TALKS | Methodology, philosophy and theory of systemic design

Co-Designing Food Revolution for Social Change

Inclusivity. Zero-waste. Well-being. (UAE CASE-STUDY)

Yunsun Chung-Shin, United Arab Emirates, Zayed University
Shrin Mehri, Pakistan, Kulna

+Small group breakout session with the author follows Talk

A food system is a web of activities that not only affects every human but calls all individuals and communities to play a role in the production and consumption of food. According to the Global Food Security Index (GFSI), Singapore, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Netherlands and Australia are the most food-secure countries in the world, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ranking number 31. Thus making the UAE a unique setting for such a project. With the above in mind, long-term food security and self-sufficiency have been key strategic goals for the UAE government. The most prominent challenge faced by the country is its climate, resulting in a negative impact on its domestic production abilities and passive mindset. The UAE also has one of the highest rates of food waste, globalized diets, and inactive lifestyles that contribute to preventable disease development.

The project

‘Co-designing Food Revolution for Social Change’ (CFRSC), a transdisciplinary action research has explored how to bring positive impact, behavior changes on individual and collective well-being in a food system at Zayed University (ZU) in the UAE since 2016. The first step was to build KULNA Community Garden (‘All of Us’ in Arabic) to showcase the potential of building a physical sanctuary to grow food and engage people to be interested in food issues. The second was to run KULNA as a social laboratory to identify the challenges and solutions that are intricately connected in awareness and behaviors around inclusivity, zero-waste, and well-being with food communities.

Finally, HOW CAN WE CO-DESIGN FOOD REVOLUTION? The goal was to contribute to a positive impact by co-designing a food system and activities around it. Hence the research aims to explore pedagogics of systemic design, holistic pedagogy frameworks for inclusive development of individuals, teams, and surroundings. The focus was on learning about the transformative process facilitated by actions and reflections around activities generated by the research cluster, focus group and collaborators. By detailing Kulna’s experiences in co-design, this paper offers a roadmap for other transdisciplinary teams in higher education settings.

Framework and approaches

The role of designer and design researchers are changing from a user-centered design to co-designing with users (Sanders 2008). It’s a shift of expert-mindset to ‘everyone is creative’ which supports the purpose of design practice for designing experience, emotion, interaction, sustainability, serving, and transformation. The cluster methodology adopted INNOCO’s Social Innovation Model (SIM) with a lens of systemic design. The driving force has been having faith in humanity that ‘everyone can be a changemaker’ and pursuing well-being by transforming oneself and society. We used ‘people-centered and research-led approaches encouraging people to nurture ‘participatory mindsets’ in order to co-design a small scale food production and promoting a healthy lifestyle. These included interactive experimentations using diffusion of innovation: design thinking and system thinking integrating it with empathy-driven innovation approaches and pursuing behavioral changes that are applicable and scalable. We discussed the relationship and impact of design thinking/practice with system thinking/practice in terms of the interdependence of food, design, innovation, and human interaction relating to well-being.

Co-designing the pathway (action<>reflection)

The value of co-design was defined as; influence system change, facilitate to claim ownership, require inclusivity/radical collaboration, and produce unified vision/actions. The pathway was a simple ‘action and reflection’ process of the individual’s attributes, their flipping/connecting tipping points to community attributes. It led to consider a few transformative aspects of their changemaker pathways. Using the SIM, a small scale qualitative data was collected by a series of interviews, observations and surveys, which assisted to understand the actors in the system. The following team’s reflection facilitated to define further actions to move forward food revolution activities and to improve while mobilizing the local and wider community on-site and online. Within the three pre-identified themes, food production using appropriate technology, educational workshops, course integrations, awareness campaigns (I GROW SEEDS), and community activities such as salad lunch and Thursday market were co-designed and implemented. All activities were designed to bring all stakeholders from the university (students, faculty, staff, gardeners, and administrators), external experts and community members to experience the power of holistic aspects of collective well-being.

Findings and discussions

This paper aims to discuss the impact of co-designing food revolution with the community using a holistic pedagogical framework of ME=WE in individuals, teams, and community levels to improve our lifestyle for collective well-being. Some findings are encouraging that participants are interested in a healthy lifestyle, food waste issues, and believe that sustainable lifestyle changes are needed in UAE. Others have more questions about systemic approaches on action and reflections. On inclusivity, although all interviewees believed that co-design and social change are a good thing; understandings of these two terminologies varied. On zero waste, most, if not all, felt they were up to date with the activities of the cluster. The social media platforms (Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook) have helped with the sharing of meeting timings, videos, pictures and updates on KULNA. On wellbeing, a healthy lifestyle is promoted, and by having a garden on-campus, a similar change in mindset can be observed at home. Behavioral change has been observed in students, faculty and staff and external stakeholders that interacted with the project the last 4 years. During this time, we have repeatedly seen the delicate relationship between food, human life, and social engagement; affecting the core of one’s ability to participate in the world we live in.

Food has the ability to activate multiple senses – smell, sight, and of course taste – to help us remember some of life’s most meaningful and magical moments, whether large or small. Henceforth, with the learnings from KULNA, we intend to scale the impact across ZU, to create a healthy, inclusive and zero-waste enabling food system. These activities encouraged us to strengthen the essence of co-designing a healthy and sustainable food system, allowing everyone to participate (inclusivity), practice (zero-waste), promote (well-being) and prosper through a sustainable model that can be scaled and rolled out as social enterprise, a community hub for sustainability and social change, which can carry forward implementing a large scale food revolution in the UAE and the region in the future.