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.


Aspriation for Respiration – Belljar (SAMS_001)

Belljar is the second work in the Width of Air series, which interrogates the act of data collection and measurement in the context of climate change and environmental damage. Like Snowglobe, the first work in the series, Belljar was realised as part of my work in collective Stereotropic Anecdota, alongside Tom O’Dea.


Like Snowglobe (MSMS_001), Belljar has a “scientific name”, Shanghai Air Monitorin Station_001 (SAMS_001). For the purposes of the Width of Air concept, it is important that each piece appears on first impressions to be a valid scientific experiment in the public realm. As such, the installations and the work around them exist under the umbrella of research carried out by the Stereotropic Anecdota Department of Environment.

Belljar is a site specific work, a response to the Shanghainese modes of coping with severe environmental damage in the form of air pollution. The piece is a bonsai tree living inside a bell jar, placed outside on a main road in Shanghai. Inside the bell jar, an air quality sensor measures the air pollution, relaying the information live online to the Department of Environment website and to a display alongside the miniature tree.

When I arrived in Shanghai I immediately had a strong physical response to the air pollution – I found it hard to walk outside, I was continuously deeply coughing, I felt exhausted, my eyes were sore. I quickly donned a mask, as many other Shanghainese residents do, and sought respite in buildings with air purifiers. I, like so many others, was creating safe microenvironments within which to exist as a coping mechanism for the city’s extreme pollution.

The pollution is a consequence of high usage of motor vehicles in the city, overlaid on China’s baseline pollution from factories and power stations. These activities have brought the country great wealth, but at a cost. Each year loses 6.5% of its GDP to air pollution related health problems in the workforce, and that’s without even considering the longer term problems associated with children’s development in highly polluted environments. The air pollution is a product of aspiration – for economic growth and for personal wealth in the case of car ownership. The creation of microenvironments is a product of the aspiration for respiration.

There’s a socio-political element to this – the pollution creates a common problem, but one that only the well-off can afford to avoid. And with the health and developmental impacts of air pollution, it is likely to increase inequality in a country where the top one percent of households holds one-third of total assets. Yet, Under the Dome, a documentary by journalist Chai Jing that explores the impacts of this pollution, was censored in China just 3 days after its release in what one colleague dubbed “the largest act of censorship in the history of humanity”.

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Stereotropic Anecdota has responded to this dark irony by creating Belljar. The bell jar’s use as a piece of scientific equipment to create discrete atmospheres where small animals would suffocate is captured in the piece, with echoes of Sylvia Plath’s tormented cry for help. The bonsai’s tranquility is highlighted and juxtaposed against the micro-environments we each create in seeking purer air, but the tree is separated from the viewer – evoking a fragility and otherworldliness.

At first glance, it seems to be another valid scientific experiment. The piece is etched with its name and the message “Do Not Touch” in English and Chinese. And just below, the live digital display which tells us not the air quality index – Shanghai’s ever present measurement – but instead the air purity. But who is this purity for? Who can enter the bell jar?

What is the point of measuring the air inside the bell jar if no one can experience it?

Belljar (SAMS_001) is a work by Stereotropic Anecdota (Kat F Austen and Tom O’Dea) at PCI NYU Shanghai and NYU Shanghai Gallery. With thanks to Christian Grewell and studio assistants Shelby Firebaugh and Dylan Crow.




How do we design holistically for water stewardship? Open Droplet at #LOTE4

I’ve often had a niggling bothersome thought about IoT (Internet of Things), in that it seems always to put the onus on the individual to make change. I’m all for collective action, and responsible attitudes to the environment, but sometimes the stats don’t lie – if industry is guzzling more gas than domestic users, and if the plastics industry pollutes more than one country’s yearly car usage, there’s only so much of a dent that the public are going to make in our juggernaut progress to ecological and climate catastrophe. We have to look at the situation as a whole, something that I think it’s increasingly important to incorporate into our quantified, sensor strewn lives.

Open Droplet Logo

That’s been the aim when it comes to design for Open Droplet, in this case – what if water leakage outstrips domestic water use, for instance? The key question, is how do we facilitate citizens, communities, cities and infrastructure providers to take care of this precious resource? It’s a concept and question that I’m delighted to be bringing to my forthcoming session at LOTE4: The Stewardship later this month in Matera, Italy.

I’d really love it, in the spirit of openness, LOTE and Open Droplet, if you’d take a look at the session. Even if you can’t make it there, I’d love to hear what you think about the proposition. What’s important and what should we be bearing in mind when designing for a holistic approach to water stewardship? What approaches can we generalise as a holistic IoT methodology?



A light shining on itself illuminates our inner desire for darkness

It’s a beautiful sunny day here in London and light is pounding onto the pavements with a vehemence rarely seen in the British Isles. Everyone seems happier, more relaxed. Which is probably something to do with the heat, as well as the marvellous effects of vitamin D whizzing through our impoverished blood.

It’s ironic then that I’ve spent the morning deep in a discourse around how we need more darkness. With a lighting designer.

We are flooded with light during the night time in cities. Primarily the reasons given as a justification are security and safety; to deter crime and to prevent road traffic accidents.

But this abuse of our senses and our darkness comes at a cost. As with so many of our interventions, we need to rethink urban lighting to come up with a more viable and thoughtful solution.

Here are some thoughts that sprung up while I was chatting about darkness:

Why don’t we shut our curtains at night?
If we relied on shop fronts to light our streets would we feel more assaulted with advertising?
Could we get by with night vision goggles, or will there be a google glass version of them?
What is the symbolism of using your smartphone screen as a torch?
I had forgotten how magical it is to walk in the moonlight. Could we live in a city only illuminated by the night sky?
Would bioluminescence drive you mad because you can’t switch it off?
Would bioluminescent edible buildings address urban food security and lighting in one fell swoop?

Food for illuminating thought.