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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


Getting beyond Green: Envisioning an Industrial Reboot

Farming Up

Another example of biomimicry is the vertical farm, in which crops are grown in a water and nutrient mix (hydroponics) or in a nutrient-laden mist (aeroponics) in specially constructed, sunlight-maximizing high-rise buildings. As proposed by Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier, a vertical farm would behave like a functional ecosystem in which waste is recycled and the water used is recaptured by dehumidification and recycled in a closed-loop system.

Despommier estimates that by the year 2050, 80 percent of the global population will live in cities. But climate change and a dearth of farmland could make it increasingly difficult to grow enough food for urban dwellers, and the environmental and financial costs of shipping food great distances are already apparent. The vertical farm, which could produce the equivalent of as many as 20 traditional soil-based acres per floor depending on the crop, could be a breakthrough solution for providing food to ever-growing and ever-denser urban populations. (Designs for a prototypical vertical farm can be seen at

In his book The Vertical Farm: Feeding Ourselves and the World in the 21st Century, Despommier lists a host of advantages to growing food in city high-rises. Crops would be protected from weather and the vagaries of climate change. The use of fossil fuels would be reduced. The agricultural runoff of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers would be eliminated, and the land now used for farming and other purposes could be used less intensively, allowing the soil and nearby rivers to recuperate.

Indoor farming lies at the root of a concept for a chic new food mart developed as a summer project by a team of graduate students at Singularity University, which was cofounded by futurist Ray Kurzweil. At Denmark’s Nordic Exceptional Trendshop 2010, the students promoted their concept for a self-serve grocery store/indoor farm/café, in which food is grown on shelves that line the wall and fish are farmed in a stream that runs underneath the store and is visible beneath a glass floor. If it can get funding, the team plans to collaborate with NASA on robotics, explore genetically modified food, and integrate new advances in LED lighting into the facility. (See

Of course, enticing people to buy and eat food grown indoors will require that it live up to the popular paradigm of healthy food — pastoral farms and harvests rich with color and smell. “Paradigms hold immense sway over our minds,” Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute and coauthor of Natural Capitalism, said in a recent interview in the MIT Sloan Management Review. “We all struggle with this, but as...[Polaroid founder] Edwin Land used to say, ‘People who seem to have had a new idea have often simply stopped having an old idea.’ That’s the hard part.”

Electric Cars, Smart Grids

Consider the paradigmatic car. Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century, by the late William J. Mitchell, an MIT professor, and Christopher E. Borroni-Bird and Lawrence D. Burns, two General Motors executives, argues that the 120-year-old conceptual model of the automobile is no longer tenable. Emissions, congestion, rising gas prices, and probable fuel shortages are all problems that can be traced back to cars as they are currently conceived. (See “The Thought Leader Interview: Lawrence Burns,” by Scott Corwin and Rob Norton, s+b, Autumn 2010.)

The automobile, as the authors point out, was created in the vein of an even older tradition — the horse and carriage. There is no law dictating that the engine be in the front of the car; the fact that horses pulled carriages was simply too strong an image for early inventors to ignore. They also calculated their new invention’s performance in terms of “horse power.”

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Industrial Reboot Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Elizabeth Grossman, Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry (Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2009)
  2. Dickson Despommier, The Vertical Farm: Feeding Ourselves and the World in the 21st Century (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010)
  3. William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns, Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2010)
  4. Peter Fox-Penner, Smart Power: Climate Change, the Smart Grid, and the Future of Electric Utilities (Island Press, 2010)
  5. Vinnie Mirchandani, The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-technology Innovations (Wiley, 2010)
  6. Matthew E. Kahn, Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in a Hotter Future (Basic Books, 2010)
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