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David Kadish

Growing Complexity: Investigating horticulture in the age of the robot

2017.08.12 | David Kadish

1. title and short overview of your PhD thesis: Growing Complexity: Agri-culture in the age of the robot.

Growing Complexity aims to further the consideration of the relationship between autonomous robotics and plant ecologies in the context of food production. The project is grounded in a critique of a first generation of these robotic systems as simplistic and reductionist in their conceptions of plant- and plant-robot ecologies and focus on robotics as a tool for human intervention and control. In response, Growing Complexity imagines second generation systems that exemplify a complex relationship between autonomous robotic actors and the plant ecologies in which they operate. As practice-based research, this examination engages in the exploration of this relationship through reflexive application of artistic, engineering, and design practice.   


2. the nature of your ‘non-written work': The non-written work multi-faceted. On one hand, it draws on my background as an engineer and an artist and so consists of electronic hardware and software development, robotic design and production, and the installation, testing, and presentation of these designs. It also involves hands-on engagement with gardening and agricultural practices, through working in my own garden plot and visiting agricultural field sites and research stations.

3. in what way your ‘non-written work' relates to your PhD thesis: The non-written work deepens my own understanding of the imagined futures that I discuss in my written work, as well as my critique of current methods of food production. It also serves to concretize the ideas that I am putting forth for a wider audience and as a stepping stone to imagine a fully realised system of future agriculture.

4. how you integrate or consider integrating your ‘non-written work' into your PhD thesis: 
I’m not entirely sure, which is part of why I’ve enrolled in this course! That said, I imagine writing about the work and my own experience of production process as well as my and others’ experiences of the finished work. Part of the thesis will likely be a technical description of the work (in the manner that an engineering thesis would treat work), but that will certainly not be the entirety of the thesis.

5. which scholarly traditions you base your methodology on: My approach to this work is necessarily interdisciplinary. The questions touch robotics and artificial intelligence, art and aesthetics, biology and ecology, and politics and economics.


Thus, my theoretical starting point lies largely in systems theory (Bertalanffy, 1968; Laszlo, 1972), which is less concerned a specific field of inquiry than it is with finding patterns that cross disciplinary boundaries and that manifest in a multitude of scenarios.

Following this, some of the primary working frameworks include practice- and design- based research methods. These include variations such as reflective practice (Schön, 1983; Dieleman, 2008), practice-based research, practice-led research, and design-based research (Wakkary, 2009). These related practices have some important distinctions, but the key to most of them is that the artistic practice and reflection on that practice is itself research. This makes sense in the context of studying something as embodied as the relationships between the material entities of people, digital technologies and food. These methods will result in qualitative, phenomenological research understandings of the research questions.

In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of the proposal, the research will also employ traditional engineering design and scientific research methodologies for portions of the work. Research and knowledge creation in the fields of applied artificial intelligence and robotics, evolutionary design and optimization, and ecology and systems biology will also form part of this project.

6. which difficulties you have encountered regarding your ‘non-written work’: In this particular setting, I’ve had difficulty trying to determine what exactly my non-written work should be. I think the problem is partially that the proposal that I’m making is in the relatively distant technological future. It also relies on a full system to achieve the kinds of complexity that I envision. So, while one of my instincts is to engage in relatively straightforward engineering prototyping work, I know that won’t achieve the richness that I am looking for. I’ve struggled to find a more artistic/design approach that I am satisfied with, and so I’m not quite sure where to go next with my non-written work.

7. what you wish to gain from the workshop: I am really looking forward to discussing the how non-written work can fit into the eventual thesis, and in particular I am hoping to finish the week with a more concrete plan for myself for a system for moving forward in the practice-based part of my project.


Bertalanffy, Ludwig von (1968). General Systems Theory: Foundations Development, Applications. New York, USA: George Braziller, p. 295. isbn: 9780807604533.

Dieleman, Hans (2008). “Sustainability, Art and Reflexivity: why artists and designers may become key change agents in sustainability”. In: Sustainability: a new frontier for the arts and cultures. Ed. by Sacha Kagan and Volker Kirchberg. 3rd ed. Frankfurt: Vas Verlag Fur Akademisch. Chap. 2.1, pp. 108–146. isbn: 978-3-88864-440-5.

Laszlo, Ervin (1972). “Introduction to Systems Philosophy: Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought”. In:

Schön, D (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action.


Wakkary, Ron Lengkong (2009). “Experiencing Interaction Design: A Pragmatic Theory”.  PhD. University of Plymouth, p. 311.

PhD Course