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When ICTs meet agriculture: Connected melon farmers bear fruit

The sun is rising on a Japanese rooftop fragrant with muskmelons. Amid the greenery, a network of monitors and sensors pulsates reassuringly. The idyllic, glass-enclosed roofscape provides a real-life platform for digital agriculture – one of many applications with the potential to feed smart cities of the future. But before this verdant vision can become reality, certain enabling conditions must be in place.

Information islands

Current methods of smart city governance are challenged with huge volumes of accumulated data and fragmented “islands” of information and services increasingly straining the limits of operational management. To address such atomization, smart city planning must shift increasingly from products and services to unified platforms, which can boost data integrity, encourage data sharing, support more applications, and reduce costs. Smart cities applications need to be interoperable and scalable, aligned with robust international standards and reinforced with end-to-end security. Hydroponic melon farming — as practiced in Japanese cities like Machida and Fukuroi City – offers a prime example of how information and communication technologies (ICTs) can support profitable hydroponic agriculture that strengthens the urban food chain. Hydroponic farming in greenhouses, closely integrated with ICTs, has proven a cost-effective solution to increase productivity and reduce workload for farmers.

A local ICT firm, Daiwa Computer, recognizing Japan’s potential for urban digital agriculture, launched a feasibility study in 2008 and eventually brought in a mix of partners to demonstrate the concept. Starting out as a consortium of farmers, business firms, agricultural associations, academic experts and local government officials, the project partners successfully cultivated muskmelons using circular digital agriculture techniques. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, sequencers and a cloud computing system were deployed and connected to enable data sharing, which lets connected melon farmers monitor greenhouse conditions using smartphone applications. Based on digitized know-how from agricultural experts, the rooftop irrigation system dispenses precise doses of nutrient solution based on the fruit’s growth stage.

Automated cultivation

Automated systems can reduce the labour intensity of farming in either urban or rural settings, as well as enable year-round growth without the agricultural off-season normally required to restore soil nutrients.

Project partners noted the potential to increase yields while maintaining high crop quality, which could drive sustainable local economic development.

The digital agriculture practices demonstrated by the muskmelon project could also provide a valuable model for developing countries. Hydroponic digital agriculture is of particular interest for arid regions, and ICTs could prove crucial to fulfil a key United Nations benchmark for 2030, namely Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2: Zero Hunger.

Evolving applications

Digital agriculture, along with many other smart city applications, will evolve in tandem with vertical market factors like transportation, education, and governance. A new study paper from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows why smart cities – rather than aiming to ever be a finished project – should be seen as an evolving platform for sustainable development.

Emerging application areas include augmented reality and the use of robots, including drones, to improve food production.

But first, the groundwork must be laid with collaboration mechanisms, infrastructure, digital literacy, and governance capacity at global, regional, and national levels.

Existing applications and services, as well as those still to come, promise to bolster digital agriculture management and spur ongoing innovation for smart and sustainable cities and communities. To learn more, see the study from ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau here. Follow the work of ITU-D Study Groups here.


Header image credit: Visoot Uthairam via Getty Images

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