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Robotic arms and human operators at work at the Deliflor glasshouse in Westland. Photo: Grace Abou Jaoude (top) / Deliflor Website (bottom)

Hybrid Workscapes: Emergent Infrastructures of Automation and Co-production in Horticultural Production

Horticultural production clusters are increasingly shifting to a collection of hybrid spaces and infrastructures harnessing different models of sharing: between robots and human operators, and between horticultural production firms and industrial sectors. Amidst rising market demands, competition, and a growing need for product differentiation, human-machine collaboration, flexibility and optimization are essential to sustain a consistent supply of products and enhance greenhouse performance.

Technological advances and hybrid solutions in the Westland, the main horticultural cluster in the Netherlands, have enabled the establishment of large-scale greenhouses transforming productive structures into actual infrastructures that embrace radical forms of postfordism sustained by automation, shared networks, and migrant workers.  On the one hand, industrial platforms, automated machines and robotic manipulators have been integrated in the horticultural production process, substituting for labor or assisting human operators by performing repetitive simple tasks — despite advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotic systems, humans are still required in the event of abrupt incidents or for careful handling of products, and temporary labor is also shared through hiring agencies to support the horticultural production process. On the other, on a larger scale, the agglomeration of greenhouses and economic activity enables sharing resources through common infrastructural networks. Possibilities for sharing resources are not only tied to the aggregation of greenhouses in the cluster but also to proximal centers of consumption and to industries at the Port of Rotterdam.

The infrastructuralization of hybrid agro-industrial workscapes incorporating automated technologies and human operators, and complex industrial ecologies have been underrepresented in the architectural and planning discourses. By looking at the Westland, this article will speculate on to what extent this region offers a contemporary model for sharing work, space, and resources between humans and machines, and explore how the cluster’s spatial configuration mirrors those organizational and technological shifts in the production process. 

Outline

First, the article will briefly introduce the Westland and discuss about the area and its history – how the horticultural productive cluster came into being and how larger forces, economic and technological, shaped the territory.

Second, it will introduce a series of case studies of greenhouses, each specializing in the production of a variety of plant species and processes. By doing this, it will document hybrid workspaces and automated technologies deployed – how is work sequentially shared between technologies and operators.

Third, it will discuss how sharing of energy and resources currently occurs at a larger scale between industries at the Port of Rotterdam and the horticultural cluster in Westland.

Fourth, the text will elaborate on how these technological advances and modes of sharing have resulted in new spatial organizations across scales, and transformed greenhouses into postfordist infrastructures conditioned by capital, competitiveness, and globalization, and discuss the implications.

Finally, the article will conclude by speculating on future, sustainable models of sharing work, space, and resources between the horticultural production cluster and surrounding urban centers.

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