Tag: food

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 changeeducation & learninghealth promotionpsychologyresearch

Feeding the Right Beast: A Healthy Information Diet?

 

There is a First Nations story that has been told to me many times and, like many good stories, it inspires some important thinking. The story goes like this (shared by First People):

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

(Alternative versions of the story are here and I’m sure elsewhere as they told over again in the great oral traditions of First Nations communities)

When we open our laptop, switch on our iPhone or Blackberry (assuming they ever are off in the first place), turn on TV or even listen to a story told by a colleague in the hallway at the office or from a friend or relative on the phone, we are taking in information. And with mobile technologies and social media we are taking in a lot more than ever before. Today the annual consumer electronics show starts in Las Vegas and front-and-centre will be new tools to help deliver more information faster to more people. The pot gets bigger all the time.

We are not starved for information, rather we might very well becoming informationally obese. And just like with food, what we feed on and how much matters to our health — certainly to our ability to make healthy decisions. A recently published study on consumer behaviour shows that too little or too much information stifles decision making. An entire body of research has shown that we can only reasonably pay attention to very few things at once, squashing the myth of multi-tasking as a means of being productive.

Research and the story above illustrate the importance of being mindful of what we consume and how, when and how much of it we take in. While millions will create new years resolutions that will focus on the food they eat, we might want to consider paying more attention to our information diets as well.  Jonah Lehrer’s WSJ health article I cited in my last post refers to work done at Stanford University which brings this all together by looking at information quantity,  decision making, and diet:

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza. (In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that just walking down a crowded city street was enough to reduce measures of self-control, as all the stimuli stressed out the cortex.) A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.

So while we feed our brain, we also might be priming ourselves to feed our body. Like most things, quantity and quality matter. Next time you open the laptop or look at your Blackberry, take a moment to pause and ask yourself: What are you feeding your brain today? And is that diet a healthy one?

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.

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.

Uncategorized

Censemaking

Censemaking is intended to serve as a creative outlet to express ideas about Complexity science, E-health, Networks, Systems thinking, and Evaluation (CENSE — get it?). This is the environment that I have chosen to immerse myself in as a person and a professional. Now certainly, the idea of living systems might make sense to some — but evaluation? e-Health? Why are they connected? Well, it has a lot to do with my vocation: a professor of public health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. Through a long and windy road I’ve come to believe that we’re at a nexus of unprecedented opportunity and danger and that the linear mindset that has served us for so long and brought us the technological and social marvels we have today is pushing up against a wall. Climate change, chronic and infectious diseases, food security, mass migration, and globalization are just some of the ‘wicked problems’ that will only be solved by many people working together, self-organizing, and being creative. Indeed, the ‘C’ in CENSE is really a placeholder for a lot of things: creativity, collaboration, complexity, convergence, conservation… All of these things are essential for us to continue to have the life of relative comfort that comes from the plenty that those of us in places like Canada have come to enjoy.

But not all of us — even in Canada — are so well off. It’s easy to put a head in the sand and ignore the realities experienced by our First Nations peoples, new immigrants, and those billions who live on less than $2 a day worldwide. It is easy to forget that while I have access to an abundance of fresh water, clean air, medical care, safe and abundant food supplies, and educational opportunities, I am in the minority. I have been given a lot of opportunity to do well, and I’ve created a lot of opportunities too. The point of this blog isn’t to talk about how good or bad things are, but to imagine how we can collectively create a glocal (global+local) system of support and care that enables the world to have opportunities like I’ve had in a manner that is sustainable and just.

A tall order? Yes. But why live a life nestled on the ground when you can also reach for the stars?

Blogging is tough. I am an avid microblogger on Twitter (@cdnorman), but a long form blog is something that I’ve been wanting to commit to for some time. After much debate about what platform to use, I’ve decided to start Censemaking here, now and hopefully for the years to come. Watch this space for ideas, insights, ramblings and musings about the issues that intertwine to reflect the reality of my personal and professional life. You’ll see a lot on technology — information tools to communicate, share and collaborate. There will also be a lot on public engagement and learning. I am an educator, so you’ll see some things on that. I’m also a foodie and believe that transforming our food system — from its production to its packaging and transportation to its marketing, consumption and through to its disposal — is the issue that will define the 21st century (along with water, which I relate to it). So you’ll see a lot on that. And, I’m a public health professor, so there will be musings on topics like disease, health promotion, tobacco control, obesity and many other things that are relevant to the health of populations.

I hope that whoever you are, you enjoy my blog.