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IDEO’s Approach to Designing a Better Food System

“Our purpose is to use design thinking to drive the food system towards more sustainable change.”

—Lynda Deakin

In the latest Creative Confidence Series chat, Lynda Deakin, Managing Director of IDEO’s Design for Food studio, joined Suz to chat about ways design can enable system-wide change in the food industry. As Lynda answered live questions from our community, she touched on themes from food waste to the changing retail environment, to why it’s important to work with big food companies. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Unlikely Partners

How do you think about creating positive impact given the diversity of the industry?

The studio’s purpose is to use design thinking to drive the food system towards more sustainable change. When you’re thinking about consumers, it’s about helping them make better decisions about their food behaviors. On the flip side, when you’re working with larger organizations, it’s important to remember that companies are made up of humans. How can we light a fire inside their bellies so they ask themselves bigger questions and start to make important changes from within? 

As Lynda points out, we’re all thinking about global food issues—water usage, land usage, traditional industrial agriculture, climate change, obesity, food waste—from different perspectives. But no matter how different the playing fields feel, we’re ultimately working in the same system towards the same goal. Instead of leaving anyone out of the conversation, it’s about adjusting the design process to include varying perspectives in order to collaborate and work towards positive change together. 

Transforming Food at Scale

Ideas to Action course.

Is it easier to affect change working with a startup, or inside a big company? This question gets at the heart of the Design for Food studio’s mission:

The studio’s approach has been to tackle change from both sides. As Lynda points out, large food companies can scale up quickly and affect change in a bigger, faster way than startups. Meanwhile, in the startup world, there are a lot of passionate, excited founders who really care about sustainable, healthy food and are leading the way in rethinking our food system for the better.

The tricky part of working with big companies is that they have ingrained processes that can be hard to break. To help free bigger clients from more rigid mindsets, IDEO has asked companies to look beyond quarterly launches to five, 10, 15 years out. They’ve also relied on analogous experiences to help spur new kinds of thinking.

For example, in a recent project, IDEO brought a Big Beverage client to a company that makes charging stations for electric cars and asked about changes the company didn’t see coming. The big one? Consumers don’t want to make a trip to a standalone charging station—they want to do it as they grocery shop or stop by the pharmacy. The company had to design for new behaviors—not the old gas station model. If you’re trying to design for the future, don’t design for behaviors that are happening now. Design for behaviors that are emerging, that are going to be new behaviors.  “All of a sudden, our client had a fire in her belly,” Lynda says. Instead of thinking in terms of quarterly launches, she was thinking in terms of seismic change.

It’s just as important to design for the people inside the company as it is for the consumers on the outside. It’s one way to help static brands evolve over time.



“If you’re trying to design for the future, don’t design for behaviors that are happening now. Design for behaviors that are emerging, that are going to be new behaviors.”



Break Down Silos

Why is it so hard to make fast food that’s cheap, healthy, and good?

A lot of it is scale. Huge companies can afford to charge 99 cents for a taco. The cost consumers are paying is not the real cost of food. Meanwhile, smaller fast food chains that are charging more for better food need a fan base that will pay their prices.

As Lynda points out, it’s a piece of a bigger problem: It feels as though we’ve been moving toward a bifurcated food system where those with a lot of money can afford good food, and those without can’t. There are a lot of companies addressing the needs of the higher price point consumer, and not many addressing the needs of the lower price point consumer.

To keep that from happening, we need to break down silos and create partnerships between combinations of organizations, like policymakers, farmers, big companies, and startups. How could we leverage a public-private partnership to create healthy, cheap food options?



Unify Food and Health

“People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health—and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”

–Wendell Berry

Lynda discussed the disconnect between the food and health industries and how IDEO’s Design for Food team has evolved to think of food as medicine. As part of this shift, they’ve considered mashups that can help get nutritious food to those who can’t afford or access it. What would it look like if a food bank partnered with UberEATS? How can we get good food into communities that are food deserts? One notion they’ve come up with is the idea of building a food pharmacy, perhaps combined with a food bank, where people can come to learn more about food, and take a cooking class and develop their skill sets.



“People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health—and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”



Foster Culinary Confidence

That concept also ties into the idea of fostering culinary confidence. One big area of focus for the Design for Food team is helping people get back in the kitchen, and giving them the tools to feel confident cooking and understand where their food comes from. One idea for growing culinary confidence could be to design a cafeteria experience that educates kids about the food they’re putting on their plates.

On the flip side, in a recent project, IDEO’s Design for Food team worked with Revolution Foods to see how they could evolve their business beyond their core offering of healthy school lunches. What they found is that there was a whole other group that needed help getting healthy meals on the table—teachers. By developing nutritious, deliverable meal kits, they found a way to expand Revolution’s core offering, and make sure teachers had fresh, healthy food, too.

Interested in learning more about IDEO’s Design for Food studio’s work, check out this collection of food innovation stories.


 

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