The online and physical worlds continue to blur; this is something local food systems can’t afford to ignore.
Fortunately, the technology of the internet, big data, and the internet of things (IoT) are becoming powerful tools for a growing number of small-scale urban food producers who use them to do more and better, with less. By less, we mean less time and effort to grow, promote and sell products, less labour and distribution costs, as well as less environmental impact. This article wants to briefly demonstrate how new technologies are about to democratize efficient and sustainable production and distribution of food at the hyperlocal level.
The rise of the hyperlocal on search engines
The increase of searches using the term “Near me” qualifier shows that people are increasingly using the internet to search for products and services in their immediate environment.
Here are some quick facts from think with Google:
- From 2011 to 2015, a 34x increase of Google searches interested in “near me”
- In 2016, mobile made up 84% of all “near me” searches
- In May 2016, 76% of people who conducted a local search on their smartphone visited a physical location within 24 hours, and 28% of those searches resulted in a purchase
Thus, to innovate and be sustainable, small and micro-scale growers must learn to leverage social, mobile and digital market opportunities to make local digital shoppers and the physical world converge on their products. Mobile and digital marketing tools become essential to improve small and micro-scale producers’ visibility to those in their immediate environment and increase their sales without having to move from where they grow. This can particularly benefit those who can’t go to, afford, or qualify for a spot at their local farmers’ market.
Knowing your hyperlocal market like never before
There is a gap between what people say — or think — and what they really do. When it comes to food, people may publicly support the idea of eating “Product X”, while in reality they are mostly buying “Product Y”. Online shopping for local food can provide growers with a better understanding of the demand in their immediate environment. The data set generated from interactions and transactions on an online market can help producers make informed decisions on what and how much should be grown. Data analytics from online local food producers’ markets could improve local food systems at many levels. This can help avoid food waste by not growing products that people don’t buy, thus saving producers time, effort and money. This is particularly relevant for small and micro-scale producers who need to optimize sales returns on the spaces they used and time they spent.
The convenience of proximity
In a context of constant urbanization, population density represents a serious advantage for small and micro-scale urban food producers. With an enhanced visibility generated from internet searches using key terms such as “near me” and intelligible data that makes them offer products that address demand, proximity is addressing the need for convenient online food product purchases by reducing the minimal distance between producer and buyer. Proximity may also provide further flexibility in terms of distribution and pickup solutions for online purchases.
From DIY to Open Source software, apps and IoT
Do It Yourself (DIY) gardening methods on the internet are growing and include options for permaculture, vertical gardening, hydroponics and aquaponics. What is about to revolutionize the gardening world is the coupling of DIY methods with softwares or apps that allow for automation of certain aspects of gardening like soil condition monitoring, watering, weeding, pests control, etc. These will help remove many of the inconveniences of gardening, and reduce efforts and labour time required, all while enhancing results. Companies like Rainmachine or greenIQ are examples of this type of integration.
Don’t forget the importance of blockchain-based technologies and solar energy in the equation. Added to the mobile internet, e-commerce, big data, IoT and eventually AI, these all constitute elements that have the potential to create efficient, personalized, connected, decentralized, automated and autonomous hyperlocal food systems, managed by individuals and/or communities. Hence, making the future of urban agriculture full of local and sustainable economic opportunities.