Category: food systems

food systemsjournalismpublic healthsocial mediasystems science

Frogs, Pots, Blogs and Social Media

Frog_and_saucepan

Our information landscape has been compared with our diets providing an ample opportunity to compare what we ‘consume’ with how we prepare food and perhaps draw on the analogy of the frog and the boiling point of water. Are we slowly killing our ability to produce independent thought through vehicles like blogs as we draw our gaze to and focus on the social media stream?

Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was one of the few who opposed the state-imposed media messaging about what was (and has been) happening in Iran. For that, he was jailed. Writing in the Guardian news service, Darakshan, once referred to as Iran’s ‘Blogfather’, discusses how blogging enabled him to be this voice and how he’s become increasingly concerned with how that option is getting slowly silenced not necessarily by governments but by social media.

Darakhshan’s perspective on social media is made all the more interesting because of his role as a prominent blogger before his arrest and the 6-year prison term that disrupted that role, offering something of a time-travel experiment in social media that he illustrates with a story from the Qur’an (known as the tale of the Seven Sleepers).

Upon his return online, Darakhshan noticed that the patchwork quilt of perspectives that were present in the blogosphere was being replaced by ‘The Stream’ that social media provides.

This stream is no longer about a diversity of perspectives, but rather something custom-tailored to meet our preferences, desires, and the needs of corporations seeking to sell advertising, products and services that align with their perception of what we want or require. This stream also allows us to shield ourselves from perspectives that might clash with our own. Groups like ISIS, he suggests, are enabled and emboldened by this kind of information vacuum:

Minority views are radicalised when they can’t be heard or engaged with. That’s how Isis is recruiting and growing. The stream suppresses other types of unconventional ideas too, with its reliance on our habits.

The Stream & our information diet

What’s interesting about The Stream is that it is about bits and bites (or bytes) and not about meals. Yet, if we consider the analogy of information and food a little further we might find ourselves hard-pressed to recall the snacks we had, but (hopefully) can recall many memorable meals. Snacking isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable and too much of it isn’t particularly healthy unless it’s of very high-quality food. With no offence to my ‘friends’ and ‘follows’ on social media, but most of what they produce is highly refined, saccharine-laden comfort food in their posts and retweets, with a few tasty morsels interspersed between rants, cat videos, selfies, and kid pictures. To be fair, my ‘offerings’ aren’t much better when I look across many of my recent Tweets and posts as I am no more than a box of sugar-topped Shreddies to others’ Frosted Flakes. (Note to self when composing New Years Resolutions, even if they are likely to fail, that I need to add less sugar to my stream).

Yet, we are living an age of information abundance and, like food abundance (and the calories that come with it), we are prone to getting obese and lethargic from too much of it. This was the argument that political communicator Clay Johnston makes in his book The Information Diet. Obesity in its various forms makes us slower, less attuned, more disengaged and often far less mindful (and critical) of what we take in whether it’s food or information. And like obesity, the problem is not just one of personal choice and willpower, it’s also about obesogenic systems that include: workplaces, restaurants, communities, markets and policies. This requires systems thinking and ensuring that we are making good personal choices and supporting healthy, critical information systems to support those choices.

The Stream is actually antithetical to that in many regards as Darakhshan points out. The Stream is about passing content through something else, like Facebook, that may or may not choose to pass it on to someone at any given time and place. I’ve noticed this firsthand over the holiday season by finding “Getting ready for Christmas” messages in my Facebook feed on Boxing Day and beyond.

The problem with The Stream is that everything is the same, by design, as Darakhshan notes in an earlier post on his concerns with his new post-imprisonment Web.

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

An information food web

Diversity of perspective and content is critical for healthy decision-making in complex systems. Our great problems, the wicked ones from terrorism to chronic disease to mass migration to climate change, will not be solved in The Stream. Yet, if we push too much toward creating content in social networks that are no longer controlled by users (even if the content is produced by users) and designed to facilitate new thinking, not just same thinking, our collective capacity for addressing complex problems is diminished.

Wicked problems will not be solved by Big Data alone. We cannot expect to simply mine our streams looking for tags and expect to find the diversity of perspective or new idea that will change the game. As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, we need to rewire our feeds consciously to reflect the cosmopolitan nature of our problems and world, not just accept that we’ll choose diversity when our information systems are designed to minimize them.

