Tag: social determinants of health

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.

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkingpsychologysocial systems

Empathy: The Ultimate Design + Systems Challenge

Empathy Empathy is a central feature of good human-centred design, yet is often practiced narrowly. Visualization with systems thinking and mindfulness are three additional features that can transform empathy from a simple tool to a vehicle for transformation by connecting us less to absolute problems and more to relative ones.

In today’s Globe and Mail newspaper online, the oft controversial columnist Margaret Wente offered an op-ed piece called I have ‘white people’s problems,’ and you probably do too. The column refers to an article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter looking at how women today still struggle to be successful at work, family and personal life simultaneously. Both Wente and Slaughter take pains to point out that they lead privilidged lives, yet that privilige does not shield them from experiencing social problems in a way that is both unique to their situation and widely shared by women across the social spectrum.

A read of the comments for both articles shows how much of a hot-button issue this is for people (Wente’s article had more than 700 comments within hours of being uploaded) and includes much discussion of the racist/non-racist/classist over and undertones to the content and topic. It might be tempting to rush in and judge these two articles for dwelling on the pains of a privileged few in light of problems of poverty, food insecurity, safety, sexual and gender-based violence, and absence of healthcare experienced by the greater number of people on this earth.

Yet, if we look at the issues as they are with less judgement we can see the reaction to these articles less as a battle of ideas, but an unconscious attack on empathy. There is this perverse pleasure for some in pointing out the arrogance, ignorance, or neglectfulness in others, but such criticism (sometimes falsely veiled as critique or critical thinking) often fails to deeply connect to empathy beyond the pale.  How then do we promote empathy in such conditions?

Perspective Taking: It’s (Relative) Promise and Perils

As Micheal Marmot and others have shown consistently with evidence is that relative inequities, inequalities and health disparities are as significant or more so than absolute ones. Whatever challenges you face they are exacerbated by how you see yourself in relative position to those who deem closest to you. Saying: “it could be worse” works when you see your peers as worse off than you or your equal, but it doesn’t work as well when you’re surrounded by people you perceive to be in better shape. Thus, we have an issue that is both absolute and relative based on real and perceptive differences working simultaneously. In the case of Wente and Slaughter’s articles, most of us (the 95-99% not represented in these perspectives) see them to be in better shape and that has consequences for us and them.

 Peter Coleman and faculty at the International Project on Conflict and Complexity have looked at how relative position and empathy fit together in the context of peace-building and mediation and have found that there are spaces where taking into account the lives of others can increase conflict, not dampen it. Of the many examples cited in their work (including Coleman’s recent book) is a decade-long initiative to build bridges between anti-abortion and pro-life advocates in the Boston area and how efforts to build empathy between these two foes often served to antagonize and create bigger gaps in position rather than closing them. These problems, often seen as intractable, represent about 5% of all the ones we face, but their effect is enormous.

Recent studies in social psychology have confirmed that bridge building requires more than just seeing the other side, it requires being heard (PDF – Bruneau & Saxe (2012), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). A study by Kraus and colleagues (PDF) found that social distance can have an impact on the way that people empathize and the conclusions that they draw when trying to place themselves in the position of others.

Your Grief is Not the Same as My Grief

The above heading comes from a statement uttered in a group counselling context and has forever stuck in my head. It recognizes that we all experience things in a unique way, yet it was uttered in a spirit that suggests we can still come to share that experience in a manner that can build solidarity and connection.

This points to the ultimate design challenge: creating greater connection through empathy without widening social distance.

One might think this would be easier given that empathy is one of the principle tools of design, yet my experience suggests that designers  might be more apt to identify this as important and have strategies to get to it, there is still much to be done. But as we all design for ourselves and some of us for others, imagining another’s perspective requires understanding both that another perspective exists and where in relation that perspective sits to your own. It is here that we need more than an empathic lens or a design lens, but a systems lens as well.

Visualization: Placing Empathy

Systems thinking provides cognitive tools for understanding entire domains and the relationships within it. Systems mapping takes these ideas and makes them visual by providing an architecture for that understanding. Visualization provides the means to connect these two worlds by providing a design sensibility with a systems perspective. The figure below illustrates this position.

Mapping the positions held or visualizing them allows an idea to be represented in a manner that invites dialogue and open comparison. Rather than keeping one’s perspective locked within their own mind, a visual representation allows both the individual and those who they seek (or we seek) to build empathy with the tools to better frame the position each holds relative to one another. Doing so goes beyond imagining what it would be like to walk in anothers’ shoes and actually sees it and allows us to test assumptions.

