Climate change, water scarcity, and increased global demand are driving a need for drastic changes with the way we culturally engage with and consume food. At the same time, individuals and industry experts are feeling overwhelmed, disengaged, and powerless when it comes to knowing how to take action.
A food initiative that uses digital media and theatrical experiences to engage industry experts and citizens with our food system’s current challenges, providing them with spaces for conversation and tools that help address and ease the transition into sustainable nutrition.
The International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University and The Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU.
Daniela V Sanchez and Lauren Atkins
Design Strategist, Researcher, and Service Designer.
Food Initiative ‘At Our Table’ collaborates with food experts, scientists, chefs, artists, ‘eaters’, and the hospitality industry in order to create experiences, products, and services that reimagine or create new relationships with our food.
Currently the initiative has 2 main outputs: a theatrical dinner experience and a platform.
The Theatrical Dinner
A theatrical dinner series that uses embodied learning and staged performances in order to create new spaces for conversations around sustainability and food practices. Introduced to guests as a desirable cultural experience akin to Sleep No More, the dinner uses elements of mystique and defamiliarization to present guests with staged rules of engagement, reimagined tools, meals, and calls to action for reflection. Ultimately, the experience created a safe space for conversation which in turn fostered the start of a new community, allowing guests to connect with each other, and delve into deep conversations around previously “taboo” subjects.
The platform uses a shopping list tool as a loose framework for alleviating anxiety around food choices. It does this by allowing users’ to rank issues they care about, for example: health, convenience, cost, environment, taste, etc… The user makes their shopping list on the app and when food items that are entered conflict with their values, they are highlighted using stoplight colors. The app then gives alternatives for the highlighted food item. Over time, the app would begin to link what people care about in the present to sustainable concerns. Additionally, the app allows for users to join a team, fostering peer-to-peer connections and communities that provide support through the transitional lifestyle changes.
CONTEXT & RESEARCH
My project partner and I co-started this initiative when we noticed the lack of sustainability efforts engaging civilians in their everyday life. Curious about the gap between high-level sustainability strategies and civil society, we decided to build a research and development project that focused on the disconnect between these two. In particular, we looked at the experience of climate change in our everyday lives and at how we could drive a sustainable transition that would take into account not just the scientific rational knowledge of climate change and the anthropocene, but also the emotional and practical challenges of facing climate change and evolving sustainable lifestyles. To do so we delved into an extensive interdisciplinary research analysis that combined techniques from applied phenomenology, organizational change, sociology, sustainability strategies, and design-led research.
Ultimately, our research revealed that engaging individuals with food practices had the most potential for impactful individual agency. Food choices represent both the influence of our personal and global health, and as such are uniquely positioned as the bridge that can address individual and collective impact. Imbalanced diets, such as diets low in fruits and vegetables, and high in red and processed meat, for example, are responsible for the greatest health burden globally. At the same time the food system is also responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Food at the individual level, however, is a representation of colliding worlds. An area in our lives that represents often contradicting values, with food choices being more frequently dictated by values related to present concerns (e.g. family, price, time, and taste) versus more future-oriented and removed values (e.g. sustainability and animal welfare). Furthermore, contradicting nutritional and health perspectives result in a high degree of uncertainty and concern for individuals when making food choices. At the same time, the emotional pressure of “living sustainably” creates an overwhelming ask for individuals to completely change everything they have come to know as their way of living, in order to be sustainable. This, combined with the belief that there is nothing or that there is too much to change and be done about climate change, creates a collective cycle of entrapment and inaction.
My role in this project extended from its very beginnings of problem framing and defining to the design and implementation of research and project outcomes. The following five areas explain in more detail the extent of my role.
Interdisciplinary Research - problem framing, designing and planning research scope and focus, implementing primary and secondary research, and synthesizing research learnings.
Leadership & Facilitation - managing the development of the project, establishing links with stakeholders, facilitating workshops, managing team dynamics, and communicating project findings.
Sustainability Strategies - leading the use of sustainability perspectives, practices, and strategies throughout both research and implementation.
Visualization & Systems Thinking - using visualization and systems thinking practices to communicate project findings and drive research and project development.
Development of Final Outcome - translating insights and research findings into design principles and criteria which in turn I used to design and develop prototypes and final project outcomes.