Much like a food web, consideration of our information ecosystems in systems terms can be useful in helping us understand the role of blogging and other forms of journalism and expression in nurturing not only differences of opinion, but supporting the democratic foundation in which the Web was originally based. Systems thinking about what we consume as well as produce might be a reason to consider blogging as well as adding to your social media stream and why more ‘traditional’ media like newspapers and related news sites have a role.

Otherwise, we may just be the frog in the boiling pot who isn’t aware that it’s about to be cooked until it’s too late.

Postscript

It is interesting that Darakhshan’s piece caught my attention the day after WordPress delivered my ‘Year in Blogging’ review to my inbox. It pointed out that there were just 4 posts on Censemaking in 2015. This is down from more than 90 per year in past calendar years. Clearly, I’ve been drawn into the stream with my content sharing and perhaps it’s time to swim back against the current. This blog was partly a response. Stay tuned for more and thanks for reading.

Image: Frog & Saucepan used under Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Foundation.

art & designdesign thinkingfood systemssocial systemssystems thinking

“If You Build It..”: A Reflection on A Social Innovation Story

If You Build it is documentary about a social innovation project aimed at cultivating design skills with youth to tackle education and social issues in a economically challenged community in North Carolina. The well-intentioned, well-developed story is not unfamiliar to those interested in social innovation, but while inspiring to some these stories mask bigger questions about the viability, opportunity and underlying systems issues that factor into the true impact of these initiatives. (Note: Spoiler alert > this essay will discuss the film and plotlines, yet hopefully won’t dissuade you from seeing a good film). 

Last week I had the opportunity to see Patrick Creadon‘s terrific new documentary “If You Build It” at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto as part of the monthly Doc Soup screening series. It was a great night of film, discussion and popcorn that inspired more than just commentary about the film, but the larger story of social innovation that the film contributes to.

If You Build It is the story of the Project H studio that was developed in in Bertie County (click here for a film outline) and run for two years by Emily Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller. To learn more about the start of the story and the philosophy behind Project H, Emily’s TED talk is worth the watch:

It’s largely a good-news kind of story of how design can make a difference to the lives of young people and potentially do good for a community at the same time. While it made for a great doc and some inspiring moments, the film prompted thoughts about what goes on beyond the narrative posed by the characters, the community and those seeking to innovate through design and education.

Going beyond the story

Stories are often so enjoyable because they can be told in multiple ways with emphasis placed on different aspects of the plot, the characters and the outcomes. For this reason, they are both engaging and limiting as tools for making decisions and assessing impact of social interventions. It’s why ‘success stories’ are problematic when left on their own.

One of the notable points that was raised in the film is that the cost of the program was $150,000 (US), which was down from the original budget of $230,000 because Emily and Matthew (and later on, a close friend who helped out in the final few months) all didn’t take a salary. This was funded off of grants. Three trained designers and builders worked to teach students, build a farmers market, and administer the program for no cost at all.

The film mentions that the main characters — Matthew and Emily — live off credit, savings and grants (presumably additional ones?) to live off of. While this level of commitment to the idea of the Bertie County project is admirable, it’s also not a model that many can follow. Without knowing anything about their family support, savings or debt levels, the idea of coming out of school and working for free for two years is out of reach of most young, qualified designers of any discipline. It also — as we see in the film — not helpful to the larger cause as it allows Bertie County yo abdicates responsibility for the project and lessens their sense of ownership over the outcomes.

One segment of If You Build It looks back on Matthew’s earlier efforts to apply what he learned at school to provide a home for a family in Detroit, free of charge in 2007. Matthew built it himself and gave it to a family with the sole condition that they pay the utilities and electricity bills, which amounted to less than this family was paying in just rent at the time. That part of the story ends when Matthew returns to the home a few years later to find the entire inside gutted and deserted long after having to evict that original family 9 months after they took possession when they failed to pay even a single bill as agreed.

