Tag: food systems

systems thinking

Boundaries: The Food Example

Identifying boundaries and setting them in moving forward with modeling and planning is a critical step in systems thinking practice so much so that it may be time to consider seeing boundaries as a core skill or competency for work in complex systems. 

Traveling is one of the activities that embodies systems thinking concepts in almost everything. From security screening through to the arrangement of flights, connections, and imagining how it all gets done is truly systems thinking in action. One of the lesser-thought-of aspects of the travel-as-systems-thinking phenomenon is food. Food has been profiled here before, but for this post I want to highlight a different quality here.

As one who aspires to eat relatively well, traveling can be hell when it comes to food. I am currently in a city that has, like many American cities, abdicated the culture and cuisine of its core to the suburbs, which is bad on too many levels. Say what you want about suburban life, but good, healthy, available, economic food is not something that comes to mind (at least, not together). So as an urbanite who is somewhat accustomed or desirous of eating reasonably well (i.e., food that tastes good, is good value, and isn’t horrible to my body, the environment or those who make it) I get spoiled and feel disappointed when places I travel can’t offer this. Ironically, this was the way that most food was cooked and readied for consumption up until the last part of the 20th century.

In this case, the boundary conditions of the system I am looking at is the availability of good food. Where I am and how I got here meant airports, hotels, on-the-go-meals and staying in a relatively large city that has no interior life to it that isn’t about an office building.

The boundaries of good eating imposed on me has meant that my individual choices are seriously constrained. This happens a lot, yet doesn’t get acknowledged as much when we consider health behaviour and its limits. We too often blame individuals for not exercising, or eating well, or doing both without looking at the real problems associated with such activities when the boundaries of the system they are working under are taken into account. (And by the way, it was 41 degrees Celsius in the city I am staying in so there goes any outdoor exercise).

If we narrow our boundaries too close, we miss some considerable systems limitations. I would surmise that students learning systems thinking might want to consider boundary definitions as a critical skill.

 

behaviour changedesign thinkingeducation & learning

Amazing Stuff: December 14th Edition

It’s final paper and exam time at the university so that means one thing: procrastination.

Procrastination also yields a lot of unusual thinking so with a nod to the serious and the silly, I’ve managed to whittle down the many amazing things sent my way to just five:

1. 1000 Awesome Things. Rather than be amazing, this blog captures awesome. Although not so much the amazing like mind-blowing or novel, what this blog does is remind us of the little, everyday kind of things that happen in life that make us smile, pause, or even contemplate enough to go “wow, that’s awesome”. AWESOME!

2. The Art of the Idea: 8 ways to Light a Lightbulb Above Your Head. Fast Company’s Sheryl Sulistiawan presents a visual pictorial based on John Hunt’s insights collected in his new book. It is a creative, artistic way to imagine new ways to visualize the creative process. It’s a lot different than the usual pictogram and got me thinking.

3. Yes, Bottled Water Really is That Bad. Another gem from Fast Company and their infographics: A look at just how awful bottled water is for the world. Where I live (Canada) we have more clean, fresh water than almost anyone in the world yet we fill our buildings with bottled water when its cheaper, healthier, and sometimes tastier to drink it from the tap.

4. The New York Times Magazine 9th Annual Year in Ideas issue. I look forward to this every issue every year for a highlight of the most innovative — and sometimes also ridiculous — inventions, social trends, and novel solutions to problems big and small. I’m  quite intrigued by the growing interest in zombie attack science.

5. World Food Programme’s Fight Hunger campaign. When you think of innovators and integrated thinking, the UN isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But the UN’s WFP has shown that it can out-campaign even the slickest corporation with its multi-channel social media campaign using Facebook, Twitter, crowd-funding and micro-donations to stimulate awareness and solicit donations to affect a problem that is big and getting bigger everyday. A great ‘101’ on the program is available in this CNN International profile.

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.

Uncategorized

Amazing Stuff

What a busy week (it seems I say that a lot). Akin to Sergio’s White Hot Top 5 on Current TV’s Infomania, here are the five things that I found amazing (or at least really interesting) over the past week:

1. The NY Times Freakonomics Blog featured a guest post from James McWilliams on the question of locavores and their true environmental impact. Like the Freakonomics guys, I am attracted to contrarian perspectives on received wisdom. McWilliams post suggests that we question claims that eating locally is necessarily better for the planet. He doesn’t dismiss the many reasons why people like farmers markets and getting to know who produces your food, but he does question if that isn’t used to inflate the economic and environmental benefits of eating locally. Something to think about and question on both sides.

2. The Future of Healthcare is Social. I love this slideshow on Fast Company’s website. It describes a wired future where handheld devices and (I’m reading into this — maybe projecting??) interoperable databases and tools will allow health practitioners and patients to learn from one another and create a truly social health system based on the best knowledge from the whole system. Dare to dream.

3. Imagine Leadership. This short YouTube video also adds some contrarian and received wisdom on leadership and what it takes to truly lead. It’s short and provocative. Developed by Nitin Nohria and Amanda Pepper of Harvard Business School’s Leadership Initiative and the XPLANE visual information consultancy group.

4. I love WorldChanging. They always post some innovative and provocative material. This week, the post that caught my eye was corresponding to International Walk to School Day and got me thinking about how design thinking can contribute to a much healthier, better and safer setting for our children by giving them back what I had as a child: a walk to school.