From here, a contemplative approach to inquiry based on mindfulness can allow people to sit — literally or figuratively — with this data and envision the positions in new ways. Contemplating the meaning of what a particular perspective holds can enable a perspective taking that goes beyond seeing this head on and perhaps sees it from above, below, behind or inside and gets us away from our forward orientation bias.

By redefining the space in which the problem exists by literally creating that space on the page or screen we can better see beyond our current position to imagine how things previously deemed impossible might exist. Returning to the original example, this means seeing that one can hold much privilege and social advantage and experience the world in a manner that feels as violated, limiting and stressful as someone of lesser absolute means. It can also facilitate the reverse perspective. In doing so, this type of visualizing + empathy + contemplative inquiry has the means to take away much of the judgement and see things as they are without reducing or amplifying problems beyond their current context.

In doing so, perhaps we can better see us all as interconnected members of a system with pains and hurts and joys and skills rather than devote more energy that is necessary to judging others and less on making lives better for everyone.

design thinkingeducation & learninginnovationsocial media

Disruption by Design

DISRUPT by Paul Woot

Innovation, new thinking, and a change in consciousness can upset the way we see our world and the manner in which we relate to it. This disruption can happen by happenstance or intention encouraging us to consider ways to design change before forces outside our influence change us. 

disrupt |disˈrəpt|

verb [ with obj. ]

interrupt (an event, activity, or process) by causing a disturbance or problem: a rail strike that could disrupt both passenger and freight service.

• drastically alter or destroy the structure of (something): alcohol can disrupt the chromosomes of an unfertilized egg.


disrupter (also disruptor |-tər|)noun

Observing the city I live in, the media I consume, and the way I learn, I can’t help but be amazed at how much of my life has been disrupted over the past few years. I can access nearly everything I need to run my business and do my research from my handheld or a tablet computer. I can hand that tablet or handheld to someone else and allow them to interact with the content on it by using gestural movements, not a keyboard.

If I am engaged in health communications or scholarly research, I look to places like Twitter and blogs as much if not more than I do academic databases. Many of the journals I respect and publish content that counts in fields like public health, such as the Journal of Medical Internet Research, are open access and free to anyone who wants to read them. And these open access publications are becoming leaders in their fields, not just cheap versions of “real” journals. This makes the content of my academic work and that of my many colleagues accessible and much more likely to be used.

If you’re a graphic designer your work has never been more important. Whether websites, infographics, high-quality interpretations of traditional media (for a great example see the re-imagined journal article by my colleague Andrea Yip) the world has become more visual and the weight of good graphic design is heavier than ever. At the same time, tools like easel.ly allow anyone to make an infographic, or WordPress for those who want websites (this one included), and even offers to do a $42 logo as reported in Creative Review.

Want to raise awareness of issues? Grab a film camera and put together a small film like Kony 2012, the most viral success story of any video to date.

Or write a book on an important, if somewhat arcane, topic like the meaning of making and get people from all over the world to invest in it on Kickstarter (that’s what Seung Chan Lim or Slim as he is known did and I invested in this venture with enthusiasm).

Or  charge a mere $5 like comedian Louis C.K. did for a high-quality copy of his recent comedy show filmed at the Beacon Theatre in New York and let your buyers download up to five copies at once for one price.

Or write a book and let your customers determine its price (including free!) like Jon Kolko and his AC4D colleagues have done with Wicked Problems.

This couldn’t have happened five years ago. The production costs were too high, the distribution channels too primitive, and the bandwidth too low. Now, it’s all different and the disruptions are no longer happenstance, but designed.

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen coined the term ‘disruptive innovation‘ which  “describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.”

Christensen adds:

An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.  Characteristics of disruptive businesses, at least in their initial stages, can include:  lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics.

Health promotion and public health are fields ripe for this kind of innovation, so is healthcare. Indeed, movements like those embodied in Patients Like Me, a social network portal aimed at supporting human empowerment in health care.

We are on the cusp of this taking place in health promotion and human services — whether they are governmental, non-profit or social enterprise based. Health promotion is largely about enabling individuals, groups and communities to better adapt to change, support themselves and gain greater control over the social determinants of health. At present, we teach students theory and research, but what about business dynamics or systems thinking or visual methods of presentation or social innovation? These are the tools and strategies that the abovementioned examples used. Many of them also used design.

The same challenge holds true for social work, psychology and education.

These are the fields that are key supports for promoting wellbeing in our community. It is perhaps not surprising that the concept of design is noticeably absent from all of these fields.

