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What’s on Your Plate? The 2021 MDes Thesis Talks

On the surface, there may not be a more universally relatable subject than food. After all, everyone eats. But the most basic questions about where our food comes from, how it gets to our dinner tables, and who makes decisions about that process quickly reveals the ways this basic human need is impacted by disparities and inequitable systems.

Students from the fifth graduating class of the Stamps Master of Design in Integrative Design Program (MDes) spent the last two years applying design research to this wicked problem, defined as such for being a vast, systemic problem with so many interconnected pieces it seems impossible to solve.

MDes students shared the results of their research, iterative processes, and designed interventions during the virtual public talk titled "What's on Your Plate?" and held on March 19, 2021. Working with community partners and experts across disciplines, students shared the design principles used to explore a wide range of problems, including those faced by high schools, neighborhoods, and nations. As Keesa V. Johnson (MDes '21) put it during the panel discussion that closed the evening: "You can trace every inequity known to man to food."

On the Same Map

As Najwat Rehman (MDes '21) began examining ways to help improve food security in his native Pakistan, he started seeing gaps in the country's national strategy and myriad local efforts to do the same. Pakistan is considered highly vulnerable to the long-term impacts of climate change, including threats to its food security due to lower crop yields, decreased fish and milk production, and extreme weather events such as locust swarms.

While the government has called for greater collaboration amongst those addressing these issues, Rehman discovered a complex landscape of many different policies and actors that was difficult to navigate, even for those working within it. Through interviews and an online design charrette hosted in November 2020, Rehman and his partners uncovered several opportunities for design interventions to tackle specific problems. But he still felt like the bigger picture wasn't clear enough.

"Before we could jump in and do a 'design project,' we had to really understand the problem space better," Rehman said.

Working with an Islamabad-based food-security expert and a network of academics, researchers, and government officials situated around the world, Rehman used gigamapping -- a technique for laying out complex, sociotechnical systems -- to help visualize the current state of Pakistan's climate change and food security response, as well as what a better future might look like.

After three rounds of prototyping and a second online charrette held in March 2021, Rehman's interactive, searchable gigamaps were praised by participants for the way they revealed linkages and breakdowns between different stakeholders, while also working as an efficient reference guide for anyone new to Pakistan's climate and food security landscape.

In addition to learning how to conduct design field research completely online during a pandemic, Rehman said he also came to terms with the ambiguity that comes with working in integrative design.

"Designers sometimes tend to demonize complexity and try to fix it with simple solutions," Rehman said. "I realized complexity is important and learned to embrace it."

At the table

When Larrea Young (MDes '21) first asked a group of Ann Arbor High School students how they would improve their own school lunch experience, she didn't expect much.

"I had some preconceived notions," she said. "I thought maybe they wouldn't be interested at all or just say they wanted more pizza."

As she read their responses to her survey questions and entries in the food diary she'd given them, Young was shocked. Students expressed concerns about how their food impacted themselves, their community, and the planet and proposed ways to reduce social stigmas and create more inclusive environments. They offered technology solutions to better serve students with diet restrictions; cooking options for low-income students to prepare their own food from home; and ways to connect food with other interests, like gaming.

While the students in her sample gave overwhelming evidence that their ideas should be part of the conversation around food in schools, Young's followup research showed students largey felt like their opinions were often ignored.

She started thinking about how to give high school students a voice in designing an equitable and sustainable cafeteria, while also empowering them as change agents.

Working with Catherine Saldutti, founder and president of equity- and design-focused education consulting group EduChange, as well as other education officials, food service providers, and curriculum developers, Young worked to combine U-M Public Health Professor Marc Zimmerman's youth empowerment theory with groundwork laid by the nonprofit "Edible Schoolyard Project" and FoodCorps to develop a series of online workshops aimed at leading students through a hands-on experience into the design process to create their own visions for their school cafeteria.

After working through the process with a cohort of 20 students, Young came away with 14 goals for the ongoing co-creation process and a conviction that the work she started should continue. To keep the project going, Young developed The Lunch Club, a free online platform that leads students through the design process as they identify their values, explore and map their school's existing cafeteria, generate their own vision for it, and, finally, share that vision with others. Young hopes to have the platform ready for schools to pilot in the fall.

After spending two years exploring wicked problems, Young said her focus has shifted to designing tools like these for others to use.

"I could design a 'solution,' but it would be such a drop in the bucket," she said. "To have the impact I wanted to see, it became more about designing the tools others could then use to try to make change."

To your door

As new models of online grocery shopping, delivery, and distribution have become more widespread -- and profitable -- throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Keesa V. Johnson's (MDes '21) work focused on evaluating -- and ultimately designing -- online food systems for racial and social inclusion in two Michigan cities.

Working with Lansing's NorthWest Initiative, Johnson surveyed underserved residents living in apartment buildings in Lansing's urban core who already faced barriers to food access pre-pandemic about what an inclusive grocery delivery service might look like to them; one that was accessible to seniors of varying mobility and to those who depend on state benefit programs to purchase their food.

With a deliberate focus on learning the needs of residents, Johnson and her team connected with seniors via phone, enlarged survey cards for easy reading, and messaging in different languages and formats, including a graffiti board. She also did an experience prototype for 3 weeks of the online grocery delivery service to test out various touchpoints with the riverfront community.

"I had to understand what kind of foods they ate and why," Johnson said. "I didn't workshop the questions on my own. I worked with my community members to center my work on what their needs were."

After an initial pilot offering grocery delivery to one apartment building, the new Lansing Food Co op will eventually expand to offer free grocery delivery to four senior community apartment complexes and a community store.

In Detroit, Johnson partnered with D-Town Farm and Oakland Avenue Urban Farm to create an online marketplace to help keep the city's urban farmers and food producers connected to their customers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Through her research, including holding space with both farms, inventory mapping, expert interviews, customers surveys, and focus groups, Johnson helped develop an online food system with a mission of amplifying the positive values of Black-led Urban agriculture. In May 2021, Shop Detroit Farms will launch as an online food hub featuring more than10 Detroit urban farms and counting, including distribution to the Detroit Food Co-op.

By focusing on collaborative efforts to build their own food system, Johnson's work with her partners was centered on using black agrarian methodologies to help remove barriers not only for them, but for the greater Detroit urban farming community.

Or as she put it during the moving introduction to her talk: "A wall is just a wall and nothing more at all -- and it can be broken down."