I haven’t counted them, but I see them popping up all over the place, the vision of digitalization for Sector A, digital action agendas, and I’m sure several “delta plans for digitalization” as well. Every self-respecting sector or organization has written a vision for digitalization in recent years.
When I was asked to collaborate on a vision for digitalization for greenhouse horticulture, the first thing I thought was, “another paper with a staple”. One of those documents in which a lot of time is put into, contains what everyone already knows and then disappears into a drawer! This is not at all to say that digitalization is not important, quite the contrary. Almost every entrepreneur in horticulture is aware of the fact that they have to do ‘something’ with digitalization!
Digitalization happens almost as a matter of course
My question was, how can yet another document help with that and do we really need to start writing one for the horticulture sector? The digtialization vision for greenhouse horticulture sets out why this is necessary no matter what.
“Digitalization doesn’t need a vision; it happens almost as a matter of course. Even without a hefty document containing reflections, outlooks and recommendations, robots, sensors and AI devices will be developed by knowledge institutions and the technology industry and these will be used in horticulture. So then, why do we need a vision anyway?
Digitalization is so much more than the emergence of new technologies. It is a revolution, comparable to the industrial revolution. “The digital revolution has transformed almost all areas of our lives since the beginning of the twentieth century, leading to a digital world, just as the industrial revolution led to the industrial society 200 years earlier,” Wikipedia writes.
The effect of digitalization will be huge, and is already evident. Shopping streets have competition from webshops, you book a hotel via a website and you keep in touch with friends and family via social media.
Digitalization has also been visible in horticulture for quite some time already. The climate in greenhouses has been regulated by computers for decades, auction letters are electronic and greenhouses are equipped with sensors to monitor, among other things, temperature and humidity. And this is just the beginning.
Robots, drones, AI, big data, blockchain: new technologies have been tentatively making their way into the sector in recent years. There are several reasons why they are not yet commonplace, more about that further on this document. But that they will break through in the near future is crystal clear.
Digitalization is not standing still and will bring about a digital revolution, the authors of this paper expect. In other words, digitalization will not only have an impact on the daily practice of individual companies, but on revenue models of those companies and on the entire sector.
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One simple example. Through a digital marketplace, manufacturing companies can have direct contact with buyers and obtain valuable market information. This alters the position of these companies in the supply chain. But that does require a lot from the operational side of things, including logistics and quality. Education, for one thing, will also have to play a role here.
In fact, something similar happened during the first Industrial Revolution. Economist Jeremy Rifkin describes how the rise of the steam engine caused the growth of railroads in America. This led to the creation of giant contracting companies and even major grocery chains and branded products. A lot of coal was needed to keep the trains running, so mines were bought up. Also, to man the stations, the railroads needed well-trained personnel. This had a tremendous effect on education: all American school pupils had to have roughly the same competencies, such as being good at math.
The impact of digitalization on the sector is bound to be historic as well. The chain as we know it today will transform: the balance of power may be turned upside down. And perhaps new entrants will emerge, just as Airbnb and Uber have changed the hotel industry and taxicab transportation.
Consequently, the horticultural sector must develop a vision for this, to avoid being ‘caught off guard’ by any developments. A proactive attitude is needed more than ever. This paper can be read as a follow-up and further elaboration of the role of digitalization in the ‘ Feeding and Greening the Megacities’ strategy.
Exactly what the consequences of digitalization will be like is impossible to predict. How it unfolds depends on numerous factors. And an important factor here is the companies themselves. They can become the main players in developments that lead us into the future. One condition, however, is that they should already be thinking about their role now. Do they want to be at the forefront of the development of digital innovations, for example, or do they just want to be the end user of those innovations?
Entrepreneurs therefore need to think about their role in the chain, now and in the future. That is a complex task. To do that, more knowledge is needed about what digitalization is and the potential effects, opportunities and challenges. That is why the most important reason for a vision on digitalization: to give entrepreneurs insight so that they can make choices.
What kind of future do we want?
Providing that insight is a collective task. Digitalization is too big, too complex and too all-encompassing for one individual entrepreneur. He or she needs support in this: strategically, but also, for instance, from education and government. Thus, these parties also benefit from a vision on digitalization. So that we all know where the future leads, and especially: what kind of future we want.
As such, the vision document was written to establish a common language. What are we talking about when we talk about digitalization? What are the challenges we face as greenhouse horticulture? But also, what does the chain look like? It has since become clear that a document like this helps parties who do not know our sector very well to quickly understand what is at stake.
The question remains, how do we go from vision to action? In the short term, (joint) courses of action are needed on the following themes.
- Digitalize green knowledge; much knowledge about decisions in growing crops is only inside the heads of entrepreneurs and needs to be digitally recorded. This is essential in order to be able to make good use of decision support systems in cultivation in particular.
- Create awareness; horticultural entrepreneurs should be more aware that digitalization offers plenty of untapped opportunities for better yields. Through that awareness, entrepreneurs become better interlocutors with branches outside the sector and/or technological companies with potential solutions. In addition, they are more aware of the consequences of technologies for their company, what an appropriate risk profile is, and with whom they can work together with.
- Create collaborations; a good ecosystem is a precondition for the development and implementation of new technologies. More attention should therefore be paid to bringing parties together (companies, organizations) who can jointly put their weight behind a technology.
- Utilize knowledge from other sectors better; a lot of the issues in greenhouse horticulture are not unique. It is important to investigate where the same issues are occurring in other places and may already have been dealt with. To do this, it is crucial to have an overview of what is happening in companies in other sectors, but also to make use of (fundamental) knowledge, such as what has been developed by knowledge institutions outside of horticulture.
- Integration; It is also important to realize that new technology and knowledge must be made use of as part of a total system. And sensors can provide very interesting information separately from all other parts, but something must be done to ensure that this information is relevant.
For the longer term, action is needed at what we call ‘level 3’ in the vision. This entails a fundamental change in business models, chain and business processes. We don’t yet know what that will look like. However, we can prepare ourselves as well as possible.
Much of that preparation is geared towards training people to be open and comfortable with using new technology.
Part of this is definitely technical. Whatever the future of digitalization looks like, it is important that standards are established for the storage of data, so that entrepreneurs and research institutions can use the data to develop new technological concepts. One of the challenges is to determine which knowledge areas the greenhouse horticulture cluster will need to invest in its own research, and where it will need to make use of developments from other sectors. It goes without saying that digital security is paramount in all of these developments, but we will still have to take major steps in this area.
There is still a lot of work to be done to go from a vision to a digital future for greenhouse horticulture. That future will be both wonderful and digital, and the Dutch horticultural sector can also help to make sure that the future is refreshing, healthy and wonderful.
About this column:
In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Helen Kardan, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.