From Grey to Green

Trisha Rathod
15 min readMay 17, 2021

The Growth of Southwark 2030

Introduction

Growing up obsessing over the possibilities of the future, I immersed myself in the pop culture world. With shows such as Phil of the Future, That’s So Raven, and Flashforward, I dreamt of being a part of a world where I could get a glimpse of my future. My main motivation to want this begins with the very core of being afraid of the consequences of my actions. How did I wish I knew whether the decisions I took yesterday are going to be the right ones in the future? The way I ignore my health on most days, all the tasks that I have been procrastinating, and the most important of all, the rate at which I consume things, more about food.

Being an avid meat-eater, I have had almost every climate advocate friend help me understand the consequences of my actions. But it was until I listened to the podcast, How to Save a Planet by Gimlet, when I truly understood the bigger picture. In an episode titled, The Beef with Beef, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson talks about how most of our natural resources are spent on nurturing the animals for our consumption and vast lands are occupied to grow food for the cows to graze on (Johnson et al. 2021). So this made me wonder, given the extent of our actions, will we ever have enough food to sustain us all? Or rather, how do we keep growing food for a population that won’t stop growing?

As a part of the MA Service Design course, we were introduced to our new unit, Design Futures. Driven by the need for actions for the prevalent climate emergency, my team, Chen Adler, Devika Sharma, Fianda Van Kuler, and I decided to tackle the issues of Circularity and Consumption of food in London borough of Southwark.

Methodology

As Service Designers we are more comfortable with the methodology of Design in Practice such as the Double Diamond, developed by the Design Council. It is a clear, comprehensive design process illustrated via a structure of four different phases — Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver by divergent and convergent thinking (Design Council, 2005). However, in this unit we witnessed a crossover — Service design meets Speculative design. Speculative critical thinking was a challenge for me in the beginning. Coming from a mindset of an industrial designer where it didn’t matter what I had dreamed of making, the design had to be practical in nature, I coped with the uncertainty that I felt while learning how to speculate.

In the book, Design Research through practice, Koskinen et al talk about how constructive designers don’t analyze the material world rather envision new realities and continue to iterate( Koskinen et al.,2013, pp. 51). After going through the suggested reading material I realized that as effective as the design in practice approach is, it is designed to tackle the smaller issues. Speculative design, as mentioned in the book, Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, thrives on imagination, broadens the scope to address the larger issues in society by acting as a catalyst and this is where things got interesting. (Dunne and Raby, 2013, pp 13)

A Possible Future? Where we’re going, we need a Preferable one!

During the initial briefing by the Southwark Council, we were introduced to their strategy for the Climate Emergency 2019 wherein they shared their desire to make the borough carbon neutral by 2030 (Southwark Council, 2021). The brief they shared stated,

How can future service and policy objects support behavior change towards more sustainable futures?

In the past our briefs have been fairly specific, asking us to design a service that could either make the life of the user or the service provider easy. However, while attending this briefing session, it honestly felt like we were working towards achieving a greater purpose instead of an outcome.

Horizon Scanning to understand the impact of Consumption in Southwark

With the brief in mind, we reflected upon how our chosen area of focus, Food Consumption, and Circularity in Southwark could help bring a Carbon Neutral Southwark to life. We used the method of Horizon scanning to explore the importance of food consumption in the borough. This exercise helped us map the surrounding issues of social justice in food, the individualism of consumption, ignorance of health and nutrition and briefly touched upon the predictions of food scarcity in the future. Looking back, I now realize that a lot of decisions we took as a team was also inherently to match with the strategy of the Council such as rekindling the bond of the residents with nature by teaching them how to grow their own food and identifying land that can be used for food production.

To build our preferable sustainable future, we immersed ourselves in research, hoping to learn from our mistakes of the past. We live in a world where almost a billion of us are malnourished and deprived of basic nutrition. It is predicted that the global population will rise up to 9 billion by 2050 which may result in a drastic increase in food requirement by 60% to 100% ( Food Matters, no date). Taking over even more land from rainforests and savannahs than we already do, in order to evacuate and grow, and for me, this was my introduction to a dystopian future and I was certainly not thrilled by it.

Back to the Future or Blast from the Past?

As practical service designers, we could see pockets of behavior change interventions but not strong enough to create that impact. However, as speculative service designers, looking at the bigger picture, we asked ourselves, What can we do to make the world see this as a priority?

