The era of exponential technologies will reshape business

The world is spiky, not flat

High-tech entrepreneurs have started to bring farming closer to where the food will be eaten. Urban vertical farms, popular in Japan and spreading elsewhere, are unusually efficient. In this setup, the traditional field is chopped up and assembled in indoor stacks. A modern vertical farm may run up to 12 or 13 stories high, each with a floor area of a few dozen square meters. This method increases the productivity of each square meter of “farmland”: when built vertically, 40 square meters of growing area can concertina to nearly ten times that.

Rather than using ordinary greenhouse lights, with their wide spectrum of colors, some vertical farms’ lights shine only the precise wavelengths to which the vegetables respond. Not even a photon of light is wasted. The farms’ energy costs decline, and by using renewable energy (often supplied via solar panels on the roof of the building), their carbon footprint drops even further. Provided one has the resources to invest in the technology, these farms can be built more or less anywhere. 

Historically, food needed to be transported from rural farms to urban centers. But the new technology of urban farming means this need not be the case. With their smaller footprints, farms can be closer to the mouths they feed—sometimes even in the city they serve. Montreal’s 15,000-square-meter (160,000-square-foot) Lufa Farms greenhouse, the world’s largest, sits directly on top of a distribution warehouse. A tennis court is less than 300 square meters (3,000 square feet); Lufa would easily fit 50 of those. The proximity of Lufa to its consumers allows for fresher produce cultivated for nutrition. And many urban farms are following this template: built close to the retailer so that the tomato practically rolls from its vine into your shopping bag.

As of 2020, vertical farms have a tiny share of the food market. But the market for high-intensity vertical farms is growing at more than 20% per annum, on the march up to our exponential curve. The effects of this shift could be staggering. If, in the 20th century, that ancient human problem—that you can only eat what is nearby—was solved by globalized logistics, then the 21st century offers an alternative solution.

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