all urban development in the US, or roughly 40 million acres, is devoted to irrigating turf grass. By converting just 10% of this land area to wildlife refuge, using permaculture methods and indigenous plants that flourish based only on natural precipitation, an estimated 25 trillion gallons of irrigated water per year could be saved. If another 10% of that land were used for growing food, we could grow enough to feed two million people.

ST: What are the most important practices of urban sustainable gardening?

CG: The most important practices of sustainable gardening can be drawn from permaculture, and that is to use only organic methods for growing, i.e., eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Only organic fertilizers should be used, such as manure and compost. The gardener should strive to keep their ecological loop as close as possible, meaning they should recycle nutrients and organic material back into their gardens by composting as much as possible and growing a sufficient amount of high carbon crops (a technique known as biointensive gardening). Also, it is very important to actually eat or use what you grow. Vegetable and fruit plants require a significant amount of water to grow, so it is important that we aren’t just growing food for “fun”, but with the intent of consuming all of it.


ST: Why is it important that city people practice sustainable gardening in their homes?

CG: Even by growing a small amount of your own food, you can greatly curb your carbon emissions. Food mileage has a significant carbon footprint. A tomato shipped from 1,000 miles away may have a carbon footprint of a few hundred pounds of CO2. By growing our own food, we also reconnect ourselves to the cycle of nature and gain a better appreciation for the process. We learn how to eat in season, and we learn how to preserve our food to make it last longer. Food security and food resilience depend on a diversified and stable food chain, and by growing food ourselves, we greatly increase our own resilience and the resilience of our local food system.

Click & Grow builds indoors smart gardens for home use that come already assembled and are fitted with automatic watering and lighting, as well as an accompanying app. Available in several sizes and levels of complexity, these little gardens make it possible to grow your own food, even if you live in an apartment.

ST: What are the practical challenges urban people face in implementing permaculture principles and sustainable gardening?

CG: Space is always a concern in urban settings. Many people may have access only to a balcony, or perhaps not even that. Modern technology gives us tools for growing plants indoors, but without direct access to the Sun, they are energy-intensive. Cities and suburban areas often have rules, ordinances, or Homeowner Associations that can impose legislative limits on what people are allowed to do on their properties, or may require that a certain percentage of their yard be devoted to turfgrass. It is not uncommon for urban soils to be polluted or contaminated, preventing people from being able to grow edible food safely. All of these issues create roadblocks and limitations to implementing permaculture that can be difficult to overcome. However, consumers don’t need to convert their entire property into a farm to practice permaculture or sustainable gardening. The best way to start is to start small, and use the permaculture principle of “small and slow solutions”. Plant a tree, start a small vegetable bed, make a worm farm, support local businesses – all of these things are a great way to get started with permaculture.

ST: What is a wildscape, and why is it important for the ecosystem?

CG: A wildscape is a deliberately altered and maintained landscape with the sole purpose of providing habitat for wildlife and conservation of regionally endemic plant species. This differs from a true wilderness area, in that a wildscape is maintained by humans, and in that wildscapes are typically a form of restoration from the previously damaged landscape. Urban areas have sprawled into wildlife habitats, causing irreparable damage and strain on the survival of wildlife. Therefore, it is critically important that we cultivate our urban land with the intention of providing habitat for wildlife.

ST: What is the role of pollinators for the ecosystem, and what should city dwellers be doing to protect them?

CG: Roughly 90 percent of plant species on Earth require pollination by animals in order to reproduce. For nearly 250 million years, flowering plants have been co-evolving in symbiotic relationships with their particular pollinator species. For example, the tubular white flowers of the flowering desert yucca plants co-evolved with only a few species of night moths and bats.

Urbanization of wilderness areas drastically changes the biodiversity of local pollinator communities. When we talk about pollinator conservation, we cannot omit a discussion of rural agricultural land and its impact on pollinator biodiversity population. Because agricultural land has takes up a much larger amount of land than urban areas, it is actually in these rural regions that we see significantly lower populations of pollinator species. As it turns out, urban areas can act as oases and refuges for these threatened pollinator species to survive.