From Bertie County to Detroit and back

The Detroit housing experience is a sad story and there is a lot of context we don’t get in the film, but two lessons taught from that experience are repeated  in the story in Bertie County. In both cases, we see something offered that wasn’t necessarily asked for, with no up-front commitment of investment and the influence that the larger system has on the outcomes.

In Detroit, a family was offered a house, yet they were transplanted into a neighbourhood that is (like many in Detroit) sparsely populated, depressed, and without much infrastructure to enable a family to make the house a home easily. Detroit is still largely a city devoted to the automobile and there are wide swaths of the city where there is one usable home on every three or four lots. It’s hard to conceive of that as a neighbourhood. Images like the one taken below are still common in many parts of the city even though it is going through a notable re-energizing shift.

Rebirth of Detroit

Rebirth of Detroit

In the case of Bertie County, the same pattern repeats in a different form. The school district gets an entire program for free even to the point of refusing to pay for salaries for the staff (Emily and Matthew) over two years, after the initial year ended with the building of a brand-new farmers market pavillion that was fully funded by Project H and its grants.

The hypothesis ventured by Patrick Creadon when he spoke to the Doc Soup audience in Toronto was that there was some resentment at the project (having been initiated by a change-pushing school superintendent who was let go at the film’s start and was the one who brought Emily and Matthew to the community) and by some entrenched beliefs about education and the way things were done in that community.

Systems + Change = Systems Change (?)

There is a remarkably romantic view of how change happens in social systems. Bertie County received a great deal without providing much in the way of support. While the Studio H project had some community cheerleaders like the mayor and a few citizens, it appeared from the film that the community – and school board — was largely disengaged from the activities at Studio H. This invokes memories of Hart’s Ladder of Participation, (PDF) which is applied to youth, but works for communities, too. When there is a failure to truly collaborate, the ownership of the problem and solution are not shared.

At no time in the film do you get a sense of a shared ownership of the problem and solution between Studio H, the school board, and the community. While the ideas were rooted in design research, the community wasn’t invested — literally — in solving their problems (through design, at least). It represents a falsehood of design research that says you can understand a community’s needs and address it successfully through simple observation, interviews and data gathering.

Real, deep research is hard. It requires understanding not just the manifestations of the system, but the system itself.

Systems Iceberg

Systems Iceberg

Very often that kind of analysis is missing from these kinds of stories, which make for great film and books, but not for long-term success.

In a complex system, meaning and knowledge is gained through interactions, thus we need stories and data that reflect what kind of interactions take place and under what conditions. Looking at the systems iceberg model above, the tendency is to focus on the events (the Studio H’s), but often we need to look at the structures beneath.

To be sure, there is a lot to learn from Studio H now and from the story presented in If You Build It. The lesson is in the prototyping: Emily and Matthew provide a prototype that shows us it can be done and what kind of things we can learn from it. The mistake is trying to replicate Studio H as it is represented in the film, rather than seeing it as a prototype.

In the post-event Q & A with the audience, a well-intentioned gentleman working with school-building in Afghanistan asked Patrick Creadon how or whether he could get Emily and Matthew to come there and help (with pay) and Creadon rightly answered that there are Emilys and Matthews all over the place and that they are worth connecting to.

Creadon is half right. There are talented, enthusiastic people out there who can learn from the experience of the Studio H team, but probably far fewer who have the means to assume the risk that Emily and Matthew did. Those are the small details that separate out a good story from a sustainable, systemic intervention that really innovates in a way that changes the system. But its a start.

If You Build It is in theatres across North America.

design thinkingfood systemspublic healthsocial systemssystems science

Systems and Design Thinking Go to the Ballpark

Fenway Park #boston #redsox #baseball #stadium

A recent trip to baseball’s legendary Fenway Park provided the ideal example of understanding systems and how they can create public health problems like obesity through structural means. Being aware of these systems, their boundaries, and their activities can help us better find the causes of individual activity by looking at what encourages behaviour and not just at what people do.

Take me out to the ballgame… and into systems

I am not an obsessive sports fan, but I do enjoy athletics and watching a variety of sporting events.  When it comes to the sport of baseball, I grew up as a Boston Red Sox fan. As a fan of the Red Sox I always dreamt of attending a game at Fenway Park, home of The Green Monster and perhaps the most eclectic and endearing stadium as you’ll find in pro sports anywhere in the world, so when I had the chance to see the Sox face off against their rivals the New York Yankees in Boston I was overjoyed.