In the Climate Strategy report drafted by the Southwark Council, there were indications of food insecurity in the borough. Over 75000 residents in the borough are food insecure (Southwark Council, 2020, pp 12) and with the UK importing almost 40% of its food, most of the residents have to spend over 42% of their total income on basic food consumption. (Office for National Statistics, 2019) Our research also dictated that the UK is only 18% self-reliant in growing fresh fruits and a part of it could be because in a borough as big as Southwark (Sandercock, 2021) there are only 18 allotments available to the residents to grow food locally accompanied by a waitlist of 2–3 years (Southwark Council, 2021)

So we reminded ourselves of a time when growing food was a means of defining the culture of the community and as we leaped forward, we asked ourselves, could food growing be the ultimate form of rescue from this insecurity and future food scarcity?

We have to do the hard work of moving from a transactional, colonial, and capitalist model of feeding ourselves to a relational model of feeding and caring for each other.” (Uyeda, 2020)

In one of the articles that spoke highly of building resilience in the community through growing, we came across an interesting case study. Annanya Jones, a farmer, educator, and community organizer from Pennsylvania noticed that in her community the food options were limited to local stores that sold low-quality and spoiled produce. Consequently, in 2015, she started the Sankofa Village Community Garden that provides education about gardening and community programs to not only teach people how to grow food but also to help them address food as an emotive experience. She believed that teaching communities to grow food will help them become self-sufficient. (Uyeda, 2020)

As Service designers our first approach would be to devise a How Might We statement to define our focus, but this time, with a new role in place, we speculated using the term, ‘What If?’ and we asked ourselves,

What if we could empower the local community to grow their own produce in a sustainable and accessible manner?

Welcome to Southwark 2030

The future service proposition

Presenting, the Green Patch! An initiative to make food growing accessible. We created a brand that is adaptable, easily scalable, and inclusive. To become a part of this, any Southwark resident can choose a Grey abandoned space they would like to transform and convert into a Green Sustainable Patch with the help of skill-sharing initiatives by the local Community Gardens and gardening enthusiasts. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it took us weeks to get that story down into one single sentence.

From a GREY SPACE in the neighbourhood,
To a GREEN PATCH, growing produce and driving community engagement!

Each time we tried to imagine a world where people are growing food, we came across multiple contradictions. From lack of skill to unawareness of space, technical know-how of maintaining crops, and the most important of all, Gardening being a privilege.

One of our provocations hinted towards the community coming together to grow food, maintain these patches, and ultimately harvest them to provide to the food banks in the local area. But the challenges in the system baffled us. We couldn’t guarantee that the produce grown would be sufficient for everyone and with that said we wondered about the impact on the local businesses in the area as well. But with effective guidance from our tutors, we finally understood the potential of our idea. It was in our nature as methodical service designers to chase after every fiber and being of this concept, detail it down to its specifics. All we need to do through this speculation is, Start a conversation about growing food locally!

And that is exactly what we did. Applying research through design we took our artefacts to the streets, quite literally, and stirred up conversations around the act of growing.

Something’s gotta be done about those artefacts, Marty!

A reflection on Learning by Doing

Keeping Farming at the heart of our service, we decided to explore various modes of conversation through our multimedia artefacts. With careful analysis of the reactions of the people we approached and their predictions, we improved upon them gradually. One of the challenges we faced while communicating our story to our stakeholders was making it sound believable and not delusional. Asking everyone to imagine a world where food scarcity is driving the decisions can be daunting, especially for individuals who are concerned about the ‘now’ of growing plants. Our savior from another planet were our artefacts. The tangible aspect of the artefact helped us use them as a communication medium to engage in relatable conversations.

Artefact #1: The 15 Minute Growing Borough

A Manifesto (left) and Map showing areas of food growing (right) for new residents in Southwark

Needless to say, for our first diegetic object, we envisioned Southwark as a 15-minute growing borough where residents were expected to grow their own food in their areas of residence. We attempted to also address the need for Food tourism in Southwark and developed a map to convey the type of food grown in each area of the borough.

A scaled-down model of a 15 minute Borough

By means to address the circularity in our concept, we considered that the food grown in these residential areas could be shared with the Foodbank but this was the moment where we felt that we had finally overcomplicated things.