In 2015, Barack Obama issued a challenge to the urban conservation community to create a million new pollinator gardens in residential yards and business campuses.

The farming robot from FarmBot is fully automated, can be assembled in a very short time (1h), and can be a good solution for busy city people who do not have a lot of time, but still want to grow their own food. The FarmBot is suited to growing a polycrop of many common garden vegetables at the same time.

ST: How can technology assist in implementing sustainable gardening in the city? Can you give us examples?

CG: One example of a sustainable garden technology is smart irrigation controllers. Most irrigation systems use timed controllers to water a landscape on a pre-set schedule. Modern smart irrigation controllers take this a step further by automatically up-regulating or down-regulating their water use by accessing the internet to predict the weather and rainfall amounts, and by using on-the-ground sensors to measure rainfall and soil moisture. The future of this technology will utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and more advanced sensors to integrate every measurable environmental factor, and cross-reference this information with botanical databases to determine the exact water needs of each individual plant in a landscape, thereby allowing plants to thrive on less water and not wasting a single drop of this precious resource.

Smart irrigation controllers could be connected to rainwater collection systems and prioritize the use of rainwater over tap water when the rain collection tanks are full.

There are also many technologies in the realm of hydroponics and aquaponics that can assist with increasing the sustainability of gardening in cities where it isn’t feasible to grow outdoors. Examples include LED grow lights, vertical hydroponic tower gardens, and growing systems incorporating fish (aquaponics). Composting technology has come a long way as well, and people can now purchase home-scale anaerobic digesters and biogas generators. Satellite technology could be used to determine which areas of a city might be best suited for conversion to wildscape or farmland.

ST: Should city people grow their own food? If yes, how and why?

CG: Without a doubt, everyone who lives in the city should be growing at least a small portion of their own food, and in particular, they should be growing things that they like to eat often. Growing our own food helps to curb carbon emissions from food mileage, and it also adds to the food security of the urban eco-region. But before starting out, it is important for people to do a bit of research and educate themselves on what techniques are appropriate for their region, so that they are using their natural resources most efficiently and effectively. There is an ever-increasing number of technologies for people living in city apartments to grow food indoors. Many companies have created hydroponic growing towers that can fit in a living room or balcony. Wall-mounted hydroponic systems exist, as well as small desktop grow lights.

Autonomous smart greenhouses from My Food are modular, turnkey solutions of different sizes and incorporate sustainable tech like water-saving function, and connected sensors for harvest optimization

ST: Can aquaponics and hydroponics technologies be used in an urban home setting? How and why?

CG: Yes, aquaponics and hydroponics can be a great alternative to traditional soil growing methods in urban settings, particularly when people have limited access to land. Aquaponics is a more sustainable approach than hydroponics due to the use of fish in the system. The fish, along with beneficial bacteria, provide all of the nutrient needs of the plants, and eliminate the need for synthetic nutrients. Hydroponics does have the advantage of being able to grow food in small spaces with just a small tank of water, such as grow towers like those of Lettuce Grow. One big advantage of using aquaponics or hydroponics indoors is that it is possible to grow food year-round, and if LED grow lights are used, electricity consumption can be minimized.

Curious to find out more about sustainable agriculture and technology? Check out our sustainability publications page for more information on the topic.

About Caleb Gruber

Caleb’s personal mission is to empower urban land owners to regenerate their land and use its inherent potential to create ecological habitat for wildlife and to grow healthy, organic food. Through his private design practice All Beings Ecoscapes LLC, Caleb creates holistic permaculture landscape designs for urban properties and works with clients to maximize the potential of their land and reconnect with the rhythm of nature. He has spent the last seven years studying and practicing sustainable farming and landscaping techniques, including permaculture design, ecological habitat design, organic gardening, hydroponics, and aquaponics. He also teaches sustainability topics at Montessori School of Denver. Caleb holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Permaculture Design Certificate from Koanga Permaculture Institute in New Zealand.

sustainable agriculture digitalization agriculture digitalization agriculture digitalization agriculture

Smart Software Could Make Sustainable Agriculture Affordable, Scalable, and Measurable


By 2050, humanity will need to produce 60 percent more food in order to feed the over nine billion people who will exist by then. These unprecedented demands on the planet’s resources will come as the need to mitigate climate change requires that the agricultural industry switch to more sustainable practices. Farmers will face even more pressure to meet the new requirements while keeping their businesses afloat. The main challenge is not only to make the agricultural sector sustainable but to protect farmers and their livelihoods in the process. Some answers could come from the geospatial industry.


