What is it like to compete as a team in the Urban Greenhouse Challenge?

April 20, 2022

The student teams participating in the Urban Greenhouse Challenge #3 are taking on a real and complex challenge: devising an urban farm for one of the most diverse lower-income neighbourhoods of Washington D.C., that contributes to improving the quality of life of the residents. How are they faring?

In the final stretch of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge #3, the teams are now preparing for the second selection moment that will determine who will compete in the Grand Finals. Helping them are experienced coaches from the partner network. ‘We’re about 70% finished,’ says Camilo Ayala of team AgroLab. The teams are now working to complete their proposals, trying to bring together all the different aspects of a complex project like this. With the added emphasis of social impact, this year’s competition is a challenge indeed.

The student teams have also overcome their share of hurdles already. The members of AgroLab and team AggieCulture have learned how to work together in interdisciplinary teams, got some reality checks from industry experts and got inspired for the future of urban food ecosystems. The Urban Greenhouse Challenge has cast a spell over their lives. ‘It’s very hard not to be thinking about these things all the time,’ says Max Vo of team AggieCulture.

Communicating between disciplines

Mateo Villegas of AgroLab came to the challenge out of interest in sustainability, and more specifically the role food plays in a more sustainable world. ‘Food is our number one resource. It’s what we consume the most. This makes its potential enormous.’ Mateo is an anthropologist as well as a biologist. Bringing sustainable farming into our cities, among our lives, calls for a combination of his specialties. ‘Combining the cultural and natural, so to say.’ Camilo Ayala adds that the Challenge is great opportunity to work in a diverse team of students with different areas of expertise. ‘We get to see all the potential from all these knowledge areas.’

Part of team Aggieculture.
Part of team Aggieculture.

Bringing his team together was an interesting process for Max of AggieCulture as well. Starting with his fellow students in plant sciences, he soon branched out to recruit designers, architects. ‘It really gave me different perspectives from their areas of focus. The team brought together ideas and approached the project in ways I wouldn’t have even thought of.’

Communication within such a multidisciplinary team is a challenge. ‘One of our coaches provided us with the four “selfies” as a tool to optimize our collaboration as a team: self-awareness, self-assessment, self-improvement and self-reporting. It’s a continuous process.’

Advice from industry and local experts

The teams’ first concepts were inspired by specific cultivation techniques or interests in specific technologies. Meetings with variety of experts and coaches has broadened the students’ horizon to include all different aspects in the site design. ‘You’ve got people, process and technology,’ explains Max. ‘Our team was initially very tech-driven. Since our consultations we’ve been able to take a step back and focus more on the people using the technology and the process in which it functions.’ They’ve realized this Challenge is all about the people of D.C.’s Ward 7. ‘We want to give them the basic model. We want to give them ownership over it, so they can develop it as they see fit.’

Podcast about the world of urban farming

Urban Greenhouse Talks cover.png

‘Urban Greenhouse Talks’ explores the world of urban farming through the lens of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge #3. In the first episode, the guests will discuss the role of food innovation in relation to social innovation and the value of local communities as part of new advancements in the sector. “Greenhouses need to match the society,” points out Dr. Wertheim-Heck, an argument supported by Prof. Spaargaren’s observation that “the food agenda should follow the social agenda.”

Listen to the podcast

‘We are still working on a sustainable business model,’ says Camilo of AgroLab. The winning concept in the Urban Greenhouse Challenge is not just innovative, sustainable and socially impactful. ‘It also needs to be financially sustainable – in the long term,’ he emphasizes. ‘The economic aspect is really, really important.’ The advice of their coaches was integral to this realization and in response AgroLab expanded their team to include more expertise in this area, finding the collaborators necessary to make their proposal a success.

‘The experts have been a huge influence but it’s the local people, who will use the farm, that inspired us the most. The opportunity to talk to them has been immensely valuable,’ tells Camilo. ‘I think the social fabric a project generates is the most important. Getting to know what the neighbourhood needs, what they want, was essential.’ Mateo agrees with his teammate: ‘We made a huge effort to gather as much information as we could about the local people, institutions, the city.’

A community of ideas

‘It’s been an interesting process to study the site as a distance,’ tells Mateo. The visit of the site of this year’s challenge had to be virtual, as a result of the pandemic. ‘We found that there were actually some similarities with our home, Columbia. The history of colonization, the racialized population. It was a very interesting and enlightening comparison.’

Max calls the Urban Greenhouse Challenge ‘a competitive but ultimately collaborative experience.’ ‘It’s just amazing to me. And it’s exactly what I think we need: a community for people to share these ideas and to really work together. To share in the excitement.’ The experience of working to better the lives of the citizens of Washington D.C.’s Ward 7 has been challenging, eye-opening and surprising.

The student teams still have some time to incorporate the latest advice of their expert coaches and hand in their definitive proposal. On June 8 the jury will announce which teams will compete in the Grand Finals.