A two-step method for shaping the future of food systems

IFSTAL alum Paula Almiron reflects on the IFSTAL approach to building resilience in food systems.

The annual IFSTAL Summer School – usually characterised by an intense week of food systems exchange, workplace inspiration and project practice – is the highlight of the programme. This year, as plans changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we met virtually in front of our screens for the 2020 Summer School.

The upturn of the food systems iceberg 

Due to the pandemic, availability of food – normally assumed by the general public to be accessible and always on supermarket shelves – was deconstructed, as each stage of the process of getting food to our plates was the subject of discussion. The food system was in the spotlight and emerged as an iceberg with constitutive conflicts in food production, food security and distribution (highlighting access to food in nations such as the UK), food fraud, and food labour.

The crisis highlighted the fundamental role food systems play in citizens’ lives. It also underlined the ‘wicked problems’ that are inherent in food systems. These arise due to the number of actors, their perspectives and political and economic interests as well as the global nature of food production.

The upturn of the food system iceberg revealed the important role played by ‘invisible’ food professionals, from the designers of processes and food producers to retail workers, and revealed systemic racism (especially with BIPOC minorities and migrant workers). The pandemic exposed how minorities are at the gastronomic frontline – in restaurants and bars, preparing and delivering dishes; they can also be vulnerable in food production, e.g. in agriculture as well as in factories.

Critical interdisciplinary thinking, considering broad political, economic, social, cultural and environmental actors and contexts, and soft skills are mandatory to act on food systems problems. Developing these skills is at the core of the IFSTAL programme. In the following paragraphs, I will share IFSTAL’s two-step actions to shape the future of food systems and build resiliency.

STEP 1. Putting soft skills at the core of solving complex food systems problems

The practice of uniting multiple perspectives in a single dialogue contributes to the development of a bigger, more inclusive picture. It is also a more effective way in the mid and long term to solve food problems. The IFSTAL programme promotes a common language, surrounded by soft skills, which include: 

  • value and respect for other voices in the team
  • comprehension and appreciation of diverse backgrounds (professional, and also cultural)
  • active listening
  • communicating prolifically, setting a common language to reassure understanding and enriching interchanges.

These team skills are accompanied, and heightened, by a perspective in which all actors, or as many as possible, should be heard, and integrated into the proposed actions. Hence, deep listening occurs firstly inside of the team which designs and leads the action; and, secondly, during the co-creation with the stakeholders and other actors involved (from beneficiaries to owners of a specific food systems problem).

This approach supplements diverse parts of the bigger picture, and the dialogues in between partially show the connections within the actors involved. This perspective sheds light on social groups which might otherwise remain invisible, when tackling food system challenges, for example, immigrant workers or minorities.

STEP 2. Systems Thinking Methodology

Aside from soft skills, the IFSTAL programme operates on a set of methodological tools framed in systems thinking.

  • BATWOVE, which includes all the actors involved (Beneficiaries, Actors, Transformation, Worldview, Owners, Victims, and Environmental constraints).
  • Theory of Change which connects the objective of the intervention with its preconditions, and promotes a reflection on the analyst’s assumptions and biases, as well as the inclusion of measurable indicators.
  • The rich picture, which exposes the complexity of food systems and fosters the investigators’ creativity.
  • The three horizons, which help to design leap forward innovation departing from the current conditions. 

By moving into different careers after completing the programme, IFSTAL participants integrate their broader perspectives in diverse work environments and create a picture that links all problematic aspects and individuals.

Spreading the knowledge about systems thinking and valuable teamwork skills across countries and domains will provide others with the opportunity to enrich their perspectives and actions, and enable them to create positive changes within the food system, now and in the future.

About the author

Dr Paula Almiron is a Researcher in Sensory and Consumer Science and an IFSTAL Alum. She holds a doctorate in Communication and Marketing applied to E-commerce. She combines methodologies from social sciences, consumer psychology, systems thinking, and neuromarketing to impact consumer behaviour and food systems.

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Image: CC BY-3.0-ES 2012 / EJ-GV / Irekia-Gobierno Basque / Mikel Arrazola