Sustainable agriculture – a challenge of the future


Agriculture is vital for the survival of the human race. Farmers provide food and textiles, as well as fuels and raw materials for machines. Using modern technology and automation, farms becoming more efficient every year, but the current growth trend in agricultural production has a huge negative impact on natural resources and the environment.

Climate change aside, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) offers more reasons to replace current agricultural practices with more sustainable ones: One-third of farmland is degraded, up to 75 percent of crop genetic diversity has been lost, and 22 percent of animal breeds are at risk.

“There are around 10 million farms in the EU and 22 million people work regularly in the sector. They provide an impressive variety of abundant, affordable, safe and good quality products.” EC

But what makes agriculture sustainable? The FAO defines sustainable agriculture as “the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Such development […] conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.”

To put it more simply, we need to find ways to grow enough food to feed us all without harming the environment or shutting down all farming businesses in the process.

Carbon farming – unwanted chore or opportunity for agriculture?

The agriculture sector is responsible for a significant part of the global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions linked to climate change. Farmers can help solve this problem through carbon farming – sequestering carbon in the ground by taking it out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis.


“In 2018, agriculture and related land use emissions accounted for 17 percent of global GHG emissions from all sectors, down from 24 percent in the 2000s. In addition to the noted slight decrease in absolute emissions, this reduction in 2018 was also the result of emissions from other economic sectors growing at relatively faster rates during 2000–2018” – FAO.



Based on a study carried out from 2018 to 2020, which explored issues, challenges, and options related to carbon farming in the EU, the European Commission (EC) plans to launch a carbon farming initiative by the end of 2021. The study concluded that result-based carbon farming could be a key instrument in tackling climate change while also increasing bio-diversity and preserving ecosystems.

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In addition to the desirable climate effect, trapping carbon in the ground will also make the soil more fertile and productive. Better soil means higher productivity, but will this be enough to convince farmers to invest in CO2 trapping technology, re-organize existing systems, and change their practices? Economic incentives for farmers are seen as a powerful driver for the success of the initiative, so the new green business model would reward practices that will help EU achieve climate neutrality and create new sources of income for farmers.

In addition, the EC will develop a regulatory framework for certifying carbon removal. The action plan for both initiatives is planned to be announced officially by the end of 2021.

Accurate measurements and objective criteria – essential for fair financial support

Effective implementation of such incentive schemes requires a set of measurements tools and evaluation criteria that are accurate, objective, affordable, and scalable enough to drive real change in the field. To this end, the EC has enrolled the help of different organizations and private entities.

AgriCircle, a Swiss company developing software solutions for agriculture that already has a few innovation projects under its belt, is one of them.

The company is currently developing a platform for measuring the quantity of carbon sequestered in the soil and automatically generate certificates that can be converted into funds.

“Depending on the outcome of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) negotiations, eco-schemes can bring between EUR 38 billion to EUR 58 billion to farmers.” EC

Their system, based on remote sensing, years of experience in agronomical data modeling, and smart software, will simplify and automate the exchange of carbon credits and create an objective base for a carbon farming incentive scheme that farmers can trust and apply.

Based on satellite imagery and other remote sensing data, AgriCircle has developed measurement methods to monitor carbon sequestration that are not only precise but also affordable and scalable.

Their system, based on a mix of deep know-how and technology, minimizes the number of measurements performed on the field by humans by applying “precision soil sampling”. This method, which does not require a great deal of manpower or rely on the accumulated experience on the part the farmer, can lower the cost of soil measurements while providing additional information that is useful for land management.

