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.


Why Alfred Nobel would never have made it past the post

Alfred Nobel was the richest man alive when he passed away. He had invented dynamite, and held in total 350 patents. Not just skilled in science, he was fluent in numerous languages, and wrote poetry in his non-native English. In his famous will, he instituted the Nobel prizes – the most famous and prestigious prizes in the world.

Alfred Nobel, who had connections and knowledge but no formal qualifications

Nobel Laureates aplenty convene this week at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, along with bright young researchers who have been chosen for their excellence in the fields of physiology and medicine. But would the extraordinarily gifted polymath Alfred Nobel himself have ever made it to Lindau? Probably not; Nobel had no formal qualifications. His only chance would have been a glowing recommendation from someone with more mainstream credentials, we heard at the opening ceremony yesterday.

This is a striking example of how authority and kudos is conveyed in the scientific community – usually through being at the right institution or getting funding from the right body. So young scientists who for whatever reason have less awareness of the political machinations of science and academia, or have fewer opportunities, but are nevertheless gifted in their research – have iteratively fewer chances. The consequence, arguably, is to create a scientific elite from those that begin on the right footing, have the right affiliations and want to stay inside institutions.

Increasingly, though, the workforce is moving away from traditional working patterns and towards freelance investigation and non-affiliated working. There are a number of important questions to be raised when looking at these phenomena – and some of them are being implicitly addressed in the rhetoric at this year’s Lindau meeting.

One relates to authority. Nobel Laureate Rolf Schekman is a vocal proponent of Open Access publishing, and argues that prestigious journals are skewing science for the worse. Having established eLife – a foundation funded platform that is free to read and free to submit to, Schekman believes we need to move back towards a meritocracy in science, where researchers are judged on the quality of their work rather than the lottery over where they publish. To this end, Schekman suggests throwing out the current system of gauging scientists by the number of publications in high impact journals, and instead have a system of one-page impact statements for each researcher, something that to me sounds very like the artist’s statement. In arguing this, Schekman is in fact arguing against the automatic conveyance of authority from a journal to a researcher – something that has always struck me a little like the rhetoric of an appeal to authority – and arguing for those wishing to assess a potential candidate to go deeper into their work.

SchekmanRolf Schekman at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

There is a resonance here with the idea of establishing authority for new techniques. I spoke to Arieh Warshel earlier today about the reception by the experimental community of computational techniques, such as his QM/MM methods for studying complex biochemical systems, for which he won the 2013 Nobel in Chemistry with Martin Karplus and Michael Levitt. A large part of gaining acceptance is about gaining authority, according to Warshel – an argument that is borne out by the main philosophers studying the tricky field of the validation of computational techniques. Warshel argues that in 50 years, most science will be done using computer models as a means to decipher experimental findings.

Schekman’s attitude to journals’ Impact Factors could equally be applied to the way we confer authority from institutions onto people. There is of course the potential for an institution’s good reputation to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy by bringing together many bright people in one place. Mark Pagel recently wrote on the innovative effect of living in cities, and some research and educational institutions can have similar effects on those within their walls. What is important about now is that these network benefits are not limited to universities and research institutions. They exist not only in the digital space but also in hackerspaces, coworking spaces, meetup groups, and in citizen science communities. However, these communities – which have a rich and varied population – do not fit within academic institutional siloes.

With increasing Open Access publishing, these people and communities now have access to current scientific research to inspire and inform their own endeavours. However, they are missing a couple of things: the funding and resources afforded by institutions, and the exchange with the broad swathe of the academic community that still doesn’t engage with them.

As I wrote recently, there are arguments about how innovative citizen science and hacker culture can be under present circumstances. But how many Alfred Nobels are out there, with sufficient knowledge, intelligence and motivation to add to our collective pool of scientific learning, but lacking a route into a dialogue with people inside institutions? Perhaps we need more unconventional routes into science – to apply this same meritocracy outside of the formal scientific community, just as Schekman argues for within it.