Exploring system complexity: Workshops 1 and 2

With Year 5 now firmly underway, IFSTAL Education Coordinator Saher Hasnain reflects on the first two workshops.

Workshop 1 at SOAS, London brought together the diverse array of students from the Year 5 cohort for the first time. The focus of the workshop was on using a Rich Picture to examine the complexity and interconnections underlying food system issues. Presented with the various ingredients of a burger, each group focused their attention on one item.

The activity resulted in a fantastic set of rich pictures, each presenting the food system that had produced the ingredient in question. The drawing of the pictures spurred discussions around environmental consequences of food system activities, issues of equity and fairness, and the multiple systems that the food system interacted with. The fact that the IFSTAL participants brought with them a range of experiences and expertise added a great deal of richness to the discussions.


The exercise demonstrated the need to bring multiple perspectives to the table, particularly in the early stages of solving food system problems. Issues of power and agency, drawing of boundaries, and granularity of the problems were discussed in detail.

IFSTAL Education Coordinators (ECs) Louise Whatford and Niko Dadios shared their experiences of using the rich pictures and similar exercises in their own work and showed their value, specially at a pre-analysis stage.

IFSTAL participants then had the opportunity of engaging with workplace speakers Alan Hayes (IGD), Philip Turvil (Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew), Rosemary Collier (University of Warwick), and Heather Alford (Defra). The roundtable discussions allowed for the consideration of career advice in the food area, the role of consumers in food systems, ‘big’ companies and sustainability, food waste and value chain management, methods of instilling change in companies, the future of farming, and the necessity of collaboration. This session created a useful scaffold for the content of the second unit and workshop.

An exercise to show the challenges around communication

Workshop 2 took place at the University of Oxford and focused on the need for effective communication in solving food system problems. Interactive exercises demonstrated how underlying assumptions, technical jargon, language differences, and perspectives all shape how messages are communicated. During lunch, the participants had the opportunity to have an unstructured discussion with members of the IFSTAL team. The key activity of the day involved completing a ‘BATWOVE’ exercise focused on a specific environmental intervention around climate change and ruminants. An added challenge was to communicate the intervention and its affected stakeholders using the principles learned during the day. Each group tackled the exercise positioned from different worldviews.

With two packed IFSTAL workshops under our belts, bolstered by the excellent Public Lecture by Sue Pritchard, we are keenly looking forward to 2020!