From Milwaukee Renaissance

EarthRenaissance: DavidLi

Raw Material For NYT Submission, eBook, introduction to journalists, editors, etc.

Question. Can you share the story of your discovering aquaponics and what’s behind your exuberant embrace?

David Li. I co-founded XinCheJian the first hackerspace in China in 2010 in Shanghai. While playing with electronics and building robotics and 3D printer were a lot of fun. Moreover, having the hackerspace and surrounded by people curious in technologies and not worry about getting their hands dirty have given me the opportunities to get my other passion: gardening and farming going in more experimental direction.

Hydroponics has always been a fascinating technology that I am very interested in for a long time. In my college days in Los Angeles in early 90s, I hang out with friends who are into growing pots and they have always talking about how great growing with hydroponics. The equipments were expensive in those days.

When I got to look into hydroponics after start the hackerspace, I was delighted to see all the available information on system building and nutrient mixing that are available online. This has made farming technologies very much like the makers movements.

I have one very good growing year with hydroponics and was continue to do researches on the topics and that’s when I came across the aquaponics. Like most coming from the hydroponics, I was skeptical about aquaponics at first but decided to try it with a small fish tank. The result was pretty good. Then I went on building a few more system including a large 1200 liter system in my parents’ backyard as well as making small system and give workshop. Also I started Shanghai aquaponics blog.

As makers movement pickup up momentum in 2011, I got a lot of invitations to give talks and speech and I always included the experience with aquaponics as part of the speeches. Before I knew it, I was invited to give talks in aquaponics.

Over the years, aquaponics has been one of my favorite method to grow but also gave me a framework to think about farming in modern life.

The main inspirations from aquaponics:

1. The beauty of nature’s ecosystem: bacterias takes the waste of fishes and turns them into nutrient for the plants. Although this cycles are also common in soil as well, aquaponics do the most visual presentation of this relationship. And there are something primal about this that attract everyone crossing culture and background. I did a installation art piece in title “we are all descendant of plant eating fishes” referring to the first fishes came on to land had to be plants eating.

2. The open nature of aquaponics. Everyone is eager to share their experiences and help each other.

Question. Do you have any pictures of your first, small fish tank model to share? Any pictures of the 1200 liter system in your parents back yard? Can you share the most serious challenges you faced in your first year of aquaponics experimentation?

David Li. Most of the photos can be seen here:

I’d say that getting small quantity fingerlings in China has been the biggest challenge. China is 70% of the global aquaculture. The hatchery works in real large scale. I tried to get 150 tilapia fingerlings for the 1200 liter tank but when I call the hatchery, their minimum order is 10,000 fingerlings with the price of 1 cent each. I end up visiting the hatcheries in Guangzhou and the personal relationship built finally got them to agree to ship me the fingerling at quantity of 500.

Question. Do you have a preference for aquaponics over hydroponics experiments for upscaling? If so, why?

David Li. It’s relatively straightforward to scale hydroponics since it’s really about laying out piping.

I’d be interested in doing a large scale aquaponics project. I think there are several proven methods that can really scale aquaponics. For large scale hydroponics, the cost and energy of water processing is too high.

After aquaponics, one thing I am planning to experiment is organic hydroponics with living baterias processing organic matter. I think such methods get the best of both world.

Question. What are your thoughts in response to Professor Zhen’s belief that the Chinese decision making classes are much more concerned about food safety for themselves and the country than they are about air, soil, and water pollution. He thinks a transparent “clean” food production methodology like aquaponics could be has enormous possibilities.

David Li. Here is a good TED talk about Chinese “ruling class” by Eric X Li

I think the model of some secret ruling classes on top that selfishly caring only for theirselves in China is really a false assumption but a pretty easy one to make people believe.

The pollution of air, water and ground are a necessary stage of a country in developing stage. Sad but it has been true since WWII. The cost is necessary to catch up.