When I found out I was going I decided in advance that I would take in the fullest experience possible even down to the food. I am generally a mindful eater, preferring ethical, local and healthy options whenever possible so opting for an evening of beer, steamed hot dogs and ice cream was something as out of the ordinary as touring a legendary ballpark. But then, Fenway Park is not your your ordinary ballpark.

Thus began a look at systems thinking through the lens of food, design and culture. While this started being about a night at a baseball game it ended up being about so much more.

On the menu:

  • Fenway ‘Monster Dog’
  • Samuel Adams Draught Beer
  • Ice cream* served in a Boston Red Sox mini baseball helmet with Oreo cookie sprinkles (*soft serve – I have no idea if there is any real cream in it, or what is in it at all)
  • Popcorn

Take me out to the ball game #boston #redsox #fenway #stadium

An Anthropologist at Fenway

While I was at Fenway Park to enjoy America’s pastime, I couldn’t shut down the systems thinker, design thinker and psychologist parts of me. Add to the fact that I was attending it with a journalist with a health science and anthropology focus (who was seeing her first baseball game ever) and the experience quickly became a cultural study.

So what did we find? Entering the stadium via Yawkey Way one is immediately surrounded by souvenir and food vendors that, despite initial appearances, are nearly identical and plentiful. The same hats, shirts and banners are available at nearly every souvenir kiosk and nearly the identical foods related at most of the food vendors. Even though Fenway Park’s menu on the web suggests a variety of food options, the reality is that most vendors sell the same things, or near variants of them.  Hot dogs, burgers, fries and pretzels are dominant. Sometimes there’s ice cream.

You are enveloped in sales for products everywhere. It is nearly impossible to go anywhere in that ballpark save for the stairwells that some product isn’t in your face — for sale or advertisement.

Food is everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more food vendors anywhere per square feet in my life.

One of the things you notice quickly — by design — are the myriad ads lining the outfield fence. My companion was quick to note that Coca Cola had among the most noticeable of these ads (see photo above), which is far less ominous than the giant Coca Cola ad/bottle at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. A look to the other side will find a Budweiser sign prominently displayed (see photo below). Along the outfield wall one finds ads for other purveyors of foods laden with fat, excessive calories, salt and sugar.

None of this would come as any surprise to someone like Yoni Freedhoff, a bariatric medical professional** and prolific blogger on the relationship between (mostly fast, unhealthy) food and health (problems) and its marketing to the public. Dr. Freedhoff has made a social media career of pointing out how our food system is skewed towards particular types of products, quantities and how it is all pushed covertly and not-so-subtlely to all of us — including children — throughout our daily lives. I don’t know if Yoni’s a baseball fan, but he would certainly boo the visual team at Fenway.

Red Sox Win #fenway #boston #redsox #yankees #baseball

The hidden and not-so-hidden effects of systems

If one views the environment within and around the stadium and the game as a system, there is much that can be taken away from the experience I had at Fenway.

The availability of products is what is the explicit manifestation of the system on food choices. Fenway is a closed system so unless you smuggled some food from home, the only options for what to eat is determined by the management of the stadium. That substantially limits what you have available. While there are dozens of vendors throughout the stadium, I was shocked at how much of it was repeated as if to say: “You said no the first time; how about now? And now? And now?”. It wears you down, particularly if you spent a day walking through the city and up and down the stairs at the stadium with thousands of others.

Hot Dogs were available at nearly every second or third vendor; so was beer and nearly everyone sold pop. Salted peanuts, popcorn and pretzels were also highly available. Hamburgers? Maybe every 4th or 5th vendor. Ice cream? Maybe about every 7th vendor. Apparently there are some healthy options available at a single location on Yawkey Way, outside the stadium proper. I didn’t see them, but I am told they are there.

The option is to spend thousands and get yourself a private luxury box or admittance to the private club where there is better quality food…at a price. For the common fan, these are simply too inaccessible.