The Learning

The 15-minute borough would not function as intended if each community grew a different kind of crop. We also realized that most of the homes don’t have an accessible area for growing, inclusivity became a cause for concern.

Meeting with Peter Balazs from Tabard Growers to show our artefact.

But this was our understanding through the research that we conducted. We decided to further test it with an expert grower, Peter Balazs from Tabard Growers. We conveyed our idea through a series of very raw artefacts. We realized that we needed to simplify our story to make it more digestible. But as unsure as we were about our idea, the presence of that prototype helped convey our understanding to Peter and he shared that most of the people who participate in community gardening are not always the ones who are willing to give as much as they get. He talked about how people only care about their own assigned allotment beds and ignore the maintenance of other shared spaces and equipment.

So we adjusted our course and wondered, what if we could teach the residents to grow food together?

Artefact #2: The Growing Kits

For our second attempt, we simplified the artefact. We considered Growing kits that could provide the residents with all the instructions they need to grow food. The kit included a map of the borough, some seeds, instructions on how to garden, some tools, and potentially some soil for the first patch.

Growing kits to help residents grow

For our second kit, we also considered the Southwark Foodbank as a touchpoint whereby the food kit distributed to the residents could contain a pack of seeds to start their first patch. But as a team, we could sense that we were force-fitting the aspect of food banks simply to address the social justice aspect within our solution.

The Learning

Meeting with expert growers ( Vanessa & Malcolm) at John Evelyn Community Garden

We took our kits to the streets again and this time to Vanessa and Malcolm, expert growers at John Evelyn Community garden. Our first growing kit raised more questions than it solved. The story was clear, but the intention of the artifact was not. The aspect of it being a kit given to every resident in the community raised the problem surrounding individualism. Instead of bringing people together to farm, it was creating more distance. We also realized the mere presence of food in our second Growing kit turned our dialogue around from easy growing of food to stigmatizing the access of the food kit.

Yet again we decided to refocus, go back to the drawing board to figure out the crux of this service and the elements that can help convey that.

Artefact #3: The Green Patches

It was a moment of lost hope. With each direction we took, we kept failing but it was important to not give up, just yet! For the final attempt, we decided to focus on the elements that could help us convey the impact to the people. Our tutors encouraged us to take an element of our first artefact — the growing map and convey the impact through it. They also appreciated the renders we created to visually depict the transformation of the spaces.

A variety of Green Patches : Future of Southwark 2030

‘Show, Don’t Tell!’ was the motto we learned and the motto we followed till the end!

The impact of Green Patch on Southwark: Future of Southwark 2030

People are visual in nature so we decided to engage with them using simply the images of our renders to show the before and after of the spaces and a map blooming with green patches all over!

The Learning

Sharing our provocation with Ren Piercey from Good to Grow ( Sustain)

To validate our final attempt we approached Ren Piercey from an organization called Sustain. One of their ventures, Good to Grow had attempted to share a very similar approach of engaging people to grow through an interactive map. (Sustain, 2021) We approached this as an opportunity to build on an existing service. Even though this interaction was online, that one simple gif showcasing the green patches on the map, had conveyed our impact successfully.

This was a learning moment for me. Coming from a product design background, I have always taken physical prototypes as a means to express the manufacturing feasibility or at the most to convey the aesthetics of the product. But for the first time, I felt that I had judged the very nature of artefacts. Whether they are physical or digital in nature, the ultimate aim is to convey the impact, support the story and be iterative in nature. I slowly started to recognize the purpose of this project. To start a conversation about the future, to see what potential it holds and not build it with stone and rubble and make it permanent but to keep it fluid.

“The role of the expert is often, not to prevent the impossible, but to make it acceptable.” (Dunne & Raby, 2013, pp. 4)

But that didn’t mean that it was done and dusted for us. We presented our final service concept and policy objects to the Southwark council and our classmates. We received some assurance about the alignment of our idea with that of the plans of the council. However, a few queries surrounding the logistics of the operation especially surrounding the access to water, regular maintenance, and prolonged motivation of the residents came into question.

As we reflected upon them, we realized how we intended to democratize the act of growing, it was about giving it the first push. Maybe tomorrow, we may not have enough produce for everyone in the community, but what we aimed to do was inculcate the value of growing on your own instead of always being dependable on others. In the words of Marty McFly from the Back to the Future Part 1,

“I guess we aren’t ready for this yet. But our kids are gonna love it!” ( Back to the Future, 1985)

Make like a tree and bloom!

