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10 Cool Things We Learned at SXSW Eco

SXSW Eco is an annual sustainability conference that took place in Austin, Texas from October 5-7. As a showcase for the “Who’s Who” of innovation and green design, the conference aims to create a space for business leaders, investors, innovators, and designers to drive economic, social, and environmental change.

This year, Garden Collage was on site to learn about the latest developments in all things green. Between several engaging keynotes on sustainable farming, some insightful films about gardening, a materials expo featuring innovative new plant-based materials, and other inspiring talks on the future of food, there were a host of notable takeaways that we think anyone interested in nature should know. Below, we round up ten trends we observed at this year’s conference.

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  1. Biomimicry Is The Way of The Future

“Biomimicry” is an approach to building and design that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. At this year’s SXSW Eco, the talks hosted by The Biomimicry Institute were packed, as legions gathered to express interest in “life-centered”, rather than “human-centered” design. Examples include learning how to create efficient wind power by modeling fan paddles after the tubercles on the fins of a humpback whale; modeling air conditioned buildings after self-cooling termite mounds; modeling bullet trains after the beaks of Kingfishers in order to reduce noise; modeling farms after prairies in order to learn how to grow food in more resilient ways; modeling medical syringes after mosquitos in order to create “a nicer needle”; and much, much more. More examples of biomimicry can be found on the Ask Nature website.

2. Microbes Could Be The Secret To Better Seeds

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In a lecture led by Iowa State University biologist Gwyn Beattie, Thomas Schafer of bioinnovation firm Novozymes discussed how technological advances are allowing scientists to identify beneficial microbes that farmers are adding to seeds to increase plant health and reduce the need for fertilizer and pesticides. Much like the nascent human emphasis on “healthy gut flora”, restoring a healthy level of microbes and beneficial enzymes to the soil may be the key to long-term productive food gardens.

3. The Future of Food Rests in Cellular Agriculture Robert Santos

New Harvest‘s Isha Datar gave an illuminating Keynote on “The Post-Animal Bioeconomy” on Tuesday. Her conclusions: the next revolution in food will be “cellular agriculture”. New Harvest is a biotechnology nonprofit that aims to grow protein from the cell-up rather than the animal-down– a process that could make factory farming obsolete. Watch her talk here.

4. Water Scarcity Continues to Be A Problem Welcome Reception

A number of the week’s talks focused on the problems of water scarcity, ocean acidity, and water contamination. Techies from 10 Bit Works hosted a workshop on how to open-source water purification systems to improve the technology for all, while the startup showcase competition featured eight startups (Cerahelix, Dropcountr, Effluent Free Desalination, Flo Technologies, OndaVia, Recycled Hydro Solutions, SeaChange Technologies, Water Lens) who all offered possible solutions to today’s water challenges.

5. Innovators in Japan Are Trying To Create a Farm-to-Table Social Network

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Kakaxi (which translates to “scarecrow” in Japanese) is a new social networking service that connects users to their farm community in order to allow one to “experience the story behind your food”. Currently, the company is looking for funding via Kickstarter in order to create an app that doubles as a farm monitoring device. Kakaxi would transmit on-farm information through time-lapse video and farm data illustrations, in addition to detailing on-farm conditions to tell users how the local weather is affecting farming and the vitality of plants.

6. “Kombucha Leather” is a thing. Photo Invitro_DSC_2102

The University of Texas School of Architecture hosted a materials showcase during the expo in which a number of sustainable, plant-based materials were on display. Of particular interest were the “seaweed rubber”, tiles made from coconut shells, roofing shingles made from cork bark, and a new regenerative material called “kombucha leather“, which is leather made from the same bacterial matrix as kombucha (the popular probiotic beverage). Because kombucha leather is made from a living organism (SCOBY), the leather is able to repair itself if torn. (The bacteria simply forms a new matrix and slowly grows itself shut.) Kombucha leather is lightweight, nontoxic, and cruelty-free.

7. People Love Plants!

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Native Edge, an eco-friendly landscape design service based in Austin, was on site during SXSW Eco, and we caught more than a few people squealing over their cute succulent pots.

8. Back To The Roots is Making Food Personal Again

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Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora, the entrepreneurs behind the easy-grow mushroom kit company Back to the Roots, gave a talk Monday on how they’ve been able to design maintenance home growing kits that use less packaging and get families excited about growing their own food. Originally from Oakland, California, the two former-Berkeley finance majors saw an opportunity to grow treasures from trash, patenting their signature oyster mushroom kits that grow mushrooms out of coffee grounds right out of a box. Their experience with “beautiful, purposeful, meaningful design” led them to investigate a whole line of low impact home-growing kits, including their new “garden in a jar” / “garden in a can” series, which uses biochar soil technology to avoid overwatering issues, problems with drainage, or the need to transplant. Simply open the can, place on a window sill, and wait for your garden to grow!

9. Timberland Aims to Plant 5 Million Trees in Haiti

One of the feature film premieres at this year’s SXSW Eco was Kombit, The Cooperative— the story of two unlikely partners and a community of 3,200 farmers in Haiti who are currently working with Timberland to help plant 5 million trees in 5 years while rebuilding a sustainable agriculture enterprise that will be profitable for local growers.

Unlike most agriculture nonprofits, the resulting organization, the Haiti Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) is doing something unique: instead of planting trees, they “lend” them. The idea is that farmers are entrusted to cultivate the trees until they reach seed-bearing age, at which point the farmers must “return the seeds” to the lender. In this way, the nonprofit replenishes the seed bank while enduring that the trees reach maturity (which means they will most likely survive in the long term).

10. There’s A Lot of Excitement Surrounding The Environment

Photo Invitro_DSC_2087Despite the numerous environmental challenges posed at this year’s SXSW Eco, attendees (including this correspondent) made pledges throughout the week on “how to create a brighter planet”. At Garden Collage, our answer is obvious: we pledge to create a brighter planet by bringing the garden into peoples’ lives, as the interest in “all things eco” seems to have become a cultural obsession.

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