These are the more obvious manifestations of the food system. But then there are the more insidious, subtle effects that influence food choices that are built into the experience. A professional baseball game is about 4 hours long if you consider the pre and post event ceremonies that take place. This can be longer if the game itself goes into extra innings or is high scoring . In a town like Boston, you can reasonably add another hour to the beginning and end of that due to transit time.  It’s not unreasonable to want to eat during all of this.

While the options for eating are not that healthy (or rather, are positively UNhealthy) the effect of these choices go beyond any guilt for having consumed a lot of empty calories. The foods themselves are designed to create more desire.

I’m not just speaking of the neurobiological impact of fat and salts on the brain (which is sufficient enough), but the actual feelings that these foods create. Hot dogs are served on white bread and actually make you feel hungry not long after you’ve eaten it, not full. The popcorn is so salty you need something to drink and the absence of any visible water fountains (a design choice) you reach for something like beer or soda/pop. More calories, more sugar and more profit.

Just imagine sitting there watching the game, hungry and thirsty and seeing a gigantic Coke or Budweiser sign lit up like a firework over a bland green wall? No ads for tap water that I could see (or means of getting it save for bringing your emptied beer cup into the bathrooms to fill it up in the bathroom sink).  And the bathrooms themselves? They are down a long corridor, down the stairs and along another corridor. So at least you get some exercise in place of the convenience.

Making design visible

Some have claimed that great design is invisible; implying that it is so useful that no one even notices it (see the latest issue of Wired for this argument writ out as the ‘Age of Invisible Design’). In the case of Fenway Park — and the many hundreds of stadiums like it around North America – the design choices are both obvious and invisible and in both case influence our health. What struck me when watching what was going around me was that this same situation plays out (pun intended) every night across the major leagues (and all major professional sports), but also at shopping malls and food courts across North America.

In most of these venues the volume of people is high, traffic is congested, and the ability to literally see all the choices before you is difficult. What you visually rely on are things that light up — to help us navigate our way — and those are not shaped like broccoli florets, bananas, or bowls of Quinoa. When you are designing fast food you are also bound by very limited preparation space, while refrigeration and disposal capacity is limited. It’s hard to make wholesome, interesting food that isn’t whole on its own — like fruit — without the space to do it. Frozen weenies don’t require a lot of work to prepare. Creating the space for this in the first place is critical.

And if there was space to prepare the food, where will people wait? The concourses of most arenas are not designed for you to wait for your sandwich or salad to be prepared unless you get ready-made (which can be done to high quality, nutritional and taste standards, but often is not).

And space costs money. I can assure you that at every mall, stadium and food pavilion there is a cost-per-square-foot calculation done that makes the cheap-and-easy solution much more profitable than slow food. Yet, there is a real health cost to these decisions and one we fail to add to the calculus of our wellbeing.

Next time you are out at the ballgame pay attention to what is around you, how you are being shaped by advertising, design and time. We all have choices in the matter, but over time they stop feeling like it and become more challenging to make. Consciously choosing to have a hot dog at the game knowing all you know about what the food is, why it is served, who it serves as well as how it is served is a decision open to those who are aware and have the means to absorb all of the costs. Sadly, this represents too few of us.

So will our designs and health hit a grand slam or strikeout?

(As for the game? The Red Sox won with a grand slam home run in the 8th inning, unlike my stomach)

** the original post mistakenly referred to Dr. Freedhoff as a surgeon. See comments below or find out more about his work by clicking here.

design thinkingeHealthfood systemsscience & technology

Amazing Stuff: November 14th Edition

It’s been another busy week filled with lots of ideas, but little time to post them. Expect a lot more on the blog in the coming weeks however as there is too much going on not to discuss.

Thankfully, the rest of the world was still Tweeting, blogging, You-tubing and sharing all kinds of amazing things with us and here are the top ones that captured my attention this week:

1. I love food from all kinds of sources and certainly those that come from animals are the ones I spend the most time thinking about. A new book by Jonathan Safran Foer looks at the ethics and industry of eating animals. I haven’t read the book, but a detailed and insightful review in the New Yorker suggests that I might be thinking a lot more about this in the days and weeks to come based on the arguments that Foer puts forth. Natalie Portman is one who also has thought differently because of this book — this time about vegetarianism and veganism — and she writes her review in the Huffington Post. Read any of the reviews and you’ll know that this is a book making buzz and adding to our already considerable array of options when considering the merits of what we choose to eat. Tofu anyone?

