The urban challenges of the day include a lack of space and wasting of resources. These are problems in need of creative solutions. FvF and MINI’s “Vertical Farm to Table” dinner in Munich featured more than just a special menu—it was also serving interesting ideas for the future that were discussed by the community.
For a city to provide something for everybody, it needs to be created and shaped by everybody. How does that work? A potential starting point could be to open up a dialogue about the wishes, hopes, problems, and challenges that urban living is faced with. With the central theme of Sharing Ideas for Life in the City, MINI Germany and Freunde von Freunden started the joint initiative, The Sooner Now. It aims to provide a platform for innovative projects and people that seek to improve living standards in cities.
The program for the summer launched at the Lovelace Hotel in Munich with over 40 guests from the fields of art, architecture, design, illustration, and gastronomy who engaged in talks on future urban topics. These keynotes were followed by an open discussion about personal visions for their own city. Among the guests were some familiar faces, such as Niels Jäger and Paul Putzar who have shared their perspective on Munich on FvF before. The Sooner Now joins the network of FvF with the ideas that have been voiced by MINI internationally. Ever since the construction of the first MINI in 1959, the car manufacturer has also addressed the future of urban living. Especially in the fields of infrastructure and mobility there are constantly new challenges to face. In their welcoming speech, Christian Ach and Ulrike von Mirbach of MINI Germany explained that their company defined itself as an urban brand. For MINI, the question of how we can develop further is related to the question of how life evolves in the city.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
One of them is the “Urban-X” program, which is a start-up accelerator for founders “whose products and services make life in the city more beautiful, efficient or livable,” according to MINI’s Eva Becker. MINI and the Urban Us venture fund are supporting the program. “We share the idea with the founders that technology and design can shape the future of cities—and every single one of us can contribute,” Becker explains. The great Canadian author and architectural critic Jane Jacobs fittingly once said that “cities have the capability of providing something for everyone, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Twice a year, ten teams make their start. Within 20 weeks, they develop a viable product from their idea, which they then present at a demo day in front of investors and potential partners. While Urban Us provides its network of cities and urban innovators, MINI brings design and engineering expertize to the program.
MINI has set itself to the task of delivering added value in the urban context with creative solutions. “This is why we support founders with urban ideas, beyond the field of automobiles,” says Becker. A sum of up to $100,000 is allocated for each project. It’s important to support ideas at an early stage and to help the start-ups actively. “There’s plenty of overlap between MINI and founding concepts because we see ourselves as a design company,” she adds.
WearWorks is one of the start-ups that have so far received support. They produce devices for blind people to help them navigate in urban areas. Another one is Farmshelf. Andrew Shearer explained his concept with the phrase, “We bring the farm to you.” Out of this initial idea, he developed a modular Indoor-Farming-System, which provided the guests with a taste experience at first hand.
The philosophy: It becomes easy for everyone to grow their own food—to harvest a hydro culture that makes growing plants possible without having an open field. This makes the system also function sustainably in densely populated areas. The New Yorker explains the idea behind it all. Food in the US would, on average, cover a distance of 1,500 miles to reach consumers. In the case of conventional cultivation, costs are incurred for labor, land, logistics, all of which are considerably lower when produced indoors.
"The best way to tell the story is to grow the vegetables directly in front of people," Shearer says. "The idea is nice, efficient, and fun." In his hometown of New York, the concept is already present in various places. Anyone who eats at Grand Central Station’s Great Northern Food Hall sits next to one of these futuristic indoor farms. Farmshelf can also be used in schools and hospitals. The demand will continue to grow. According to the United Nations, a 70 percent increase in food production by 2050 will be necessary to feed the world's population (who are increasingly living in cities). So, what to do? "Everyone can become a farmer," says Shearer. That's by no means intended solely for restaurateurs, but everyone can become an indoor hobby gardener, install a mini-farm in his own kitchen and use the harvest directly for cooking. The required resources for this sort of cultivation are fewer than for traditional farming, according to Shearer. Nevertheless, flavor and quality meet the standards of traditionally cultivated vegetables. Another benefit of Farmshelf: Healthy nutrition becomes accessible for more people than before.
The system by Farmshelf works with LED lamps, which replace the sunlight and allow for the optimal growth of the plants. That’s how the Farmshelf principle works in closed spaces. Cameras also collect data to monitor and optimize cultivation. The urban farmer can navigate everything through an app. A time-lapse shows the growth of the salad and the user can share photos and videos with other users. According to Shearer, the system is also so profitable because the cost of LED lamps has declined considerably in recent years. It’s simply economically sensible to shorten the traveling distance of food. “Our concept will make the Internet revolution boring,” he remarks with a bit of humor. One Farmshelf-unit currently provides room for 120 lettuces to grow per month. Due to further optimization, Shearer wants to increase this number to 180.
With their presentation, Urban-X and Farmshelf hit a nerve: Similar questions have also been asked in Munich. Will we grow our own food in the future? How can we better utilize available spaces in our city? The dinner in Munich did not only open up the discourse about innovative ideas about the future, but also it took place in one. “The Lovelace – A Hotel Happening” will open up its doors in the heart of Munich in the late summer and the guests of The Sooner Now could already experience its concept. For the duration of two years, a former bank will become a temporary hotel and at the same time an open space for the city. Such a concept for interim usage has been missing in Munich so far.
“In the end, we are all people with the same fears, joys, and hopes.”
Equally impressed with new developments in his city is restaurateur Niels Jäger who operates both the techno/electro club Bob Beaman and the Flushing Meadows Hotel in Munich and used to be a bouncer and bartender in the city. He wants hotspots for all citizens in the urban area to provide everyone with free internet access. “Unfortunately, we’re a bit behind on that.” The topic of transport is becoming increasingly important. In his opinion, cities like Munich need “more car-sharing concepts and better-developed bicycle paths.”
Graphic designer Paul Putzar is particularly concerned with the topic of affordable housing: “How can socially disadvantaged people in the future find a place in the cities without being packed together in troubled areas? I hope that models will be created for that, bringing together people of all ethnic groups and societies. Because in the end, we’re all human beings with the same fears, joys, and hopes.”
The various considerations of the guests that evening in Munich have demonstrated that designing the future also comes with responsibility. Only together can we make sustainable decisions on how to move forward.
The Sooner Now is a joint initiative of FvF and MINI Germany which aims to provide a platform for innovative projects and people wanting to contribute to a better lifestyle in cities. Both in the physical and figurative sense: The Sooner Now is as an ongoing discussion designed to look beyond formats and cities. More on the program for 2017/18 will be available shortly on thesoonernow.com.
For those who want to know more: All the info about MINI’s accelerator Urban-X is on their website. The third application phase for start-ups is still open until July 21st. You can find more on Farmshelf, one of the first funded start-ups here.