I think the food production can be made transparent in China by grassroot movement. China has vegetable basket policy mandating 70% of daily vegetables to be produced with in the city limits. With the large income difference between cities and the farms surrounding them, it’s pretty cost efficient for people from the cities to contract to the farmers to grow their foods.

In fact, that’s one social experiment we are conducting in Shanghai called “Farm Together.” We enable people who really worry about their food to rent greenhouses with soil and water testing. Then farmers are contracted to farm the greenhouses at service fee equivalent to how much they would make farming and selling the vegetables from the same greenhouse.

By simply shifting the financial risk from the farmers to the urbanites, we change the nature of the farming business from a production to a service. And this takes away the incentive for the farmers to use pesticide or chemical fertilizers.

Moreover, Chinese central government issue Document Number One to outline the policy priority of the year. Number One document issued in the first year of a new administration outline the policy of the decade. The Number One Document of the current Xi administration brought up the “Family Farm” which is about returning the ownership of farm to farmers. This would encourage the farmers to care for their lands. Farm Together we started aims to leverage the wealth of cities and channel them into family farm to speed up the improvement.

I think aquaponics is a very nice technique of farming and with a lot of potentials. However there are also other farming techniques that can be equally attractive and effective. I also work with natural farming and soil food web methods for my soil garden and I have gotten great results. My current take is that aquaponics are useful in place that soil farming is unavailable such abandon warehouses or factories or more expensive such as urban rooftop.

There is tendency in overselling a new technology as what Gartner calls Hype Cycles. The cycle has been a very good model for the past few decades. I know, I have worked in Internet, social network and mobile sectors in the past two decades.

Now, it seems that aquaponics is also going through the same hype cycle. There are a lot of hypes created around it and people are adopting this without a very concrete proof of its effectiveness. The methods of how we do aquaponics are still more of an art then a science.

Question. The Farm Together project is an inspiring concept! Might you share some details about how the city people are connected with farmers and greenhouse managers? And also, was there any person or group who most deserves credit for this trailblazing project the world should learn about!

David Li.Farm Together is a project started by me and Roger Mu from our space. Here is a lecture I gave in Hongkong Univesrity Shanghai campus a while ago.

The long answer is really the experience in the past three years with aquaponics entering popular stage and my journey trying to make sense of this. I am highly visible advocate of aquaponics in China. If you google the Chinese name of aquaponics “鱼菜共生” links to my talks and website are on top. In the past two years, I have been offered investment and other opportunities to take aquaponics into commercial venture but I was hesitated because it feels very much like the beginning of hype cycle with my experience in other fields. I saw people jumping into aquaponics with incomplete business plan like others in early days of other fields.

All these took me in a journey of figuring out what this would look like. I am doing the same kind of researches with maker movement as well and actually started a think tank called Hacked Matter.

The conditions favoring aquaponics as social tools or business ventures do not exists in China. Factories and warehouse in the center of cities in China are being converted into expensive creative parks. The farmers markets and CSA haven’t worked because the lack of local food movement in response to highly industrial farming and long food miles. Shanghai has a food mile of 37 in comparison to 1500 in the US.

We arrived to a conclusion for Farm Together about two years ago and thought we had the answer to people who are vocal about food safty. The solution is so simple. Farm Together acts as a simple platform connecting urbanites to the farmers which are at most 45 miles apart by car in most place in Shanghai.

However, when we started to talk about Farm Together to people who are vocal about food safety, they lose interest in talking about food after hearing the solutions. We were puzzled about this and when digging deeper into this, we realized that a lot of people talking about food safty as a disguise to their political frastruction in other areas. They are not that all worry about food safty but use it as a conversation starter to be pivoted into other political issues.

I got invited to a few meetings and conferences concerning food safety and more often then not, people stop talking about food safety after hearing my talks. Farm Together is actionable but finding a solution to the issues isn’t really what’s on most people’s mind when they talk about food safety.

