Brilliant ideas should be shared

Two weeks ago Eric Schmidt visited MIT, and talked about the incredible potential of technology to create a collective intelligence, a “global mind,” that can solve the world’s biggest problems.

And while modern technology giants have their proponents and detractors, last weekend’s Farm Hack epitomized this ideal of a collective intelligence that can improve our lives in a concrete, measurable way.

On November 17th, 25 farmers, scientists, designers, and agriculture enthusiasts gathered on Dorn Cox’s organic farm in New Hampshire for a design charrette. According to the wiki dictionary:

A design charrette is a method of organizing thoughts from experts and the public into a structured medium that is unrestricted and conducive to the creativity and the development of a myriad of scenarios.

We spent all day Saturday looking at the innovations Dorn had rigged on his farm, and thinking about how we could all get more creative about small-scale agriculture. Dorn had rigged a tractor to automatically install fencing; he set up a backyard biodiesel processor, so his equipment could run sustainably; he used radishes to reinvigorate his soil, avoiding the need to fertilize or over-till his fields. I watched, enthralled, as Farm Hack attendees dug into Dorn’s inventions, asking questions and “reverse engineering” his equipment so they could recreate it on their own farms.

We also discussed some high-tech innovations that could revolutionize smallholder farming. One Farm Hack attendee has been working on GardenBot, which is open-source software for, well, a robot that uses a tiny computer (called an Arduino) to help you monitor what’s happening in your garden. It can even automate your cooling and watering systems.

Farm Hack participants brainstorm new tools for small farmers, including a forum for idea- and invention-sharing

Farm Hack participants brainstorm new tools for small farmers, including a forum for idea- and invention-sharing

But this design charrette wasn’t limited to practical tips from one farmer to another. Small-scale farmers encounter obstacles every day, and often struggle to connect with a larger community that may have already solved that day’s challenge. So Farm Hack’s ultimate goal is to build a forum where farmers can access one another’s innovation in a lasting, scalable way.

In this vein, Sunday we brainstormed what farmers need to be wildly successful in their work, and how we can create a virtual community to support that. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition is now starting an open source forum where agriculture practitioners and researchers can share blueprints and inventions, or seek help and guidance for everyday challenges. This forum will help farmers build off the momentum and brains of their colleagues – down the street, or across the planet.

I think this is exactly the good stuff Eric Schmidt was talking about.

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