The location of the second edition Urban Greenhouse Challenge, Dongguan in China, became out of reach due to the corona virus. An online masterclass with experts from the world of horticulture and societal impact and over one hundred speed dates replaced the original three-day site visit.
Silence. Except for the occasional blackbird that chirps a cheerful song while the sun heats up the deserted campus of Wageningen University & Research. The normal swarm of cyclists is absent, there are no groups of students sitting, chatting and laughing in the grass while enjoying the rays of warm sunlight on their faces. Buildings are dark. There is no sign of life on this campus of life science. But then, on the third floor of the education building Orion, a light indicates activity in one of the rooms.
There, a busy crew is hustling large tables, microphones and cameras. Quickly it starts to look like a professional TV studio. All over the world people are getting ready to peep into this studio from their homes. At 8 April, just after 13:00 CEST, their screens come alive and say: “Let’s get started”. A few seconds later, the first ever live studio of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge is a fact, Masterclass: Urban Greenhouse Live Event 2020 streams live over YouTube.
The Urban Greenhouse Challenge’ 2 is a competition that challenges students to design an urban greenhouse in Dongguan, China. Twenty teams, and thus twenty designs, are still in the race and were scheduled to visit Dongguan last February. The CoVid-19 outbreak forced the coordinators of the event to reorganise the visit into online events. An online speed date session between coaches and the student teams took place on 2 April. Today, the student teams will see three presentations that will help them finalize the plans for their urban greenhouse. Each presentation is followed by a live Q&A, where spokespersons of the teams call in to discuss with the experts.
At the same time the YouTube stream becomes live, the chatbox coupled to it awakens. Teams such as Coexist, teAMSpirit, Skygardeners, ARGOS and Bagua fanatically indicate their presence. But also other interested visitors tune in, hoping to learn more about horticulture, vertical and urban farming, societal Impact and financing. “Here we go”, says the organiser of the challenge in the chatbox. And indeed, at that moment the picture switches to the live studio in Wageningen where host and Dutch science journalist Jan Meijroos (Chief editor of Mashable Benelux) welcomes the viewers.
Behind the host a large screen displays a poster of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge. It illustrates that the challenge started with nearly five hundred students, divided over 53 teams and spread over 28 countries. Host Meijroos stresses the importance of the Student Challenge in the corona crisis. “Now is the time for innovation”, he says. “Creative and out-of-the-box solutions are needed more than ever”.
The masterclasses: a short recap
Consumer trends and urban farming in China.
Tiffany Tsui independent expert and chair jury of the challenge starts off the masterclass. “Congratulations on making it to the next round” Tsui starts. “The coming month will be an exciting period, since you will work out the final details of your urban greenhouse.” In her presentation, Tsui highlights the market transformation in China. “Online platforms have developed quickly in the last three to five years”, she says. While most of them were non-food platforms, such as Alibaba, online distribution of fresh products might be catching up as a result of the corona crisis.
Another noticeable shift in China is welfare. In the last five to ten years, incomes increased for people in the lower middle class. As a result, many of them now belong to the upper middle class and have money to spend. A survey performed amongst Chinese consumers revealed that Chinese people value trust. This trust includes food safety and limited environmental impact. The increasing welfare allows the Chinese consumers to pay more for trust. “One way to gain trust is with Track and Trace”, Tsui explains. This way consumers can trace the product back to its origin. “We are at very challenging but exciting times”, Tsui concludes. “Sometimes transformation occurs because they are forced upon us. We should join hands and work together”.
Joris Lohman, co-founder of Food Hub, introduces his masterclass from his home in Amsterdam, where his children are playfully screaming in the background. “They will go to the playground soon, so then it will be quiet here”, he says laughing.
In his masterclass Lohman focusses on transitions in food systems. “The last food transition took place right after the second world war”, Lohman says. At that moment, countries focused on re-starting society and for that, large amount of food was necessary. Therefore, the food production shifted from small to high food and agriculture production.
“Big crises and unexpected events create a window of opportunity for food transitions”, Lohman says. Currently, the word experiences a crisis that may shift us to regional food production. While Lohman does not think we should exclusively produce food regionally, he does stress that there are many reasons to invest in more resilient and regional food systems. “The crisis we are in now, may give us a push in this direction and allowing previously designed innovations to be implemented”, Lohman says.
Societal impact and impact bonds
Imre Vellenga broadcasts the masterclass from his office of Society Impact: a non-profit organisation in The Hague. Businesses come in all shapes and sizes and can be considered as a spectrum, ranging from traditional businesses where profit is the main or only goal, to charity organisations whose main goal is to aid society. Vellenga focuses on businesses somewhere in the middle: ‘social entrepreneurs’. These businesses want to make profit, but also make a positive impact on society.
“There are different ways to make profit”, Vellenga explains. “Let’s say you grow tomatoes. You can sell them, but in addition you can rent out a room in your building or sell space for advertisements”. But those are not the only options according to Vellenga. Impact bonds are success-based contracts that rewards achievements. In this case entrepreneurs only pay back investors if they reach the agreed upon objectives. This way the investor, not the entrepreneur, is at risk. “If you want to make a social impact with your urban greenhouse, it can be worth having a look into social impact bonds”, Vellenga advises.
Back in studio, Challenge coordinators Marta Eggers and Rio Pals join host Meijroos. Given mild health complains, Pals decided to take precautionary measures and call in from home. “It has been, and still is, a great adventure”, Eggers says. “There were many moments we were overwhelmed, but we never gave up. Just as the teams: we admire them for soldiering on”.
Preparations for the second edition of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge commenced in 2019. At the time of the outbreak, the visit to Dongguan was already planned and scheduled. “We had to have many emergency meetings”, Eggers says. “Initially we planned to move the event to Amsterdam, but this plan too had to be cancelled.” Luckily, students and coaches responded positive to the online speed dating event last week. “Teams want to keep going.” And so far, the organisers of the event are impressed by all the ideas. “We are impressed with the level of innovation and creative solutions the student come up with. We are looking forward to next milestone”, Pals says. Eggers adds: “I am very proud of all teams. We are now taking the final sprint before the next milestone. Keep on going. Get to the finals and shine”.
The finals of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge are scheduled to take place on 22 June. The organisers will closely monitor the development of the virus outbreak and keep everyone posted about the finals in corona times. Who knows, perhaps by that time Wageningen University & Research will be swarming with students and cyclists once more.