Strategic Design in Service Robotics Agricultural Applications: A Social Complex Adaptive System Approach

Department: DAD
Supervisor: Prof. Fabrizio Valpreda
Candidate:  Marco Cataffo

The ethnographic study of agriculture practices highlights two general trends. A major strategic solution adopted across the world responds to an economy of scale, resulting in resource depletion (desertification, air pollution, soil microbiome extinction). Input intensive agriculture promotes a reductionist paradigm of physiological optimization, increasing economic viability at the expense of the surrounding environment. As opposed to this model, a rising trend of micro-farms (below five hectares) comprehends family-run traditional businesses and a younger demographic of value-based entrepreneurs wishing to integrate their education from fields previously alien to farming in a natural lifestyle.

At the same time, recent achievements in field of robotics and ICT comprehend distributed sensing and computing capacity, competitive market-ready solutions and flexible task management options. These conditions open up possibilities of heavy digitization of information, enabling novel applications in ever more complex domains such agriculture.

Among the identified trends, this research aims to facilitate the conditions capable of increasing the viability of local ecosystems equilibrium. Change is assumed to be the major constant in what is ever increasingly represented as systems coevolution. With no fixed starting point, the study of linear processes is replaced with the introduction of the notion of context shifts in the analytical process, thus providing dynamic reference points and enabling the multidisciplinary approach necessary to engage with otherwise conflictual dynamics.

The lack of a holistic perspective results in insufficient design features, feedback loops, redundancies, and integration of ICT knowledge and processes with other sectors of society. The weak interconnectivity between ICT developers and society at large inhibits the recognition and identification of the deeply subdivided and disjointed knowledge of IT, and the systemic knowledge domains needed for operating and problem.
Participatory Action-Research is applied to shorten feedback loops between different knowledge domains, facilitating dialogic processes. ‘Living Labs’ methodologies and ‘spiral development’ iterative prototyping are carried on to reach a synthesis that goes beyond stakeholder analysis. Design processes are so based on the interactions among the actual components of any identifiable system, from humans and plants to markets and institutions, framing socio-cultural systems to embed their biophysical components and their economic translations. Product and service requirements are derived directly from the observational capacity of what is generally addressed in the field as the ‘end-user’ which, in this configuration appears as a fundamental stakeholder. This approach makes the prototype a natural ‘thinking-object’ with the principal function of facilitating knowledge elicitation through iterative dialogic processes.

The main advantage of a SCAS approach is then the avoidance of the vulnerabilities provoked by a problem-based orientation to design such as human learning patterns and training, and outreach gaps that addresses the multifaceted digital knowledge divide, especially as effects adult users. To achieve so a holistic perspective is used to draw attention to inadequate designed feedback loops, naming conventions, integrated redundancies and IT education and enabling researchers, scientists, policy makers, and others to recognize the interconnectivity between systemic processes. With an interdisciplinary approach it is then possible to codify dynamic processes of embedded systems and recognize how adjustments within one system trigger additional adjustments among encasing systems.

The expected outcome of these applications are emergent practices born at the edges of the existing practices and places. The boundaries between agriculture, forestry and environmental management, computational knowledge networks and data analysis are in fact increasingly fuzzier and cross-domain applications already thrive in peri-urban communities defining new and generative paradigms of urban-rural relationships, towards a culture of regenativity of the place. This kind of systemic change promotes in fact diversity and integration as the main solutions to fossil fuelled, centralized economies driving ecosystems stress beyond its sustainability boundaries.