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MilwaukeefishIf you have any familiarity with Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you know that it’s on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the largest fresh-water lakes in the world, and it’s located in the American Midwest, one of the world’s most fertile and productive farming regions.

So why does Milwaukee aim to become a model for smart water management and urban food production? And why is it experimenting with aquaponics–systems that combine soil-less vegetable growing with fish farming?

Milwaukee is concerned about water because its traditional industries, including meatpacking, tanning, shoe making, beer brewing and heavy manufacturing, are all major water users. In addition, the city experienced the largest waterborne disease outbreak in US history in 1993 when the protozoan parasite cryptosporidium appeared in the municipal water supply and made more than 1.6 million people sick. Two years ago, the city formed the Milwaukee Water Council, made up of representatives of government, academia and industry, with the goal of making the city a recognized global leader in water-related technologies.

The city is interested in urban farming because some of its neighborhoods are so-called food deserts. Large grocery stores don’t locate outlets there, so people rely on small stores, which often charge high prices for processed food. There’s a shortage of healthy food such as fresh vegetables and fish. So city leaders are promoting community gardening, large-scale composting and the nascent aquaponics industry. “The urban agriculture movement in Milwaukee is bringing local food production to the block level,” says Rocky Marcoux, commissioner, Milwaukee department of city development. “We can feed our population more economically and sustainably. We can put our neighborhoods in charge of their own destiny.”

In June, a team of five IBMers spent three weeks in Milwaukee as part of the company’s Smarter City Challenge grant program with the goal of helping city leaders explore the feasibility of their urban farming initiative.

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Aquaponics combines aquaculture, or fish cultivation, with hydroponics, or growing vegetables on waterfed beds of rocks, in a single, self-regulating system. Sweet Water Organics and Growing Power, both Milwaukee-based urban agriculture organizations, have  developed aquaponics systems and are piloting them in the city. The way the systems work is perch or tilapia are raised in water tanks that are connected to enclosed hydroponic growing spaces. The water in the fish tanks, which contains fish waste, is pumped into the hydroponics systems. There, the waste is converted by bacteria on the rocks into a natural fertilizer for the plants. After this natural process removes nitrogen from the water, it’s recycled back into the fish tank. Further, the fish give off carbon dioxide when they breathe, which is absorbed  by the plants at night as part of their photosynthesis process. In this way, fish and vegetables can be grown year round.

The IBM team spent the first half of their stay in Milwaukee interviewing government officials, scientists, community organizers and the leaders of the aquaponics outfits. They visited some of the test sites, helped harvest fish and ate meals at restaurants that served the  fish and salad greens.  “It was really good,” says Carey Hidaka, one of the team members, who is a water management specialist.

The team concentrated on fashioning a set of recommendations during the final days in Milwaukee. They encouraged the city leaders to continue with their initiative. The recommended that the city set up a Council on Urban Agriculture and Aquaponics, which would be similar to the Milwaukee Water Council. And they urged them to create an innovation center for the technology in a building on a former industrial site. “I wanted to know if we’re on a fool’s errand or does this make sense from an economic standpoint. Their answer is it does make sense. It’s viable,” says Marcoux.

He’s passionate about the impact that this project can have–and not just on Milwaukee. “This could bring major health benefits if we can bring this to a lot of American cities,” Marcoux says. “We’re going to change the world.”

What’s in it for IBM? Nothing now, in the way of new business. The Smarter Cities Challenge is a competitive grant program awarding $50 million worth of technology and services over the next three years to 100 cities around the globe. The aim is to help make the world work better.

Eventually, if aquaponics catches on, IBM could provide technology for monitoring and managing the systems. Meanwhile, says Hidaka, “This is about learning to understand the needs of a customer, seeing their pain points, their requirements, and coming up with a solution for them.”

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