Food, community and DIY science

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

photograph of corn in Bandra, Mumbai, by Vivek George (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, 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.


Money, society and gaps – an introvert’s view: or reflections from the Edge of LOTE4

I did a lot of being in large groups last year – in groups within which the members share the belief – and I think we are right here – that communities are the way we will move the world forward.

CC-BY Sam Muirhead
CC-BY Sam Muirhead – That’s me looking a bit awks in the hat on the right

Partly, my heart sinks at this. I’m an introvert – most of the time and particularly when I am tired. The idea of spending a weekend with a large group of people, couchsurfing and socialising and working together – I enjoy it and I know it will exhaust me at the same time, so that half way through I know I’m going to find it hard to function at my best. As such, I was amused to come across this BuzzFeed “Problems only Introverts will Understand” while still at LOTE4: The Stewardship.

LOTE4 was held at the unMonastery in Matera, and was really awesome. The people I met were excellent, friendly and welcoming, and I was more comfortable there than I normally am at intense gatherings, which is a testament to everyone’s openness and the thoughtfulness that had gone into facilitating the event.

Wondrous variety

The experience helped me understand better how I function and prompted some thoughts about group dynamics. First, it’s difficult to get space when you don’t have a bolt hole. While at LOTE4 I would go into the toilet and as I closed and locked the door, relief flooded me as I got some solace. It reminded me of our motivations behind the design exercise that led to the ‘Scape coat. One thing that might help is having a one-person room …or ‘scape box… that can be occupied with a sign on the outside if the person within would like a little time to get back into themselves.

The second is that meetings like this are hard to access for people like me who can who struggle to communicate in a group. I am better on a one-on-one basis, at exploring through conversation than proclaiming to a group, which requires delivery of a consolidated point succinctly and confidently. It’s just not how I usually talk, which is usually “an exploration with” rather than “talking to” others. In a group situation, I find it useful to have time to go away and think about things, form consolidated ideas and then chime in. I think there is something gained in everyone doing this too – one comes to different conclusions and has different ideas after having space to reflect.

There isn’t usually space for slow thought processes in a conference, or an unConference – there’s always too much going on, no time for reflection or repetition. In practical terms, it costs more money (oh that again) to have gaps. But gaps are important. It’d be nice to organise something along these lines where we engineer in gaps for quiet reflection and then return to a topic – not just for people like me, for everyone.

The strain of society

There are a few other things that strike me about this situation of having to get together with people. One is rather tangential and follows a fascinating discussion I recently had with artist Giles Lane about a trip he made to Papua New Ginuea to work on story collection with locals there. He told me that the social interaction was so intense it took a long time to decompress afterwards, that it changed how he viewed our everyday activities back home because it showed the complexities of emotional and pragmatic interactions when all aspects your everyday life depends heavily on others with whom you have an unformalised, emotional relationship. For myself I found my understanding of our social interactions was most changed after a trip to Cuba – but for me I saw social interactions being used as a means to press for exchange of things of value.

Getting back to the intensity – it’s something from which we have sanitised ourselves in the main in the global west mostly through the medium of money. This is a two-edged sword – it facilitates many things, obviously, and it also removes a lot of tricky obligations that might restrict your ability to look out for your own interests. Living without money requires some degree of moving back to these obligations. Money is a formalisation of trust (something I really only saw clearly after speaking to financial hacking genius Brett Scott). Because there are many things for which we cannot directly barter, without money we need much stronger personal ties to foster enough trust for exchange. Or we need to develop a Zen-like universal trust that removes us from our own worldly wants enough for us not to care about getting something back for our efforts, our own needs, or being taken advantage of.

Troublesome trust and the issue of not giving back

There is a lesson to be learned by extrapolating into experiments in communalism. It has surfaced both in practice for me in doocracies and horizontal sociocratic organisations, and which came up in the discussions of hacking care which we had at LOTE4. It’s around the question of how systems based on these principles deal with people who simply can’t give back. Whether it’s someone in a coma, or with a debilitating disease, or someone who is chronically unwell and thus will never be able to give back as much as they take – in a doocracy, or in a sociocracy, your value is in what you contribute. In some senses in fact that is commodifying someone by their actions. In such cases, I can only think that care will come about from loved ones only – and in this case we are at risk of falling into a trap of going backwards in terms of social care. These problems do arise quite a lot from trust – because most of us would care for someone in need, at least in the short term, if we genuinely believed in their need. But there’s a need for trust so that you don’t feel taken advantage of. The consequences of this is something that people with unseen disabilities often lament, being unable to visibly prove that they are experiencing hardship. A complete inability to give back may be an extreme case, but exploring how we might react to it would I think inform the philosophy behind making doocracies and non-hierarchical organisations more accessible.

Perhaps we in society now need a new strategy for dealing with fostering this kind of trust -something that I think is closely related to this intensity of living. How do we build trust while maintaining some distance – or do we do away with this distance altogether?