Nov 4 – 5 – Newlab and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) co-hosted the Smart Urban Food Systems Summit, which convened a group of 70 researchers, policymakers, entrepreneurs, data scientists, and urban planners. 

The importance of having diverse experts and stakeholders at the table and taking a human-centered approach to problem solving was a consistent theme during the two-day Summit. Additionally, the need to support more robust knowledge exchange and data sharing between stakeholder groups was highlighted as essential to moving towards a more equitable and resilient urban food system. The Summit was organized in close collaboration with a Steering Committee including representatives from the National Science Foundation, NYCEDC, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Health and Human Services, the NY State Dept. of Ag and Markets, and NYC based startup Re-Nuble.

“In discussions about urban development and planning, the food system is often left out of the conversation,” said Dr. Sally Rockey, FFAR’s Executive Director and a speaker at the Summit. “FFAR is thrilled to work alongside our partners to think about innovative programming that will transform urban environments into ones with resilient and equitable food ecosystems.”

Food-based interventions often focus on providing access to fresh food and reducing nutritional insecurity without considering the impact of other systemic factors ranging from the criminal justice system to wealth and racial inequity, access to public transportation, affordable housing, employment, and economic opportunity and land use policy.

FFAR Tipping Points program grantees from the University of Albany, Case Western Reserve University, Michigan State University, Colorado State University, and the Sustainable Food Center were featured on several of the panels throughout the Summit. These multidisciplinary research teams shared insights into their work developing computational models of food systems in cities across the country to better understand urban food system complexities and the optimal leverage points within different community contexts for greatest impact.

Urban data will play a critical role in increasing capacity for a systems-thinking approach that supports resilient and equitable urban food systems. That was the topic of conversation for a panel featuring Andrew Young of NYU’s GovLab, who focused on data stewardship across organizations and the need to match the supply and demand of urban data in order to address food system challenges. Ben Kinsella of DataKind brought this message to life with a real-world example citing DataKind’s work pairing data scientists with organizers at local food pantries to better predict and manage the flow of food and donations. 

Learning from advances in adjacent fields of urban innovation, such as transportation, will also be key. The consensus among the group was that while sensors, AI and predictive models, along with other emerging technologies, could meaningfully scale our ability to respond to community needs and monitor progress over time, pairing these tools with on-the-ground community engagement and policy development will lead to more transformational change.

To cap off the first day of the Summit, Newlab opened its doors to 200 guests for an evening featuring a fireside chat with Suma Reddy, Co-Founder, and COO of Newlab member company Farmshelf, and Nora Ali, a journalist at Cheddar. Farmshelf is an agtech company building bookshelf-sized smart, indoor farms for schools, cafeterias, restaurants, and hotels. The dialogue covered a variety of topics, including Farmshelf’s approach to combining plant science, design and technology to enable anyone to grow leafy greens and herbs, the importance of community engagement and using science and technology to excite and educate the next generation, and Farmshelf’s plans to expand their product line. 

Day two of the Summit focused on envisioning the urban food systems we strive to see in 2040, and the partnerships, actions, and interventions we can support today to move us towards this future system. 

As small groups collaborated on creating their future visions, common themes underpinning an ideal urban food system included building stronger urban-rural linkages and exploring opportunities for greater community ownership over food production. One group characterized a key part of their vision as “turning the system on its head” and decentralizing power and influence as a first step in reimagining food systems designed for our most disadvantaged communities. Attendees emphasized the critical role technology will play in enabling small- and medium-sized farming operations to support an equitable, nutritious and sustainable urban food system.

With a growing number of the world’s population living in cities and the mounting perils of the climate crisis demanding adaptation and resilience, there is an urgency to understand and assess where technology, new partnerships, research, education, and innovative approaches can put us on a path toward building accessible, sustainable and resilient urban food systems for all.

Thank you to our Summit sponsors, Bank of America, Relish Works, and NYCEDC, for their generous support.