5. Wired Science has profiled the best microscope photos from the past 35 years. Once you get your head around the fact that these are REAL pictures taken of microscopic things you can enjoy some of the most beautiful images that nature produces for us every day.

Have a great week everyone!

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The Launch of Amazing Stuff

Today I am launching a new feature on my blog: Amazing Stuff. It is a way for me to share the neat ideas, hot innovations, challenging ideas and random bits of ‘stuff’ that I find quite compelling, inspiring or just fun that somehow touches on the myriad issues related to making ‘CENSE’ of the world around me. Yes, you can always follow my Delicious social bookmarks, or what I Stumbleupon, but I’m not always good at social bookmarking great ideas, particularly after a busy day away from my desk when I’m staring at 200 updates on my Google Reader feed.

My choice of the term amazing is inspired by comedian Louis C.K. from his appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show a few months back. Watching this, I think you’ll agree that we are living in amazing times and this is a sample of the amazing things I’ve found over the past week:

1. The Design Thinkers Reading List. This is a summary of the must-have books and documents for those interested in design thinking (like systems thinking, only for how we shape the human activities and environments we live in).

2. How to Turn Urban Spaces Into Food Spaces. Taking unused land and using it more efficiently to help feed the poor and create a more sustainable food system for urban centres.

3. How Our Moral Roots Damage Our Thinking. A blog post and interview at TED with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt who discusses how the U.S. Healthcare debate is being shaped by forces that are not likely to lead that country into a good place.

4. Interview with Paul Hawken on Our Environmental Future. Environmental economist and leader Paul Hawken discusses his views on the future of the planet and the reason he still has some hope.

5. The Dark Side of Political Discourse on the Internet. Tim Bevins from Wikinomics shows us what happens when democracy meets the unbridled opportunity of having everyone speak their mind and its not pretty.

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?

complexityhealth promotionsocial systemssystems thinking

Cohesion vs. Diversity

I just watched (yet another!) great TED talk that solidified something that’s been on my mind all week: diversity.

The talk by Cary Fowler, the leader of the global seed bank, a remarkable initiative aimed at saving the world’s seed for future use should that day (or many days) come when we need to draw upon the diversity on our planet to support life. Even though we think we live in a world of apparent dietary diversity (after all the average supermarket literally carries thousands of products — just look at the number of types of yogurt you can buy at a typical store), the truth is that we are in deep trouble when it comes to the diversity of natural food choices available to us. It is estimated that there are about 7500 different types of apples alone. But we rarely see that expressed in food choices. Shop your local supermarket and you’ll find that variety sharply drops down to about a dozen or less. And this dozen or less is the same at most of the other shops. The truth is, we are limiting our diversity in food dramatically and are potentially harming our potential survival in the process.

In Canada, we praise ourselves for being an accepting society and our social, cultural and linguistic diversity. My home, Toronto, may be the most ethnoculturally diverse city in the world when measured by these aforementioned characteristics. Scott Page, a systems scientist from the University of Michigan, has written a fantastic book on diversity that provides a strong case for diversity in many different contexts from school to work to community life.

But diversity has a dark side. The less we have in common (i.e., the more diverse we are) the less cohesion we are likely to experience as a duo, group or society. It was that very topic that Michael Valpy wrote about in the Globe and Mail this week. In his article, he quotes another Canadian and now Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff from his new book:

“We need a public life in common,” he writes, “some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live. Without this feeling of belonging, even if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other. When we can call the strangers citizens, we can feel at home with them and with ourselves.

And reaching for a codicil from his intellectual hero, he adds: “Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.””

Anyone who has worked on projects where there is a diversity of opinion knows the benefit of having someone not only understand what you say, but also what you mean. That trait alone may be the reason we commit to working together at all and, when it doesn’t happen, why we might choose to do things apart. A healthy system has both diversity (represented by chaos at its extreme) and cohesion (represented by rigid order at its opposite pole). Having watched Cary Fowler’s talk shortly after reading Michael Valpy’s article has me questioning what the balance is in fostering diversity within a system. How does one know when you’re ‘diverse enough’ or when you’re too rigid and inflexible? In the case of Cary Fowler, he’s not planning to have all 7500 apples growing at the same time and place if he even gets all those seeds saved, but he’s not planning on saving just the tastiest, crispest or hearty of them either. That strikes me as a good thing.

In my eyes, a great community is one that is diverse and cohesive — living at the ‘edge of chaos’ in systems terms. Toronto is one of those cities, with many small villages within it, and has been highlighted by urban thinkers like the late Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida as a place that does diverse urbanism rather well. As imperfect as it is, Toronto is pretty cohesive.

But it is also seeing a large gap between the wealthy and the poor – and likely the healthy and the unhealthy. This gap was driven home yesterday as I took part on a panel on the social determinants of health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.The concept of ‘poverty by postal code‘ and the gap between those with choices and those without was clear. Along with Carol Timmins and Stephen Hwang, we spoke separately and as a panel about issues of public health practice, homelessness, and youth. As we explored these issues I thought about this ‘cohesion’ amongst the diversity and wondered whether this is as good as it gets? Can we create greater social cohesion than this or are we doomed to some level of diversity that has lots of upsides, but also many downsides. Can we have it all?

What is the balance here and would we know it if we achieved it?