2. Keeping with the contrarian perspectives: have you thought about how healthcare might actually be unhealthy for the planet? This week Ariel Schwartz posted an interesting article in Mother Jones (and replicated in Fast Company ) questioning the carbon footprint of the healthcare industry and whether we ought to be working harder to consider how green our care facilities are. Could a sick planet be coming from healthy humans?

3. While we’re on health care, The New York Times published a story about text messaging for teens as a possible way to engage young people more in health care using mobile phones. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but will it fly in the face of most healthcare organizations, which are a little slow to adopt technologies like this into practice?

4. The international social innovation leadership group, Ashoka, announced the winners of this year’s sustainable food (GMO: risk or rescue?) contest. The blog biofortified was the grand winner. There are some novel ideas and certainly opportunities to expand the dialogue on food safety and security in some new ways through this initiative. GMO good or bad? The answer seems to be: yes.

5. Lastly, Mobifest is coming to Toronto and I was captivated by some of the novel and creative films on display as the finalists in this year’s competition. Mobile filmmaking is getting bigger, better and more creative all the time and I’d encourage anyone interested in looking at one of the futures of film to check this mini and mobile film fest out.

education & learningfood systemshealth promotionpsychology

The Food Bank Model of Education and the Tyranny of Resiliency

Teaching the basics

Did this teacher pay for her chalk through bake sales?

This morning’s Globe and Mail introduced me to a new term “The food bank model of education” . Just reading the headline spurred a deep sense of empathy in me and a good idea (proved correct as I read the article) about what that term meant. As you might guess, the analogy of the food bank is one centred on the concept of donations to support those in need. As Wendy Stueck writes, an approach that was once used around fundraising for special events and activities — those ‘extras’ — is now being used to support the foundation of the educational system. It’s no longer about paying for students to go to special exhibit at the major art gallery and more about paying for pencils, pens and paints — the basics.

Big bucks raised by parent groups are becoming more prominent on the Canadian education scene and resulting in gaps between schools backed by well-off, well-educated parents and those in less-affluent communities, says Annie Kidder, president of the Toronto-based advocacy group People for Education.

“Fundraising has always been a feature [of the school system] and it’s not inherently wrong,” Ms. Kidder says, adding that festivals and silent auctions can be fun and boost morale. “The issue now is that parents are becoming the food banks of the education system.”

It’s easy to forget that food banks were temporary measures meant to serve as a stop-gap to serve communities when times were tough and there wasn’t the necessary resources in place to ensure that everyone had access to food when they needed it. Second Harvest in Santa Cruz area, was the United States’ second food bank (first in California), opening in 1972. That’s not long ago. It shouldn’t be around today, but it is. That’s not because they don’t do good work, but rather because unlike other banks, these weren’t meant to last.

However a funny thing happened while people were patching away at food security, these banks started evolving into social education resources that not only provide food, but also learning about food systems and training centres for policy advocates working to address food security issues. The Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto is another great example of this type of transformation in action.

What these groups represent is resiliency in action. Resiliency is the ability of a system to adapt to adversity and capitalize on opportunities to make positive transformation in spite of challenges or catastrophe. It is held up as a positive trait in humans and social systems. One reason is that the world is a dynamic place and change (as much as we resist it) is inevitable. As the memorable quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s bookThe Leopard:  “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”..

But that is the problem here with education and food security. We’ve become really good at adapting. Our educators, our communities are exceptionally resilient, creative and adaptive. As the Globe piece points out, a lot of creative stuff is happening to keep the system moving:

But while the routine may be the same, Ms. Whiteaker and others worry that parent groups face increasing pressure to raise money – a kind of fundraising creep – as school boards across the country tighten their belts in the face of government cutbacks.

“Because of the funding cuts, you are going to see an increased demand for fundraising,” she says. “Because parents want to provide the best for their students – right now. Not by the time the government gets around to increasing the funding for certain areas.”

