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Case Study: Food Futures

System: Food

Problem: Regional Food Desert Risk

Location: Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia

Commencement: July 2018

Completion: In progress (expected to continue through til 2028)

Methods: Co-research, co-creation, ethnography, auto-ethnography, workshops, action research, mapping, gameplay, regeneration, collective impact, complex adaptive systems leadership, sustainability transitions

About Food Futures

The Food Futures project has been running since 2018 as a constellation of activity and initiatives aimed at sustainability transitions within the local food system. These transitions include shifts from conventional farming to regenerative agriculture, from linear to circular economies, and from an over-dependence on centralised food systems to a thriving local food system. The project regularly explores the food system’s dynamics to examine where and how its sustainability (and anti-fragility) might be improved as part of sustainability transitions.

Scope of work

We have conducted multiple studies and processes in the first three years of this project including regular systems mapping, backcasting and visioning for future states, ethnography within the community, liaison and negotiation with local government and agribusiness groups, a study of small decentralised regional food chains, and a pilot rewilding project to increase regional biodiversity across farming land.

The Lab has mapped a number of potential initiatives including an app that monitors the reductions to emissions from diverting food waste from landfill and a green waste to verge garden popup in the CBD. A study of the farmer’s experience of on-farm transitions and a scoping study for implementing a circular economy in a peri-urban development are in their early stages.

During the early stages of Food Futures we identified that empathy and skills in adaptive capacity would need to be enabled to participate and engage in transitions processes. 

Agility in our approach

The Lab's sensitivity to adaptation and our team's openness to continual learning helped us recognise that building adaptive capacity would need to be part of the work we were doing. Our reflective methodological approach has created the space for such learnings to inform and redirect our processes. The Food Futures empathy and capacity building process is a direct outcome of this reflective build-measure-learn prototyping approach and it has been tailor-made for the food system. 

When the pandemic hit, this process was reimagined again, this time as a digital and analogue (workshop in a box) process. It uses a gamified approach to amplify social learning through co-research and co-design processes that have been designed in line with 36 key markers of systemic change. This process has also flipped our use of these markers to not only measure and report on potential systemic change but to also inform the design process for approaches to systemic problems.

A new approach to participatory processes

The workshop in a box process accommodates for lockdowns and social distancing. But beyond the pandemic, it also broadens the landscape of participation by including people who may not ordinarily be able to participate in a face-to-face workshop (whether online or in person) due to accessibility/time/technology constraints. 

The box was designed to engage people in self-facilitated activities that investigate the food system using a ‘pass-the-parcel’ method. The activities use co-mapping and co-design processes to make the system ‘discoverable’, creating opportunities for engagement to catalyse cultural shifts. Each participant adds to the thoughts of those who’ve participated before them as part of a generative co-research approach to mapping the system together, even if we have to be alone. Each activity builds literacy and understanding of the food system and also contributes to the co-creation of a place-based game about the food system that gamifies crisis responsiveness and practices adaptive capacity through gameplay. 

Encouraging participation through gamified processes creates rich, interactive experiences that deepen over time and can instill longer lasting knowledge and behaviours. Mediating cultural change through engaging experiences has also proven successful in our other transition projects. These proprietary methods have been developed through extensive iterative processes, initially as part of our Director’s PhD and then in Net Zero Lab. 

Documentation and discussion of these innovative processes have been recently published in the Strategic Design Research Journal and as a book chapter in the upcoming book, COVID-19 and Co-production in Health and Social Care Research, Policy and Practice.

The workshop in a box can be used in solo and group settings and forms part of our approach to ‘whole of systems’ engagement.

We use a wide variety of practices and approaches in our mapping work and a selection of those used in the Food Futures project can be seen here. These maps have been produced in a number of different ways, some as part of deep interview processes, others in groups. Some began as post-it notes, others were documented through a visual recording and others through online mapping tools.

A study of small decentralised food chains revealed the trust and transparency that led to their success and allowed rich stories to be told about the provenance of produce at a retail level. The sense of community emerging around these chains was observed not only in the immediate region, but also extended to another metropolitan stockist. The strength in these small, local relationships was noted in stark contrast to the stories told about food growers’ relationships with larger chains and their vastly different models for logistics. 

Findings

Though this project is still in progress, findings have been emerging throughout our engagement to date. Initial mapping of the system revealed opportunities for an increased localisation for food processing, particularly for more humane processing of livestock. It was also identified that new agile food processors could also thrive within a localised food system as responsive social enterprises that respond to ad-hoc food waste and produce gluts. The need for a food hub to act as a central space for education, meetings of minds, skill sharing and markets was identified and a small experimental hub is now emerging in the Hindmarsh Valley in response to this need. 

Of particular interest in this study was the way the rich relationality in the local system appeared to dissipate when scaled up but appeared to be maintained when operations were expanded through a process of scaling out. We now sit with a number of questions about the scale and enablement of interconnected but decentralised small systems. As this project continues to explore what transitions in a food system look like, what they ask of us and how they are enabled, more questions like this will likely arise.