That doesn’t need to be the case.

This past week I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Scott Conti and his staff at the New Design High School in New York City. There I saw students working through everyday problems using design, building business ideas to support themselves and their communities, and applying their various creativities to making a difference in their lives using design as the lens. This environment was where social work, education, psychology and health promotion intersect. Scott — who delivers a great talk on his work as part of TEDX Dumbo — is a health promoter and social innovator. So are his teachers.

None of them were trained for what they do. They have adapted, modified, created and innovated. They disrupted their own patterns of work and learning so that they could better disrupt those around them, for good. They did this by design.

If we are to expect that the fields most connected to social action and the promotion of wellbeing are to contribute to our betterment in the future, they need to change. Disruptive design for programs, services and the ways we fund such things is what is necessary if these fields are to have benefit beyond themselves. Long past are the days when doing good was something that belonged to those with a title (e.g., doctor, health promoter, social worker) or that what we called ourselves (e.g., teacher) meant we did something else unequivocally (e.g., educate). Now we are all teachers, all health promoters, all designers, and all entrepreneurs if we want to be. Some will be better than others and some will be more effective than others, but by disrupting these ideas we can design a better future.


complexityeducation & learninghealth promotionpublic healthsocial systems

Our Unhealthy Hero Complex

I was walking through a hospital on the other day on my way to a presentation and a number of things crossed my mind. One of them is the concept of the hero. Specifically, there was a fundraising campaign that was being promoted in the hospital about recognizing the heros in your life.

In this case, health care workers were described as heros. I think that when we start down that road — from military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and health care workers — we further distance ourselves from the bigger mission these brave, hard-working people actually serve. Soldiers — professional ones anyway — are primarily serving to protect their country with the ultimate aim of peace. Police are similiar; “to serve and protect” is their motto. These are hard jobs and ones that often require a level of risk and committment that goes beyond normal. But defining them as heros can suggest something otherworldly that doesn’t fit — and I would argue sometimes hurts rather than helps.

Take for example the Toronto General Hospital’s ‘Honor Your Hero’ campaign to encourage patients and families to donate to the hospital to recognize (presumably) the heroic efforts of the health care teams in providing them care. The idea of supporting health care and hospitals (which most people in Canada don’t realize are still charities, not government entities despite receiving funding from these bodies) is a good one. The health care teams that work in these centres are made up of well-trained, generally well-paid professionals who are focused and committed to doing the best they can to improve the health of those who walk or are wheeled through the doors. In other words, they are doing their job and when they do it well, individuals lead healthier lives.

Contrast that with teachers, day care staff, or even social workers. They, too are doing jobs that require long hours, dedication, training and the ability to handle a lot of complexity at once. How often are they called heroes? Is their mission any less valuable to our overall health and wellbeing? When this group does its job, our society is healthier.

This is not meant to be a “who is more important” debate. It is also not an ‘either/or’ debate. From a systems perspective, both are vitally important groups to our society. Nor am I suggesting that healthcare workers should be paid less or that either group is any more worthy of the title of ‘hero’. What I am suggesting is that our frame of one as a hero and the other as not does us all a disservice (including those that have to wear that heavy label). It places inordinately heavy emphasis on one part of the system, rather than looking at the bigger picture of health in a social context.

In this month’s Walrus magazine, this point was given a further hue by Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. In this short, but very focused piece, he points to the cost of hero worship (my words, not his) and how we’ve protected health care at all costs while allowing education to spiral down to a point where it will be hard to recover. Looking at the implications surrounding the deficit cutting in the 1990’s by Canadian federal and provincial governments led by Chretien/Martin, Klein, & Harris and most others and how in the effort to protect health care they let education dwindle. A ‘teaser’ of the article is available here. Martin makes the case that our desire to protect health care at the expense of education may backfire and I agree.

If you look at what makes a society healthy or not, health care is only one of a number of contributing factors. Education is one of the biggest. So is a healthy economy, which is linked to productivity, which is spurred by education. Oh yes, and those who provide the services in health care can only do so if they’re well educated.

When we are most vulnerable and our physical or mental health and wellbeing is most compromised we want a trusted, competent health care professional to turn to. But if we want to reduce the severity, onset and extention of these problems and have a population who might best be able to help us in the community and prevent problems from occurring, we need education.

Perhaps it is time to look at this from a systems perspective and take the truly heroic steps of making all of our social determinants of public health professionals, not just those that fit a certain roles, the focus of our support.

education & learningpsychologysocial systemssystems sciencesystems thinking

Back to School and the Lesson of Accumulation

For millions of kids and young adults and the many faculty and family members associated with the noble profession of teaching, today is the biggest day of the year. It’s back to school.