But this isn’t just belt-tightening. It’s unlikely we’ll see these funds restored anytime soon. Think about it: in North America we just experienced the longest run of economic success and wealth creation than at any time in human history. Yet, food banks and educational erosion has continued and remained ‘reslient’ through all of this. Is this a good thing?

Resiliency is almost always used as a positive trait, because adaptation in systems and psychological terms is healthy. But such demands for adaptation can be excessive and actually weaken the system over time. Resiliency is like an elastic band. It has a lot of give and stretch at the beginning, but as anyone with a well-worn pair of yoga pants can attest, the elasticity starts to dissipate after much use. Systems are the same way. Our educational system or food security systems are highly plastic and those working within them are creative. But at some point that elasticity will fade to the point where, like an elastic band, it will eventually crumble into pieces.

How many bake sales are we away from that happening in our schools?

behaviour changecomplexityenvironmentfood systemssystems science

The limits to individual action

I’m writing this from a Starbucks. With free wireless Internet, decent cafe Americanos and fast breakfast foods that are both reasonably healthy, tasty and not too expensive, its one of the few chains I look for when I’m in need of a place to sit down when a comparable locally-flavoured establishment isn’t available. As someone who both works long (and often early) hours and travels a lot, places that offer decent food and drink and productivity space are valued above almost anything.  When you don’t have time to shop for healthy foods for home and have to eat out it can take a real toll on your health.

I bring with me a travel tumbler, reusable bags and even portable chopsticks to eat with. I buy local and responsibly whenever possible, and when eating at home I aim to buy items with little packaging and, what packaging there is gets recycled with the food waste organics separated and composted in biodegradable bags. When I took the David Suzuki Foundation challenge I got high marks. All is well– right? No. And that’s why climate change and protecting our environment is truly a grand challenge that requires a systems approach. Grand challenge problems refer to exceptionally difficult tasks that stretch the limits of any one group to be able to address them. They are the complex problems that have no single source or simple solution.

No matter what I’ve done to address climate change and help the environment, I am only making a small difference. I’ve been reminded by that because of one product: The Starbucks Vivanno.

This morning my wife and I had a Starbucks Vivanno — a fruit smoothie that is reasonably healthy and pretty decent food option if you’re pressed for time and want some low-fat protein — which is no easy task at the best of time, particularly if you don’t eat meat. If you’ve watched people make these things, they are messy and they are designed for a disposable cup – one that is outside of the regular size cups that a person brings around with them, making it difficult to use the reuasble cup option. This leaves us with a lot of options: 1) Take the disposable cup and make more waste, 2) find a very large cup and bring that around, adding bulk to your bag, 3) don’t drink smoothies at all and either not eat or eat something unhealthy.

Thinking about this a little further, one realizes how tied up layers upon layers of issues are in this drink.

> Why aren’t there other food choices available? (this speaks to the market, to innovation, to location — an easy thing to overlook when you live in downtown Toronto)

>Why am I so busy that I can’t make a decent healthy meal at home? (issues: work demands; social expectations; lack of funding for university research requiring me to work long hours; the expectations of my employer, employees, students and colleagues — requiring me to work long hours; my personality; availability of healthy foods in local grocery stores; ability to cook something I want to eat and meets my nutritional needs)

>Why can’t stores serve drinks in reusables? (issues: cost, breakage, theft, no proper recycling options, people’s busy schedules and need to ‘take away’, no exchange program for containers)

>Why can’t we just get better travel mugs? (issues: our bags are already making us look like sherpas with laptops, pens, books, workout gear, batteries and so forth; they cost a lot for a good one — or you buy a cheap one and add more waste when it breaks, market, etcc.)

These are just four questions with lots of issues — there are many more that you can probably think of. I write this from downtown Toronto, Canada. There are more than 20 other Starbucks locations within a 30 minute walk from my current location and dozens of other coffee shops, pastry places and food outlets to choose from. In some ways, this is really a luxurious problem to have. What about places where you have to drive to get somewhere? What about rural communities where one or two shops is all you have? Yes, the cultural standards will change in each place, but the more I look at this the easier it is to see how I can become the David Suzuki poster boy and still make only a dent on the environment without considering these myriad other issues that influence how a simple product (a cup) becomes a complex issue.