What’s next? It’s a basic query that leaves me stymied almost daily. In a hydroponic industry that has experienced exponential growth over the last five years, a paradoxical scene is unfolding with regard to product innovation.
It is obvious to any veteran gardener that many of the designs we see today are only marginally different from those offered a decade ago. Some have gotten a packaging facelift, others a label redesign—but for all intents and purposes very little has changed with regard to performance or overall functionality.
Some would say we are only growing plants and that introducing too much technology into the garden is counterintuitive and unnecessary. “The old technology is just fine,” they chant, almost as if it’s a mantra. Many others would argue that this is a classic case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ or even ‘why reinvent the wheel?’ On the surface this seems like a reasonable and valid argument: however, to resist change and innovation is to embrace extinction.
To put it in perspective, try to remember back a decade ago. Did you have a cell phone? Did it have voicemail? Now reach into your pocket. I would assume most of us can produce an impossibly small, unbelievably intuitive technological marvel, capable of performing all of the tasks only a high-end PC could manage just 10 years ago.
Would you be happy if you still had to use a cell phone the size of a brick with a foot-long antenna? So why do we settle for stagnation in hydroponics? If our goal is to supplant the environmentally irresponsible traditional agriculture paradigm with a sustainable, high-efficiency hydroponic model, we must demand and initiate change!
All industries mature as the market sector they serve develops and expands, but the speed at which this process takes place directly correlates to how intuitive or plugged-in the industry’s influencers are to the needs and desires of the end-user.
An intimate understanding of the requirements of the consumer combined with a progressive, motivated customer base can lead to a symbiotic evolutionary model that ultimately benefits both parties.
This process works best when both groups contribute equally to the design process; however, this is rarely the case as manufacturers traditionally rely on either in-house or subcontracted engineering firms for new product designs—and gardeners, well, gardeners would rather be gardening.
Within this longstanding paradigm lies the rub: it is bad business for a company to manufacture a product that no one wants, yet hundreds of products every year are deemed ineffective or non-viable by the gardening community.
This represents millions of dollars in wasted research and development funds that could have been earmarked for projects that might have gone on to be embraced by the gardening community while simultaneously exhibiting innovation in design.
A famous rebel leader once proclaimed that “… the revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.” This implies that change does not take place on its own—it requires a catalyst.
Gardeners who desire change must be active and involved in the design process and eventually, the cacophonous sound of the communal gardening voice will become so deafening it can’t help but be heard.
Manufacturers and gardeners can work together: from chaos comes order and from the seasoned experience of gardeners worldwide will come the revolutionary ideas necessary to take us into the next age.
“So what’s with all the soapbox rhetoric?” you might be asking yourself about now. “Is this some type of hydroponic pep rally?” Well, sort of—remember, we need a catalyst to initiate change and change requires energy in the form of motivation.
The next question is: what is our goal? How do we get there? Clearly, I can’t speak for the entire indoor gardening community, but I believe the inherent goal is supreme efficiency. We should strive for a completely closed bioenergy cycle in which every process feeds the next. The second law of thermodynamics states that matter cannot be created nor destroyed; it is of great importance that gardeners understand the physics behind this axiom.
Although true zero net loss sustainability as it applies to indoor gardening is implausible at present, many of the systems, mechanisms and methods necessary for us to reach for this laudable goal do exist today. This begs the question: why is the entire globe not farming hydroponically? The answer might surprise you.
I strongly believe that gardeners have a moral imperative to reach out to the industry and provide grassroots feedback. It’s partly the ‘if you don’t vote you can’t complain who is in office’ type of thing, although I don’t perceive gardener apathy as being the only stumbling block in the way of meaningful industry progress—a second obstacle is intellectual isolationism.
There is a notion that if one develops an idea or concept that is valuable than one must hoard it until the appropriate buyer is found. Once the idea is secured it can then be brought to market and it will be subsequently copied by many other parties competing in that market.
This happens in nearly all industries and has led to global stagnation with regard to innovation in many cases because the model rewards the scavengers and punishes the innovators. The hydroponics industry is no exception.
For us to take the next step as a gardening community we must begin to broaden our outlook. For example, we must start actively identifying technologies in other market sectors that might serve our needs. Many of these technologies could be implemented either ‘as is’ or with very little modification and some of them might even be used to solve problems we once thought impossible.
I refer to this type of communal development as ‘Frankenstein engineering.’ This approach to difficult problems is not new and was recently in the spotlight in the international media as gamers engaging in Foldit®, an online puzzle app, unraveled the key to unlocking a retroviral protease enzyme structure linked to AIDS. The complexity of the enzyme’s structure had baffled academics and doctors for over a decade, but within three weeks of being posted the online gaming community cracked it.
By accepting the fact that many minds from different disciplines will always be superior to a few with a limited focus we will give ourselves a much better chance to finally enter into a true hydroponic renaissance.
So start thinking outside the box and don’t be afraid to tell people in the industry about your problems and what you think needs to be done to fix them.
Go to your local retailer and tell them what you want—if it happens more than a few times, you can bet the retailers will pass the word to the wholesalers and then up the line to the manufacturers.
We’re all in this industry together and your experience as a gardener gives you more clout than you realize—after all, if it wasn’t for you and hundreds of thousands like you, there’d be no industry at all.