I am not denying that there are food safety issues in China but living first tier cities like Shanghai does shield us from the rest of China. Hundreds of foreign correspondents live in Shanghai with their families, if there were real widespread food safety issues in Shanghai, they would have report about it and get their kids out of here already.

So we are actually back to building “Farm Together” for people who are actually interested in farming and have been building the community for the past few months. We currently have about 30 people sharing 10 200 square meters greenhouses and growing.

By the way, talking about food and farming in China. CCTV has done this amazing documentary (or propaganda) called A Bite of China. It’s amazing look into food culture here.

“A Bite of China” has been dubbed and uploaded to Youtube. Hope you enjoy this.

Question. Most Americans think up scaling aquaponics means bigger systems. For me, especially in Great Lakes Heartland and eastern seaboard cities, up scaling makes more sense with small systems for schools and homes. 1,000 school demos across 10 major cities would make a difference, especially if coupled with 1,000 Makers experiments in the same schools, sensors, digital expression and connectivity.

Such connected schools would provide their students with a different learning reality.

And, if those 1,000 US schools were connected with 1,000 Chinese schools,
the implications are beyond my imagination.

Can you imagine such up scaling over the next 10 to 30 years?

David Li.Haha, when we designed network system we often talk about scale up and scale out to build system.

The scaling out of aquaponics is already happening and how to speed the trend up would an important mission for the aquapons.

I really think a global repository of open source aquaponics designs and setup instructions would really help.

Question. Can you imagine one Shanghai high school sharing youtube conversations with one Milwaukee or Chicago high school about their respective experiments in the next 12 months? And our framing that as a bit of citizen diplomacy as well as knowledge for sustainable farming diffusion?

David Li. Definitely! Let’s work on this! Getting schools in China linking up to the schools in the states.

Question. I was just reminded of Farm Shop, which Charlie Price designed and TED Talked a while back, and could serve, in my mind, as an important element of the “scaling up by scaling out” vision that makes most sense to me.

Can you imagin a Farm Shop in 20 Chinese cities over the next 10 or 20 years? Your thoughts on the “scaling up by scaling out” concept?

David Li. We have discussed with several places about building this but it’s hard. Everyone expecting this to be a full production and vegetables grown over night.

We really need to educate people about farming.

Question. A State Department friend, Jon Ward, wrote that he
had a conversation with Jonathan Shrier, the State Department’s Special Representative for Global Food Security, who advised that the State Department is just starting to get some focus on urban agriculture. Any thoughts about this?

David Li. I do think there are a lot of exchange and dialogs can happen at the cities level with citizen engagement. It’s a long term goal for self-sufficiency of the cities but in short term, it’s about promoting understanding of farming by the citizens.

I think the urbanites involvement in the farming has a lot of benefits:

- understand the farming economy better so they don’t make unreasonable demend on food. Some 30% of vegetables are left on the field because the over production to meet the farming expection. By better managing the expection, we can increase the good availability for at least 10–20%.

- direct the casual investment by the more affluent urbanites into the farming technologies improvement. The era of big industrial farming is coming to the end but we can’t really depend on Monsanto of the worlds to develop the next wave of technologies. As evidenced by two farming communities: the pot farmers and now aquapons, the affluent money can help develop more distributed and small scale farming system. We aquapons do owe the pot farmers in developing and sharing a lot of more sophisticated hydroponic techniques.

- better cross culture understanding, especially between China and US when it comes to food production. In the policy and national trade level, Chinese are worrying about the importation of GMed soybean and corns while Americans are worrying about unsafe processed food from China. Yes, they happen but that’s not all there is. We need a different dialogs at the citizen level.

- I think it would be good to host international conference of urban farmers in China or US to facilitate the dialog.

Question. I would be very interested in your thoughts about some kind of “revival” of interest in political and historical economics in USA, with NYT running stories about a new generation of critical essayists
using Marxist concepts and frameworks for analysis. Here’s a NYT story on a best selling French economists making buzz in USA.

Any discusison in China of Thomas Piketty’s best-selling new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” argues income inequality is going to worsen.

