by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 5 February 2019
Aaron Makaruk began life as a Shuttleworth Fellow in March, 2015 with grave concerns about the environment and the increasing size of populations in the urban environment.
The demands on producers to provide food and sustenance to millions of city dwellers results in harm large-scale factory farming that ultimately causes damage to the ecosystem and human health. And while vast swathes of natural resources are used within this system, in many ways it is inefficient, leading to overconsumption of food in some areas, and famine in others - sometimes even in the same city.
Aaron’s project - AKER Kits - aimed to explore the opportunities afforded by open hardware to encourage a new wave of urban agriculture. Could a focus on targeting individual citizens from the ground up, rather than top-down systemic change, encourage different behaviour? Would it help eliminate food deserts and reset our increasingly distant relationship with food production?
With snap-fit urban garden kits that can be used in the smallest of backyards, kitchen tops and even balconies, city dwellers could grow their own vegetables, fruits and herbs, while also creating a space for wildlife. It’s a potential reconnection of urban areas with natural ecosystems, and a possible restoration of the balance between food production and consumption many of us know is out of control.
AKER Kits was a set of open source methodologies, tools and kits that had the potential to make great strides in this area. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, that potential remains unfulfilled. This is Aaron’s story of what happened - and why.
Aaron Makaruk has had an interest in trying to create social change for as long as he can remember.
As a young high school kid, he opened a chapter of Amnesty International and went on to work with the organisation while at college. He has been involved with American Indian rights groups, and started Youth On Record - a nonprofit teaching kids in the prison system how to write, record and produce music. And his concerns about the state of the economy and the environment led him down an interesting pathway.
Inspired by a TED Talk by Marcin Jakubowski, Aaron became intrigued with the concept of open hardware.
“Marcin’s vision is to build open source industrial machinery.” he says. “Everything from forges for making steel, laser cutters, tractors…all of this hardcore industrial equipment that can be used to make a productive economy.
‘So I wrote him a letter,” he continues. “We ended up working together for a couple of years at Factor e Farm in Missouri. It was my introduction to the open source hardware realm.”
When his time was up in Missouri, Aaron and a few members of the team travelled back to Denver and built on their experiences. The group made a decision to live on a family friend’s 40-acre plot of land, self-govern as a cooperative, and develop and build open source hardware and technology.
It was here that an initial idea for a potential business formed. Aaron and the community developed an open source, printable ‘smart’ beehive to help keepers track bee health and promote international bee recovery. They called it OS Beehive, and it enjoyed huge success in an IndieGoGo campaign.
The success inspired Aaron and the team to use the same technology for building urban farm systems. AKER Kits started life in 2015, and received a $20,000 early boost from another Indiegogo campaign. But the search continued for more funders, and led Aaron to apply for a Shuttleworth Fellowship.
“I knew the Foundation through Marcin,” recalls Aaron. “That helped with the connection. They knew my story and had seen some work I did there - it might have helped with credibility.”
The Foundation team was excited to offer Aaron a Fellowship place, starting in March of 2016. He had two primary goals - use AKER Kits to eliminate food deserts and reestablish the first-hand relationship between people and natural food sources.
It wasn’t an easy start. The Foundation’s focus on the individual rather than the team behind a project can sometimes create tensions behind the scenes.
“It was a little overwhelming,” recalls Aaron. “It took me a lot of time to kick around it. My cofounder and I had created everything together but since I got the Fellowship, it affected things and we had to work around those dynamics.
“We decided to go to the nexus square of where the project really came from - Fab Lab in Barcelona - and we lived there for three months and worked together. There were some personal differences that undermined our collaboration to the point where he stepped back in a major way and I took on more for myself.
“By the end of August the project was in my hands. Everything that happened after that was my decision. Up to that point was a collaboration and there was a lot of internal conflict. So that undermined things for a while.”
With partnership problems behind him, Aaron continued to push forward with AKER, and came up with a new direction of travel.
“I figured AKER should use the world’s fablabs and all the latent untapped productive capacity within them,’ says Aaron. “You could build an urban farming kit that can be manufactured locally within communities all over the world.
“We spent put a lot of time making elegant, well thought-out catalogs for these kits,” Aaron says. “We made good documentation and put it online so that others start to use it.
“I got as far as that, but the economics of it were the next hurdle. Really, you can walk into a garden store and buy your own planter box for ten or twenty bucks.
“Functionally it’s going to be the same as anything we were making. In the end, it’s just too cheap to buy urban farming kits at the garden store.”
This was an issue with the AKER Kits project that could not be ignored. And while a pack of openly designed garden kits is a good starting point, but people have to be motivated to put in the hard work of tending and growing plants, vegetables and fruits - this was a behavioral issue as much as an economic one.
As the end of the Fellowship year approached, it was a problem we felt too large to overcome. Ultimately, we made the decision to turn down Aaron’s application for a second year of Foundation support.
“We started to develop some functionality that could be replicated easily - and we had some unique offerings. We thought about open sourcing the whole process so communities can repurpose waste streams and make new raw materials for the kits.
“That was a vision that I thought could have happened. If I had a couple of years of the Fellowship, we could have - maybe - got that far.
“In the end, there was no funding for that. The project was starting to make sense to me, but still…I think it was probably the wise decision.”
Aaron continued with his work with AKER Kits, but the project eventually petered out. Instead, he adjusted his focus back to OS Beehive, where he is currently enjoying some significant progress.
Between March and July of 2018, Aaron and the team have sold over 500 beehives, and have built an AI capable of detecting the health condition of a hive. The company is in good shape, getting exposure and Aaron and his team are doing their bit to solve one of the biggest - yet largely ignored - environmental problems we have on the planet.
“The goal is to allow keepers to remotely monitor conditions in their beehives,” he says. “They can understand when problems arise, and they know what to do how to intervene with the colonies to prevent losses.
“We also did a 9-month study with the USDA quality research lab. We have terabytes of data from testing the impacts of pesticides on bees, and we can now detect exposed colonies with over 90 percent accuracy, based only on the way they sound. Bee sickness is completely detectable through affordable microphones.”
“I’m harder inside, I can handle more, I can take more and I know myself better,” says Aaron. “Some of the stuff that I’m doing now was empowered by the Foundation. I feel like if I had gone to the Fellowship in the position I was in now, it would have been different.
“Some of that Fellowship money went into OS Beehive,” he continues. “The idea is more sound and more internally consistent. I feel more aligned and I feel more confident in myself internally because I have gone through all this.”
“The Foundation is an extremely important organisation filled with brilliant people who care about what they are doing.
“If you have a project that is high quality, trying to use tech for the better good, and are questioning whether you should apply, then stop right there. Because you should.”