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Parallel Garden: Hydroponics with a Greater Mission


Parallel Garden uses hydroponic crop cultivation to deal with the environmental impact of cryptocurrency mining, and provides a prototype alternative to destructive mainstream agriculture practices.

In the Bistro Cafe in the Letna district in Prague, visitors may be struck by a laddering row of pipes, with sprouting crops popping out of them. This is an example of small-scale hydroponic agriculture system - a method of growing crops that uses nutrient-enriched water instead of soil. Not only does is effectively enhance the hipster aesthetic, but it is also represents an initiative that brings together political philosophy, sustainable agriculture and IoT (internet of things) technology.

Closeby at Bitcoin Coffee, belonging to the crypto-anarchist hub of Paralelni Polis, you will find another set of young lettuces growing in a box beneath LED lights. In this very location, the project Parallel Garden was conceived and developed. It is not by chance the the project falls in line with the ethos of Paralelni Polis, which is rooted in the socio-political conceptual framework established by Czech dissident Vaclav Benda in the late 1970s. Through an active and practical approach taking place parallel to existing dominant global production structures, Parallel Garden is tackling the issue of sustainable agriculture one calculated step at a time.

The initiative was founded by a team of three; blockchain-solutions focused attorney Radim Kozub, entrepreneur and cryptocurrency miner Michal Zatřepálek, and agricultural technologies specialist Jakub Hamata. With the support of a vibrant community, Parallel Garden are aiming to recycle the heat produced from mining cryptocurrencies for maintaining a rooftop greenhouse. By using an alternative approach to build a small-scaled solutions to global environmental issues and relying on the precision of decentralized, open source technology, the local hydroponic lettuce operation may have grander implications. To understand the depth and complexity behind the seemingly simple action of growing lettuce in a few Czech cafes, let's firstly examine the dire state of agriculture in the face of unsustainable mainstream practices.

The urgency to tackle unsustainable agriculture

The areas which are affected by the agriculture industry are the environment, the utilization of natural resources, and the quality of food produced. In a national context, there is a high pressure to maximize the yield of the production unit to ensure a cheap as possible product. Great sums of input is used to increase the quantity of production, including large monoculture units that are easily maintained by vast machinery, industrial fertilizers, pesticides. Farmers also avoid periods for the field to rest and regenerate the amount of organic matter within the soil. As a result, both the immediate and the broader environment is damaged, as vast amounts of degraded soils are losing the ability to hold water and the underground water is contaminated. The Czech hydrometeorological institute showed that 40% of representative fresh water springs contained contamination by pesticides above the limit. Climate change only worsens the conditions of these resources, especially the increasing frequency of droughts. If agriculture continues its exhaustive methods with its heavy input, there is a danger of an ecosystem collapse.

Governmental policies have a big role to play in this through regulations, subsidies and corporate influence. In the Czech Republic, the subsidizing incentives for farmers are monopolized by large corporations, strengthen their position in the market, putting any smaller business at risk. Agrofert is the largest Czech conglomerate corporation which operates agriculture, food production, related chemical production, forestry, energy companies as well as mass media industries. It was founded by the prime minister, and is owned by his family and lawyers. He has been facing accusations of misusing subsidies, conflict of interest in his position, but with no significant consequences. Small farmers are paying taxes straight into Agrofert, which will in turn out-run them or adversely change legislation for their business. Jakub says:

"There are farmers who are aware of the problem and feel nervous. They are relying on their land which makes them even more vulnerable. Many of them remember times when their land was taken away by communists, and it can happen even today through processes of rotten market setup, but fully legally! Some of them have contacted us already that they would like to explore innovative technologies including options to grow without land to find new ways to become more resistant to such pressure."

Taking parallel action

The national and global threats caused by the operation of agriculture are a big-scale problem that can be approached from different ways. As Radim discusses, there are three pathways to approaching such an issue. Firstly is the reformative approach, which would involve voting for a green party to be elected in your local or national parliament to represent and advocate sustainable practices. Secondly is the radical approach, which could mean protesting against establishments, by for instance joining the Extinction Rebellion movement. Thirdly is the parallel approach, in which you work on your own solution to the problem. This way, you are not demanding solution (like the radical), not forcing solution (like the reformative), you simply create it. This does not mean one person or community will hold the keys to a new global solution. But you start small, test, iterate and determine whether your solution works on the local scale, and if it is successful it can be scaled and slowly adopted.

The benefit of a parallel approach means that by starting small and scaling up, mistakes are cheaper. Furthermore, it can take place at the same time to existing structures and ongoing reformative or radical approaches. The public can later adjust to the better or more efficient idea that solves the issue at hand. This parallel approach was developed as a defense mechanism of a dissident community who refused to submit to authoritarian state power in 1970s Czech Republic. To preserve their freedom, they established parallel structures for education (teaching critical thinking to counter ideological indoctrination), economy (based on peer-to-peer exchange of goods), information systems (samizdat and unofficial periodicals), and culture (an illegal underground scene). The social phenomenon was essentialized in an essay titled Parallel Polis, written by philosopher Vaclav Benda in 1978, and remains relevant today in the construction of independent systems. It is in these principles that Paralelni Polis and Parallel Garden are rooted.