David Li. Nice! Thanks for the link! Adding on to my Amazon order for a must read. I also co-founded a think tank called Hacked Matter in Shanghai in which we are examining the issues of Makers meet Manufacture in China.

We are looking into how IP free or open source can affect the society and economy.

Question. I have not yet shared Emmanuel and my Sweet Water Foundation founding story, which involved an intense struggle with the main powers of Sweet Water Organics about open sourcing the Sweet Water story and democratizing aquaponics with a sharing of information derived from SWO as well as a focus on aquaponics miniatures for family and school.

Sweet Water Organics would not have failed if the original founding core had understood the logic, i.e. collaborative economics, giving rise to great bounty like

Hacked Matter!


David Li Testimonial For Sweet Water’s Godsil Advance of Aquapons Across the Waters

I have not yet had a chance to meet with James Godsil but we have been working together prompting Aquaponics. I am impressed with James’ energy and passions about promoting aquaponics. The Aquapons across Water started by James connect us from US, China, India and over all the worlds to kick off valuable discussion on the value of aquaponics. I am very much look forward to meeting James in 2015 and work with him to push forward this interesting technologies.

David Li Interview with Institute for the Future

I just did an interview section with IFTF. and I think we are on the road to be mainstream in a decade. The urban farming will be one of the things going mainstream. IFTF will have some good and interesting reports on the food production.

David Li Shanghai Ted Talk

“Wall Street Journal” Coverage

Featured At Chinese Association of Inventions Gathering

Call For Interoperability And Open Data

Yup, Kijani’s system is pretty good. Bitponics tho propriatery is also a nice system.

In additin to open source, we also should push for inteoperatibility as well as open data from these system.

Blom. My understanding of BitPonics is that it was patented with the condition that it remains open source, if that makes sense. We can check with Chris Piuggi the founder to be sure. He was also chief developer of

That’s great! I met the bitpoinic tech lead Michael Doherty a while back when he stopped by Shanghai.

Crowdfunding Open Source Aquaponics Monitoring

​We should standardize these so we can help to develop a set of open source tools and apps to collect these data. The data can either be collected automatically with sensors or manually recorded by hand.

I’d like to collect the requirements for data collection, analysis and sharing.

I am planning to run a crowdfundung campaign on Kickstarter to bring the open source Aquaponic monitoring set to the market. The campaign is mainly to archive the quantities to make the system more affordable to everyone.
We would develop the set of software tools and apps with this campagin so we can release all of them in open source.
I’d like to know what everyone think of this. Thanks!

Alchmatter.Org, a Universal Language For Making Things

I recently start to work with which is a easy to understand universal language for making stuffs. We are still shaping the language and I think it can be adopted to record and describe aquaponics system.

Inspiring Blog

Exploring Metagenomics

Also, another related project I am trying to get off ground is the meta genomic analysis of aquaponic systems. Aquaponics is a living system and traditional nutrient based analysis while useful doesn’t tell the whole picture of the system. With the nitrification tank (or bioreactor) being heart of the nutrient conversation in the system, metagenomic may be a good way to measure the health and efficient of the systems. Coupling this with environment monitoring data will help us to turn making a Aquaponic system from art to a science.

I am visiting BGI in Feb 10th and will meet with their environmental genomic group to discuss how to collaborate. Would like to see if this can be part of the FoodMills as well.

I think metagenomic with aquaponics will be a long term project. From the visit to BGI, we should also forming a team from our side to work with them. I will have another meeting with them in late March and early April. I will start drafting the plan and share when I have it in a week or so.

Yes, teaming with microbe is a great book!!! I totally enjoy it and have tried some of the suggestion in the last growth season in the newly set up backyard. Bad soil but with mixing of organic matter mostly grass clipping and aggressive application of aerated compost tea with worm compost (weekly for 2 months), I had great harvest of backyard vegetables.

