Food, community and DIY science

Multiple knowledge approach to food melds artistic and DIY science methods in undergraduate course

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photograph of corn in Bandra, Mumbai, by Vivek George (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Years ago I started going to the London Hackspace. I was just getting into hacking and making, DIY science and citizen science as part of my research and artistic practice. The hackerspace, on a backstreet in East London’s Shoreditch, shortly relocated to a much larger space in an old office building in a less gentrified Hackney Road location near Cambridge Heath Station.

I lived down the road at the time, on a housing estate in Bethnal Green. It began as a niggle in my hindbrain, and quickly grew into something more shaped: there was a difference in demographic between my neighbours at home and the people I would regularly encounter behind the 2m high gates and code-entry door of the hackspace. Inside I was surrounded predominantly by people a bit like me (but more often than not male)… in their late 20s or 30s, fairly middle class. It’s the majority demographic of the hacker and maker scene in Europe. My neighbours were a richer mix by comparison; a cockney refuse collector and his wife and dog whose grown-up kids and grand-kids lived across the way, a Bangladeshi family with youngsters, a single man under day care in social housing, a whole row housing elderly people. I hadn’t made a scientific comparison, and couldn’t find demographics of hackerspaces versus their neighbourhood in the literature, but in a wifty-wafty way it inspired a chain of thought.

I’m a fan of what the citizen science / DIY science and maker scene can do. And I love what the London Hackspace and places like it have been achieving over the years. Doing this kind of work can change your perspective, it can broaden how you think. It can provide routes into knowledge that can lead us to a socially and environmentally kinder way of being. So, seeing that my neighbourhood wasn’t making it into the hackerspace – I figured either because they didn’t know it was there, or didn’t know what it could offer – I thought I could take what I was doing outside hackerspaces, to people who either didn’t know about this kind of work, or didn’t know what it could offer.

So I started work on a plan for creating an interdisciplinary exploration of a unifying yet incredibly diverse human experience: Food. Bringing together DIY science and artistic research practices, I’ve been designing it in a way that should reach outside of the usual sphere of practice. In January 2017, I will be embarking on the next step; my new course as part of University College London’s Arts and Sciences BASc programme: Designing Citizen Science for Multiple Knowledges.

This course will be an exciting adventure, working with undergraduate students and taking part in practical workshops with a community of students at London’s largest state sixth form college, NewVIc in Newham.

I will lead students in partnerships using scientific methods alongside cultural exchange, foraging practices and exploration of emotional and physical responses in order to increase our cross-disciplinary understanding of food. By drawing on these approaches, the students and community will explore together each other’s cultures and attitudes, learning about not only each other’s direct relation to food as a topic but also the manner in which people from different cultures and backgrounds create knowledge and understanding of a topic.

The questions the course and this project overall addresses are relevant for all of society, as there is a rich diversity of cultural practice around food preparation and consumption. The scientific and pedagogical work explored on this module meets at least two societal challenges in the democratization of scientific research for the betterment of society and the teaching of sciences.

Food is as a nexus where people from different cultural backgrounds can come together with a common aim, approached from different directions – a fertile ground for intercultural interactions that will create new knowledge around food that will benefit society as a whole.

Nutrition is important for health, wellbeing and performance in terms of energy levels and concentration. Inner city nutrition has caused concern for decades, with urban “healthy food deserts”, such as those identified in the south of Newham (see Food Outlet Mapping in the London Borough of Newham Local Development Framework, London Borough of Newham), loaded with fast foods and fatty snacks, and a dearth of healthy, nutritionally rich foods. Little discussion happens around the nutritional value of these different types of food from different places, or how these differences affect our overall experience of food and the environment. The majority of consumers rely on supermarkets and corner shops to provide a convenient shopping experience.

In this time of austerity, what is the best value for money when seeking out healthy and nutritious foodstuffs? Food practices and preferences are diverse across cultures – what is the interplay between austerity and accessibility of culturally significant foods, and how does that affect wellbeing? Alongside traditional food sources, there are new explorations into non-traditional foods in response to ecological changes. New foods can be on the menu, but what is the consequence of this? Harvesting novel foods from land, such as increasing the prevalence of foraging, is one option of opening up our diets to alternative sources of nutrition – what does this mean for how we experience food and what does it mean for us?

Crucially, the nutrient value and taste of food impacts on how we experience it, but often we pay little attention to this.

The project will create a blueprint of how to use cutting edge citizen science and co-creation participation methods to foster strong bonds and dialogue between people of different cultures, all the while expanding knowledge and practices about food and nutrition in urban environments.

What I’m aiming for, for the students and the community, is that they should come out of the course with the following gains:

  • look beyond their individual and local interests and see the complexity of an interconnected world, both in the content and in the collaborative nature of the course.
  • increase understanding of the nature of the challenges that face that world, especially with respect to the pressing contemporary issues around urban food deserts and their impact on wellbeing, within the context of systemic problems of food security and urban development that are a focus of the UN DESA SDGs, and different cultural attitudes to food
  • become aware of their social, ethical and political responsibilities, both through some taught theory (e.g. the socio-politics of the democratization of knowledge) and through their community interactions
  • display leadership and work together to change the world for the better, through partnership and collaboration with NewVIc
  • are able to solve problems through innovation and entrepreneurship, which will be a key requirement of the course – involving the development of DIY scientific methods and design of a paper prototype “food experience” that requires them to creatively combine the multiple perspectives of culture, science, and physical knowledge that are explored in the course.

The next step is to turn the course content into a mobile food experience – a van containing the most important elements of this work, which I hope to tour around Europe and beyond.


 

I’ve been lucky enough for the course to be supported by the DITOs project, and by UCL’s Grand Challenges scheme. I’ll be working with the amazing John Rensten who will be leading the foraging workshop on the course, and who has just brought out The Edible City (Macmillan), which can be ordered here, and which looks at the importance of foraging in cities. The next step of this project has been accepted to be part of the London Creative Network.

I am currently designing the Moodle module for the course, compiling a reading list and carrying out the research into the DIY protocols. I’ve set up an online notepad for my research. It’s currently password protected so ping me if you’d like to take a look.

 

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