How much do you value food?

Naomi’s tackling that question using a human-centered design approach

December 23, 2016

Naomi Lipke is an ideas person, a committed environmentalist, a participatory design advocate and a new entrepreneur. She is developing a food sharing app based on an idea conceptualized during the +Acumen course on Human-Centered Design, funded by the European Commission, which she hopes will reduce food waste but also bring people together.

“I was born in the U.S. in Northern Minnesota. My parents have a strong environmental ethic, and I lived around a lot of lakes and woods growing up. I went to Oberlin College, which had one of the first environmental study programs in the country, and I studied environmental studies as an undergraduate,” Naomi starts her story.

“After college, I thought I would  become an architect, but it turned out that I wasn’t as interested as I thought I was in the aesthetics of buildings, but more  in the environmental and energy efficiency aspects of designing them.” After a few jobs with building companies and a year of graduate school in architecture, Naomi started working as an environmental consultant on construction and building-related environmental projects.

In 2013 she followed her husband to Stockholm to start a master’s in Globalization, Environment and Social Change. “From architecture school, I was excited about participation as a means of making technology or urban planning more people-friendly, so I decided to write my thesis on participatory design.” And the capital of Sweden seemed like the perfect place to study that. “In Stockholm, there  was a strong focus on design-thinking, and that really appealed to me.”

During her research, Naomi investigated living labs in Europe, which are collaborations among organizations, businesses and government agencies that iteratively develop solutions, products or services. But the focus of participatory design seemed to be more about economic development and a scientific approach than democratic participation. “So you could say that once I finished my master thesis I was actually pretty cynical about the democratic aspect of participatory design. Nonetheless, I was still excited about it.”

With that in mind, Naomi set out to explore the possibilities of participatory design outside of the realm of academic research, and more in practice. This is when she found out about +Acumen’s Human-Centered Design (HCD) course. During the class, she developed the idea of a food-sharing app to reduce food waste, together with a group of peers. “That was the assigned task for the course and it was very much within my background and passion for environmental subjects. I had almost never worked directly or professionally with food before, but it was part of my knowledge base. So that made sense to me.”

“I'm a person who has lots of ideas, so the process of going through the HCD course really helped me bring an idea to a concrete end, one that I could use for a grant application.” Following the course, she applied for a grant from the European Commission Digital Earth Lab. Once the funding was secured, she joined the +Acumen Prototyping class to help her flesh out the idea further. The prototype for the app was submitted to the European Commission on September 30, 2016, and the app has since been launched on Google Play.

Feed my friends, as it’s called, allows people to post and see food items that others are willing to give away. It has a gamification element built in, which is a system of points and rewards to recognize active users. What motivated Naomi to build it has very much to do with the problem itself. According to the World Resources Institute, 22% of total food is wasted in Europe, 52% of which at the household level. This occurs while 79 million Europeans live below the poverty line and another 16 million rely on charitable organizations. Food is also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas production; if food waste were a country, it would have the third highest greenhouse gas emissions in the world, after China and the United States.

But the impact Naomi hopes she’ll achieve is more than just tackling food waste. “Ideally, the app will join people socially, as well as raise awareness for food waste which is extreme,” she explains. “I don't think the impact of something like this is measurable or quantifiable. If you go to other food sharing websites, they quantify the amount of food they’re able to save, say 6 million kilograms, which is impressive. But I think the real value is creating a network of people who are able to and want to support each other. It's also about giving people a greater sense of value for food.”

Developing the project wasn’t without hurdles or lessons learned. The +Acumen courses taught her how to always have the end users in mind and involve them throughout the entire process, and also gave her the tools to do that. “What took a lot of time and a lot of patience,” she adds, “was to find people  [the app developers] who were motivated to do this too, but I think it paid off in the end. I found them through, a community of food activists.”

+Acumen corps was another community that Naomi felt drawn to. “By joining +Acumen corps, I was hoping to find other people who were also committed to making a difference, particularly through social entrepreneurship and joint leadership.”

Since the launch of +Acumen corps in July 2016, Naomi has been active in building a circle of people interested in using gamification for social and environmental projects. “I'm hoping it will be a safe space. I come from the U.S. where climate change is a very contentious issue, and generally having a perspective in life where you're working not for yourself but for a higher value is also something that I feel I need to defend. So I think the +Acumen community is a safe space for people who want to have a life that is purpose-driven.”

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