Also, apply the tea to my aquaponics system (both as spray to the leaves and additive to water) and they work to keep bug and disease away.

I have been following the Elaine Ingham’s work on soil food web. Her big compost tea brewing manual is great but I have only try the basic ones.


On Aquaponics Sensors

Open source water quality monitoring. I have been working closely with DFRobot on sourcing suitable sensors for continuous monitoring of water and environmental factor. So far, we have PH, temperature (water and air), air quality, light. We are working on getting affordable ammonia and nitrate probes. We may also launch a crowdfunding campaign to get enough quantity to bring down the cost.

Aquaponics and Makers Movement

I think aquaoponics has caught the attention of a lot of makers/hackers around the world. Aquaponic/Hydroponic workshop remain one of the most popular workshops in XinCheJian. It’s great idea to bring these two together.

Response To New Zealand Paper on Aquaponics

Thanks for sharing.

I think the paper is well written and well researched. Aqauponics isn’t a magic bulllet and the technology as it still has a lot of shortfall. It’s important for us to understand these so we can keep improving it.

It’s not a silver bullet and no technology was perfect from day one. Mac almost killed Apple if laser printer and desktop top publishing haven’t had developed in time to save it.

It’s critical for us aquapons to understand the short falls and limitation so we can find best use case for aquaponics.

These days, my rules of thumbs in applying recommending aquaponics:

1. If there is access to non-toxic soil, methods like natural farming or soil food web can quickly condition the soil to become productive.

2. For people with really busy lifestyle, I’d recommend hydroponics instead of aquaponics for them. The bubble buckets are my favorite for growing some tomatoes and cucumbers on balcony. It’s small, compact and easy to setup.

My primary targets these days to push aquaponics these days is managed rooftop and school education.

I think Sweet Water in Chicago has converted downtown factories and warehouse to aquaponics. Something we are envious in Shanghai. We can’t get those kind of properties on the cheap in Shanghai as they are all converted to high end creative park and office spaces.

Again, thanks for sharing the paper and I think it’s worthy spreading to aquapons. We still have long way to go and we need to keep on improving aquaponics.

That’s also the reasons I want to work on the open source monitoring tools as well as metagenomic so we can take more guess works out of aquaponics and we can turn it from an art to a science.

Unlike other farming technologies, it’s hard to build a proprietary tech companies behind it as most of techniques are of methods to adjust the water. The bottom up and open development are what makes aquaponics popular these days and we have that going for us and I hope we would stay that way.

The book “Democratizing Innovation” by Eric von Hipple has been a great inspiration to the development of Makers and open source hardware movement and it’s also good read for aquapons.

Agriculture has suffered too long from the proprietary technologies from the top down (Monsanto…) and secrecy among competing growers.

There is a good reason why pot growers have done the most to push growing technologies forward in the past few decades: they love what they do and they like to share what they do. And they are lucky enough to have high value crops to afford them to experiment new types of systems.

One of the system we are trying to adopt for aquaponics from the pot grower is called under current which would help in case of low nutrient content. This is something we would encounter while the fish density is low (fingerling stage).


Beginning David Li Sweet Water Exchange

On Wed, Oct 30, 2013 at 12:26 AM, Li David <> wrote:

Hi Jesse,

This is great! I am founder of XinCheJian ( ) and we are the first hackerspace in China established 3 years ago. The WSJ article is good intro to what we do:

We have an urban farming group that started up playing around with hydroponics, aeroponics and we started with aquaponics about two years ago. I also run the Shanghai Aquaponics blog.

In the past year, we have done a lot more thinking on the issues of farming and foods. Currently we are working on a new project called “Farm Together” to connecting urban resident to the farms. One unique thing thing about China is there is a policy that 70% of the daily vegetables will have to be produced in the city limit and this presents an interesting situation that we could actually promote large scale urban farming and change the economy of farming.

We are also looking into techniques such as natural farming, soil food webs, biodynamics and etc. Look forward to have more discussion on the subjects and collaborate.


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