Team and Self Reflection

As I walked into this unit, hopeful of the learning and the experience I never imagined that I would bond with my teammates not over coffee, but the vastness of speculation. In a team with diverse cultures, we all shared a different understanding of Speculative critical thinking. Half of my team was familiar with the concept and they pushed me to ease into this new way of thinking. We stormed, normed, and brainstormed, and the journey of working with them online and offline has been memorable.

Hybrid (online and offline) working with my team

With every turn we took in the project, I felt scared and lost, the uncertainty got to me but something that kept me going is the motivation of my teammates. It was a complex process and learning to detach from our ideas was the most challenging part, but at the same time, it was the most important lesson to learn. To let go, to start over, to try again tomorrow!

Volunteering at John Evelyn Community Garden

One of the greatest takeaways from this project has also been a personal reflection of my own skills. I combined the two fears of my life to see what I could gain out of it — Gardening and Speculation. Known as a certified plant killer by my friends, this posed a challenge to me at first, but as a team, we volunteered at the John Evelyn Community Garden, in an attempt to give back to the community. What started as a Sunday interview with an expert grower, turned out to be the inspiration I needed to regain a connection with nature that was deemed lost especially amidst this pandemic. Gardening is an act of fulfillment which for me now is a hobby in the making.

Looking back, I started this journey with a Grey thought of confusion surrounding the act of speculation but progressing with the support of teammates, tutors, and learning by doing only helped me become Greener by the understanding of it.

References

Back to the Future (1985) Directed by Robert Zemeckis [Feature Film] New York : Universal Pictures

Design Council. (2005) What is the framework for innovation? Design council’s evolved double Diamond. Available at: https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/what-framework-innovation-design-councils-evolved-double-diamond (Accessed: 26th March 2021)

Dunne, A., Raby, F. (2013) Speculative everything design, fiction, and social dreaming. United States of America. pp. 13

Dunne, A., Raby, F. (2013) Speculative everything design, fiction, and social dreaming. United States of America. pp. 4

Food Matters (no date) Is there Enough Food for the Future? Available at : http://www.environmentreports.com/enough-food-for-the-future/#section2 ( Accessed : 9th April 2021)

Johnson, A. E., Blumberg, A. (2021) The Beef with Beef [Podcast] 25 March. Available at : https://gimletmedia.com/shows/howtosaveaplanet/94hrd52 (Accessed : 7th April 2021)

Koskinen et al. (2013) Design Research Through Practice from the Lab. Elsevier inc. pp 51.

Office for National Statistics (2019) Family spending in the UK: April 2018 to March 2019. Available at : https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/expenditure/bulletins/familyspendingintheuk/april2018tomarch2019#:~:text=Spending%20on%20food%20and%20housing,those%20in%20the%20top%20decile. (Accessed : 23th April 2021)

Sandercock, H. (2021) How can the UK be more self-sufficient in food? Available at : https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/sourcing/how-can-the-uk-be-more-self-sufficient-in-food/653103.article (Accessed : 2nd May 2021)

Southwark Council (2021) Climate Emergency Available at : https://www.southwark.gov.uk/environment/climate-emergency?displaypref=large&chapter=2#:~:text=The%20climate%20emergency%20declaration%20was,neutral%20by%202050%20to%202030. ( Accessed : 23rd March 2021)

Southwark Council (2021) Gardening, growing and conservation. Available at : https://www.southwark.gov.uk/parks-and-open-spaces/gardening-growing-and-conservation?chapter=2 (Accessed : 5th May 2021)

Southwark Council (2020) Tackling the Climate Emergency Together. Available at : https://moderngov.southwark.gov.uk/documents/s89802/Appendix%201%20Climate%20strategy.pdf (Accessed : 20th March 2021)

Sustain (2021) The place to find and volunteer for community gardens in Southwark. Available at: https://www.goodtogrowuk.org/map/southwark/ (Accessed : 12th May 2021)

Uyeda, R. L. (2020) What’s in a Social Justice Diet? Available at: https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/coronavirus-community-power/2020/05/11/whats-in-a-social-justice-diet ( Accessed : 10th May 2021)

This blog is a reflection of my learnings and experience of working during the Design Futures Unit in MA Service Design at the University of the Arts London.

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