The key features of Parallel Garden are to operate without any support from any central entity, especially the government or any other public budget while emphasizing peer-to-peer relationships, and focusing on the role of technological tools for freedom.

A tech-savvy hydroponic solution

The big problem that Parallel Gardens tackles is unsustainable approach to agriculture, the wasting of natural resources, and unsophisticated way of mining cryptocurrencies, which does not use the residual heat. In order to do so, the team developed a hydroponics system based on IoT automatization.

IoT refers to a series of computers that communicate between each other through internet. For the hydroponics system, this is essential for data measuring and storage control of the different elements in real time. In a fully functioning system, the IoT device monitors and controls the different elements - such as the water pump and the lights. It is able to measure the amount of sunlight coming from outside, and in real time control the electricity consumption of the lighting system. The same thing goes for water. Using exterior applications on the field where the IoT device controls the drip irrigation, based on the humidity and moisture of the substrate. Jakub explains that they are "developing automation that can control the consumption of resources in real time, with the accuracy that a human cannot achieve. Also this is done for a reasonable price, it is part of the steps of the circuit."

The first hydroponic box that was built in Bitcoin Coffee lays the foundation of the IoT system that runs the automation. The box serves as a reservoir for the water and nutrients, and there is a pump which brings the solution through a drip-irrigation system. The excess water is collected in the box and keeps circulating. In the latest design of the vertical installation which is found in Bistro, the system works a bit differently. The plants grow with the roots in a stable water level in the channel created by the pipe. At the bottom of the installation is a reservoir from which water is pumped up and then trickles back down. As a result, the team knows exactly what is inside the system, and 97% of water consumption is saved in comparison to soil-grown plants. The significance of automation is not in the reduction of manpower, but in the conservation of resources for environmental impact.

Radim tells that a second prototype for the "Crypto-boiler" has been completed. This is a scalable boiler enabling to use the residual heat from mining. Radim says that "regarding the inputs, we are developing smart mining solution. From this perspective, Parallel Garden is the whole particular project that develops smart agricultural solutions with possible implementation of residual heat from mining."

The role of open source and community

An essential feature of this project is its inherent transparency through the use of open source software. With all the experiences, best-practices, programming and other know-how recorded and shared, anyone can start their own Parallel Garden. Michal says:

"If we use open-source and open communication, we can show others what we are doing. We communicate about everything we use and the quantities, unlike the monopolies who don't communicate anything about their methods. We want to discuss what is going on, even if something does not go as well as we would like. But we want to share it and make the ideas and best practice spread as much as possible."

With all the information readily available, when someone has the data on how to be profitable, you can scale the project and adjust the input, and everyone can learn from it. For this, open-source protocol serves as a community and peer-to-peer learning tool. "The accurate feedback on the effect of our actions was substantial to us," the founders say, "so we refused state-based financial sources and emphasize the peer-to-peer relation."

Parallel Garden makes sure people are provided with all the information, on Github as well as updates on social media. More directly, the team started the enviro-meetup every other week at Paralelni Polis which gathered a strong community. The aim is to share the idea so others can start growing their own crops, speak to experts and learn to learn from each other, and bring the responsibility of ethical food production to the people. The technology for hydroponics exists and is being used around the world, but rarely is there so much transparent information about it. One reason the installations are located in exposed areas like cafes is in order to better communicate the technology with the public.

The vision

In 2018, the project originally began by questioning how to utilize the heat from mining and servers. To recycle and circulate the waste product as an input for further production shows a closed-circuit method to sustainably mine cryptocurrencies, and at the same time build an alternative agricultural solution. With widespread criticism of the energy use that is needed to sustain cryptocurrencies, this set-up offers a brighter side to the problem. Radim says:

"We believe the blockchain technology has significant potential to help society to achieve more individual freedom, justice and sustainability. However, the technology can only sustainably work if it's highly effective, both ecologically and economically. It can be only done by optimization of technological inputs (electricity, hardware, software and mining process itself) as well as utilization of outputs (mined cryptocurrencies and residual heat).

Imagine the hydroponic greenhouse heated by the residual heat from crypto-mining where the electricity for mining as well as for lights and other electronic devices is produced from renewable resources."

Now, the path is set towards an automated rooftop greenhouse. With the fusion of the core values of independence, transparency and community, the goal is to find the right practical way of operating the op source IoT hydroponic system, and then scale it. It is important for the team to be economically sustainable, because the grander idea is to try to build something that will be competitive to the prevailing agricultural system.

Parallel Garden is a response to the degenerating environmental problems and the inadequate solutions by public institution. As a result, never has a row of lettuce been sown in so much philosophical contemplation, grown with political intent, nurtured by technological accuracy, and then shared within a close-knit community of like-minded individuals.

Photo credits to Parallel Garden 


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