A HOTHOUSE FOR PLANTS AND PEOPLE

2013-04-18

One of the most remarkable office blocks that has ever been built is to rise up from the plains of Östergötland on the outskirts of the city of Linköping. At 54 metres high, when it is complete in 2014, it will stretch up into the wind like a sail made of glass. But it's the inside that's the most spectacular. Almost 5,000 square metres of office space will be shared with a "vertical greenhouse" with 4,000 square metres of cultivable space. At Kinnarps we talk about "Green ideas at work", which means tips and ideas for a greener, more efficient and smarter office - here this concept is being given a new, tangible and possibly slightly unexpected dimension.

"The lack of cultivable land and water is one of the greatest threats to mankind," says Hans Hassle, CEO of Plantagon, a company that has made up its mind to do something about the problem. "According to some estimates, we're already using 80 percent of the world's cultivable land. In Sweden we import about 75 percent of everything we and our animals eat. It's grown somewhere else. The same is true of most countries in the West. As populations and cities grow and cultivable land ends up under asphalt and concrete the distance between production and consumers gets bigger and bigger. This problem already exists today in vast cities like Shanghai where food literally gets caught up in traffic."

Hans Hassle, CEO of Plantagon, the company which, together with Sweco and Tekniska Verken in Linköping, is planning the world's first integrated vertical greenhouse, where vegetables will be grown in an office.

Food from household waste
Plantagon's solution to this lack of land is a system for growing as much as possible on as small a surface area as possible and, at the same time, using the minimum of energy and water. This is done by vertical cultivation. The crops are planted way up high in trays with a mixture of pumice stone and nutrient solution. An ingenious, spiral shaped system conveys the crops gradually downwards until they are harvested at the bottom.

"Energy consumption has been the biggest challenge. In Linköping the crops are heated by waste heat from the district heating system. The carbon dioxide the plants need, which normally has to be bought in, is a by-product of Tekniska Verken's biogas production, which in turn is produced from organic household waste. This means that we can actually make food from waste which otherwise is a major problem."

The greenhouse on the outskirts of Linköping will be the first of its kind and will therefore be something of a research and development facility. To reduce the need for intermediaries, and to save money, the plan is, in future, to build the greenhouses in city centres where consumers are located.

Making the world a better place, one step at a time.
If the idea of a vertical greenhouse seems remarkable, it's nothing compared with the story behind it. Hans Hassle is neither an agronomist, a town planner nor an engineer. For most of his life he has worked on Corporate Social Responsibility issues.

Idealist and inveterate dreamer, named "CEO of the year 2012" by the magazine European CEO for his ground-breaking work in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility

"I can see three reasons why companies are interested in CSR. The first is that they see a business opportunity, the second is to reduce the risk of being involved in scandals and the third, and most important, is that they take their social responsibility seriously. What we try to do is to use the company's commercial toolbox to solve a social problem. "Normal" business leaders and investors may think this is mad but we don't think so." Like so many other acronyms, CSR tends to be "a lot of talk and no action". To show that it means business, Plantagon is therefore run in accordance with a new business model which Hans Hassle calls "companisation", where competitiveness grows out of voluntary accountability, complete transparency and democratic management.

"There's an enormous desire for a new type of company. I think many people are confounded by how things work today. You don't have to be politically aware either to see that there's an imbalance in the system, with a global economy that lacks an equivalent on the political side. If you want to do something about it, it's not enough to talk about CSR, you have to prove it. Where profits end up. The values that steer the business and the people that own it."

Sustainability for seven generations
And as if the story behind Plantagon wasn't already amazing enough, it gets even better. During his work on CSR Hans Hassle often came into contact with Oren R. Lyons, Faithkeeper for the Onondaga Nation and one of North America's most influential first nations leaders.

"One day back in 2002 Oren asked me if I could help America's first nations people find other ways of earning money than running casinos and selling tax-free tobacco. That's when I thought about the idea of vertical, organic farming which a Swedish innovator, Åke Olsson, had told me about a few years before. I asked Oren if they were interested in trying to solve the food security issue with us and Sweco, a company that I had already worked with on sustainability issues. It took six years of talking before we reached an agreement but in 2008 we launched Plantagon, the world's first "companisation", with Onondaga Nation as the largest shareholder.

Plantagon also works with vertical cultivation systems for office environments, to improve health at work and efficiency. If you can't improve the whole world all at once, you can do it one room at a time.

Onondaga Nation or the "People of the hills", as they are also known, are part of the Iroquis League, "Haudenosaunee”, a political federation which goes back over 1,000 years and on whose governance the US constitution is based.

"One of the main reasons we dared to venture into this field was that we thought that if we were successful we would set a good example for others. We didn't have a clear business model when we started out. We didn't know how we were going to solve all the technical issues. Nor did we know how we'd get the energy we needed. We saw everything as a challenge and we solved the problems as we went along. If you're going to work like that you have to have very special owners, owners with stamina. The Iroquois people have a mindset that says that everything we do must be judged by how it will affect the seventh generation down the line. What impact will the decisions we make today have on them?"