School and learning are clearly on the minds of many these days. As I posted last week, there is much to be concerned with how education is (or is not, depending on your point of view) being funded. Yesterday I read an editorial on the CBC’s website from a teacher who pointed to the stress that his profession is under and how it is killing those who choose to remain in it.

“I think that the whole idea of teaching has changed in the last 15 to 20 years,” says Emily Noble, past-president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

“People are dealing with more high-need students, with more multicultural issues and with no-fail policies.

“Teachers want to make a difference, but the supports are just not there.”

It’s not a particularly rosy time for educators of any stripe.

Anyone who’s been at the head of the classroom (myself included) knows that teaching is as much of a vocation or calling as it is a job. It is not something you do from 9-5 or whatever the set hours are. If you ran an education system on ‘work to rule’ where people did just what their job required of them within normal hours, paid them an hourly wage and had them account for every minute they worked, the system would collapse within weeks. I can’t imagine that there has ever been a greater gap between what teachers actually do and what they are perceived to do by those outside of the profession. As a professor, I routinely shock people who think that I have 4 months off each summer and spend the remaining 8 wandering the hallowed halls of academe ‘thinking big thoughts’, reading books and conversing with grad students in between teaching duties. Between ongoing grant writing, doing research, conference presentations, thesis defences, supervising staff, writing, and preparing our courses for the fall (including adding in the H1N1 provisions this year) summers are anything but idyllic times off. There’s a lot of stress in this job and, as a recent double issue of the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment explored, it manifests itself in many (mostly harmful) ways. Still, most of us do it because we believe in our profession and, mostly, enjoy what we do.

Whether at university or primary or secondary school, teaching as a whole is undergoing a major change. As Smol writes:

There is a general understanding that things “are not the same as they once were.”

Teaching has always been a tough, but rewarding job in part because there’s always new things to learn and we, as humans, are wired for learning. Teaching is also a dynamic profession aimed at supporting this learning, but as Smol and others have written, the changes that are happening in education are great and fast and without the structural supports in place to help these changes take place. I wrote of resliency in my last post, arguing that we’re testing the resilience of our education system with this imbalance between demands and resources. Today I want to focus on another important systems concept: accumulation.

It turns out, people are lousy at understanding how things build up over time. A study by John Sterman from MIT, one of the leading scholars in system dynamics, found that even among his students — some of the best, brightest and well-equipped to handle this topic given that it is part of their studies — most have a poor sense of what accumulation really means. So do educational policy makers I suspect. The reason this is important for education is that as accumulation of stress builds the likelihood of something going amiss increases dramatically. A tipping point, that term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book by the same name, is an expression of accumulation.

In our case of education, the tipping point could come when people no longer want to become teachers en masse. Or, it becomes nearly impossible to hire good, quality educators for anything other top salaries, which in an age when even the basics aren’t funded, seems unlikely. Or, teachers begin to amass more sick days than ever before (which is already happening) creating disruptions in the classroom. (Note: Remember those days when the substitute teacher came to class? Were those ever days filled with lots of learning and orderly classrooms? Not often. Imagine that on the rise as teachers start to miss days on the job a little more)

The unintended consequences could see parents fleeing the public system of education for private institutions, leaving a growing gap between the education of the haves and have nots  even more than exists today. Another option is that some other market form of education replaces our current system. Among the many scenarios that could play out, most suggest that the system could break. And when systems break suddenly and quickly, the stress increases, which seems a little counterproductive given that it is one of the problems in the first place.

The Arab proverb about ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ comes to mind here. The mistake is thinking that a single straw caused all that damage. It did, but only because of its relationship to all the other straws. Each straw weighs the same and presumably has the same relative impact on the camel. What tipping points show is that, despite this similarity between objects (straws, stressors, whatever…) not all are created equal in terms of their impact. While it is true that each individual object taken on its own is relatively the same, the cumulative impact makes each of them quite different. That ‘last straw’ (which, incidentally, is the name of a great teaching game on the social determinants of health) , has far more influence than any other straw. What we don’t often know is which straw will serve as the ‘last’ one. How resilient is the system? What is its carrying capacity? We don’t know, but by paying attention we can anticipate problems ahead and potentially avoid this last straw scenario and the tipping points that follow.

So as you go back to school, consider bringing something other than just an apple for the teacher.  Perhaps a lesson in accumulation for the principal, school board officials, the public taxpayer, and educational policymakers will do.

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?