“Monitoring the carbon content in the soil is not only an indicator of how much carbon could be removed from the atmosphere but also an important indicator of the soil’s health. Due to the soil’s heterogeneity and with carbon usually only accounting for 0.5 to 5 percent in it, it’s a challenge to do this accurately over an entire field. With the help of satellite data and AI, the most representative sampling points can be detected.

Subsequent calibration of the satellite data with the data taken from this soil sampling not only provides the required precision for a targeted improvement of the carbon stocks but also reduces the cost of soil sampling overall and builds a base for reliable and scalable carbon compensation schemes in agriculture,” Daniel Markward, co-founder of AgriCircle, told Supertrends in an interview.

Based on this data, the AgriCircle software calculates the quantity of carbon storage for each field and automatically issues a carbon storage certificate to the farmer. These certificates can then be exchanged between the farmer and a potential buyer, e.g., a food producer.

“We strongly believe we need to get away from activity-based measures and move towards outcome-based measures, where remote sensing technology such as ours is crucial.” Daniel Markward

The carbon measurement and monitoring method developed by AgriCircle could be the most precise process currently in the market, and it is already being used in several European countries.

As the method operates on open interface standards, it can be easily combined with various other complementary models or software systems and applications for the determination of greenhouse gases (GHG) and integrated into existing processes.

The AgriCircle team spent several years analyzing huge amounts of remote sensing data, combining it with ground measurements (60,000 data points for soil alone) and ultimately developing models that allow now the system to make accurate estimates about the field condition. The same platform can also give farmers valuable feedback about how to optimize practices like cultivation, fertilization, or use of crop protection.

“By 2026, we want to help our customers store 10 million tonnes / CO2eq per year in the soil.” AgriCircle

Success factors for the carbon farming project

Since the EC plans to launch the carbon farming initiative by the end of 2021, the implementation process could start as early as January 2022. The project will not focus solely on carbon sequestration, but will also facilitate collaboration between farmers and interested parties in the food supply chain and beyond. Its success will depend on many factors, but Daniel Markward believes one of the most important ones will be convincing the farmers not only that their investments will pay off via a fair price for farmed carbon, but also that the incentive scheme is based on reliable and accurate models and data.


“Everything starts with convincing the farmer. Farmers have gone through different changes through incentive schemes. The key is convincing them that this is not just a hype, but something that is here to stay,” Daniel Markward.


At the industry level, another challenge is to set a fair price for the sequestered carbon to incentivize adoption of, and investment in, new sustainable agriculture practices. After all, farming is a business, so landowners need to feel that their investment is justified. “Changing your way of work to regenerative agriculture practices usually requires an initial investment, and we think it’s crucial that farmers should receive fair prices for going through that change. That means that a good carbon credit price is one good incentive, so the overall price that farmers receive for the work they are doing needs to be on a level that makes it interesting for them to undertake these changes.” said Daniel Markward.

The EC plans to promote the new policy with a series of sub-projects, but the credibility of the scheme itself could be another important factor contributing to a successful implementation. This is why accurate measurements and widely accepted scientific methods of interpreting data should remove all doubts about the volume of carbon removed and the certificate itself.

On 14 July 2021, the EC adopted a series of legislative proposals regarding the concrete plans to achieve climate neutrality in the EU by 2050. As an intermediate goal, these plans aim for a net reduction of at least 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

In Daniel Markward’s opinion, when it comes to agriculture, this goal will be hard to achieve, but not impossible. “The cycles in the agriculture industry are much longer than in many other industries, so it takes a little bit more time to go through changes. However, if you’re able to start treating soil differently, and I think this is the essential point here, that we start doing that on a large scale and start doing it quickly, then I think we have a chance to cut emissions by 50 percent in the next 10 to 15 years, but it’s going to be a huge challenge.”

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Daniel Markward works for AgriCircle, a Swiss SME that connects farm data for better decision support along the food value chain. He co-founded the company in 2013 after finishing his MBA at the University of St. Gallen and has won several innovation prizes with AgriCircle since then. Before becoming an entrepreneur, he worked across industries for seven years as a management and technology consultant for KPMG in Zurich and Los Angeles.

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