INSIDE INNOVATION: Square Mile Farms
What is your elevator pitch?
Square Mile Farms bring farming into the built environment and promote the urban farming lifestyle. We use our urban farms as tools to encourage people to make changes to their lifestyle; in terms of the food they eat, where it comes from, the process of it getting to their plate and the impact it has on their bodies.
We do this by creating urban farms in the built environment in the heart of where people live and work. And we create a community of people that participate in the farming process. Growing food like this is much more sustainable, local and experiential as well as social, in the sense you share the process with the people you work with. However, the physical installation is only part of the process. Our aim is that this physical experience is accompanied by a digital platform which shows when the next harvest is, gives advice on what to grow and how to get involved.
Currently, our focus is on offices and communal living spaces (like a block of apartments). We focus on these areas as we want people to develop everyday relationships with our farms and for the relationship to not be just transactional.
How did your start-up get to where it is today?
My cofounder and I have known each other for over a decade and about 2 years ago I was looking out over The City of London and was shocked by how grey it was. My wife is a nutritionist and we thought “wouldn’t it be great if we could put farms on all these roofs?”
I roped Johnno into it who has a real estate background and we started on the idea of a flat packed farm. After development, we found what people most liked was coming to visit our flat pack farm. Therefore, we pivoted to selling the experience and the ability to participate in farming.
British Land offered us a space on the roof at Microsoft Headquarters, which now acts as our nursery, and we started selling the concept to all the commercial tenants.
What does innovation mean to you?
Doing things differently whilst having a lens on what is achievable. Innovation needs to be practical, achievable and measurable; I am not a big believer in innovation theatre. We are trying to take things that have been done before and combining them in a unique way, rather than speculating on something that we would love to do but are light years away. It is maybe more incremental as a result, but better to innovate in increments than pine for the future and not be able to get there.
How hungry is the built environment for innovation?
It depends a lot on who you talk to in the sector. Some of the proptech companies and innovation in energy management seem to be gaining a lot of traction. There isn’t much in terms of biophilia, open spaces and community spaces. Indeed, the latest offices and commercial spaces look a lot like they used to. However, there is some disruption around the edges from the likes of companies like WeWork.
Thinking differently about how we work and giving employees access to lots of different amenities is really cool and a trend that is going to continue, but I don’t think we are quite there yet.
What needs to change to help encourage more innovation?
It is about access. For example, the way British Land has been so supportive – we need more of that. We need more big organisations working with smaller companies rather than trying to come up with their own solutions internally within their innovation departments. Trade bodies and certification bodies like WELL and LEED are really helpful as well.
It is difficult to talk about efficiency in the built environment, but we have to. Therefore, rating systems that tell us how sustainable a building is and the impact it has is crucial to further change. We often hear at Square Mile Farms, ‘we love the idea, and we love what you are doing, but can you tell us the impact you can have?’ This can be hard for us to quantify, but in order to move forward we need to find a standardised way to define this.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a start-up?
Well, Covid but we are not alone there. Square Mile Farms was featured on the BBC and had a lot of early traction that was helping raise our profile, and then Covid happened and a lot of opportunities slowed down. Thankfully things are picking up again in a very big way but profile raising is really important when you’re growing a new business, so that was quite a blow.
Overall, I don’t think our challenges have been unique. We’ve struggled with access to skills and finding skilled individuals that we can afford. This is particularly relevant with our digital proposition that we don’t have the skill set for. We have tried to employ young people and utilise government subsidies to do so. However, even though it costs less money, it costs more time.
What’s your advice for new innovators and start-ups in the built environment?
Two things. Firstly, it is paramount we collectively see Covid as an opportunity for the built environment. Yes, the cityscape is grey and concrete and we might not fancy doing the commute like we used to, but there is a lot of opportunity in that in terms of rewilding, regreening and thinking how we use commercial real estate and communal spaces. I find it very frustrating when the headlines read “nobody is going back to work” and “everybody is working from home.”. Yes, the pattern is going to change but people still need communal areas to collaborate and connect with coworkers and maintain a sense of shared company culture.
The second point is I do think there is an increasing appetite to do things differently across the built environment sector and I believe Covid has provoked people to think about how we can all innovate and establish a ‘new norm’. We’ve found lots of demand for change and optimism about the future of our communal spaces. I think we were spending too much time commuting but it isn’t going to swing back to us never going in, there is a middle ground.
What’s next for your company?
What’s next is Square Mile Farms’ digital offering. We really want to bring our experience online as well and work with our customers and community members to build and test the digital proposition. We want our digital presence to engage them with the farm and enhance the experience. Most notable we’d achieve this through rewards and incentives whilst creating a community of people. Additionally, we want to unlock the opportunity for customers to grow at home and be able visualise the impact they are having on a map across London and further afield.