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Employing Service Design and Systems Thinking Approaches as tools to support collaboration across a multi-stakeholder initiative: the responsible food consumption exemplar

Format: Papers, RSD6, Topic: Cases & Practice

Jenny Darzentas, Helen Petrie, John Darzentas

The application of Systems Thinking to support design interventions in challenging situations that are characterised as being highly complex and human-centric is the subject of this paper. Such situations are increasingly acknowledged as major design problem spaces requiring the participation of multiple stakeholders and use of inter-disciplinary thinking tools.

The situation of interest concerns an inter-disciplinary project in the area of food security that concerns many stakeholders. The project aims to develop a deeper understanding by researchers from many disciplines of issues throughout the food supply chain (“from farm to plate”) in order to inform policy and to design innovative services for farmers, retailers and consumers to improve resilience in the supply chain. This is an ambitious set of aims in a project with a very open structure that yet still needs to be accountable. This means that the project needs to set and meet its own success criteria, when it is not clear:

what opportunities may emerge
what collaborations across disciplines are feasible
whether the results that are currently envisaged will actually emerge
One possibility, as happens with many inter-disciplinary projects, is that the numerous subprojects within the project will be successful in their own spheres, but these subprojects will not be able to integrate sufficiently to maintain

The authors propose to support the governance of this situation by introducing a Service Design perspective that utilises Systems Thinking.

The situation is complex because it is inherently human-centred. The idea has been presented to the researchers in the initiative in terms of the value of adopting a shared perspective to their work. Such a shared perspective can be based on two parts. One is engaging the power of the metaphor of service design. The other is providing a shared understanding of the initiative using Systems Thinking. That is to acknowledge the problem space as a system, although the research is organized into specific subprojects. A shared understanding expressed in systemic terms enables researchers to appreciate aspects such as:

identifying as many stakeholder groups as possible
the situation being amenable to design interventions
the rich interdependencies that are present in a systemic view, and that the approach of an assemblage of subprojects may not readily apprehend
the necessity of negotiating and creating a collective understanding
that there will be outcomes, both favourable and not so favourable, that cannot have been foreseen at the outset (and that these are the result of the system’s emergent properties)
what systemic notions such as ‘requisite variety’, of ‘self-organisation’, ‘social attractors’, and ‘self-reference’ may mean and what they may offer in this design space.
Adopting the systemic perspective does more than give a shared view, it also gives a shared vocabulary with which to label developments, or to actively seek outcomes. It legitimises the need to network and to spend time on areas where one is not considered an expert, to acquire new knowledge and understanding and learn new ways of approaching complex situations. As a result it is possible to begin to break down the conventions and cultures that sustain working in siloes with peers and although having mutual appreciation of each other’s work, there is most oftenlittle time or incentive to look ‘over the fence’ into another disciplinary area, or way of doing things.

The specific aspect of the project we will describe here is that of designing services to support consumers to make sustainable food choices that promote wellbeing for both people and planet. This work recognises that stakeholders are traditionally independent actors with their own individual understandings of the food sustainability issue. The task is not to adopt a common vision, but to find ways to work within a similar interpretation of the situation and to establish what needs to be done, that is comfortable and worthwhile for each stakeholder. It is commonly acknowledged that it is difficult to move towards some flexibility in previously held ideas and interpretations of a vision, and if not review them, at least lay them open to scrutiny by others. Our fieldwork so far has made use of the co-creating service design paradigm, as a robust means to engage stakeholders and work towards a shared systems-based perspective.

In this paper, we describe the work of part of an inter-disciplinary project that involves experts from many disciplines including computer science, human-computer interaction (HCI), management, politics, environmental studies, economics, psychology and epidemiology. It also includes representatives in the various stages in the food supply chain such as food producers (e.g. farmers), distributors (e.g. retailers and supermarkets), and consumers. The overarching aim of the project is to leverage the work of various stakeholder groups involved in food production and distribution as well as consumption to promote understandings of sustainability, and of resilience in food chains against the background of food security, a problem of global proportions. There are many complex issues in promoting responsible food consumption. Very often these issues are conflicting: consumers ask themselves whether they should purchase goods from remote regions of the world, in order to support farmers in less resourced countries; or should they purchase from local farmers, and also save on foodmiles?[1] Another issue is how can consumers access information about sustainability at the point of purchase and how consumer information can be trustworthy, and sensitive to particular cultures and dietary regimes. These issues require understandings of many bodies of knowledge from different disciplines, such as consumer behaviour, knowledge about food security and responsible food consumption. Such issues are so complex that researchers are still trying to understand them themselves.

The initial aims of the researchers were threefold: a) to understand the aims of the food security project and see what technological interventions might support responsible consumer behaviour and how these should be designed so as to be valued by users (that is be easy to learn and use) (the work of the HCI and psychology researchers); b) to understand what particular facets of responsible consumer behaviour should be promoted (the work of the food security researchers); and c) to investigate how best to support this team, and other such projects, in their endeavours (the work of the Systemic Design researchers).

From our point of view, our design problem space is also that where stakeholders are working independently, while contributing to the large vision, in their own unique ways. We have a sense that although various groups involved might disband and go their separate ways once this project was over, the experience was already spawning interests that could be developed further by individuals, as well as inspiring others to join them to form new communities. This means that design interventions can look towards these outcomes too.

What is of interest to the systemic design community is the use of systems thinking to learn, understand and ‘capture a Holon’ which includes these stakeholder communities. That way, amongst other things, the motivations of the stakeholders may be uncovered. As a result, it should be possible to map these to form new directions, or to give voice to previously unexpressed aims and interests. For example, HCI researchers working with consumers have come up with a list of situations and features that they feel would encourage responsible consumer behaviour both in the supermarket and in the home.

In the home they are investigating methods to support the reduction of food waste. It is already known that much food purchased is subsequently thrown away. There are a variety of reasons for this, including because the food is past its ‘use-by-date’ (although sometimes the food is still edible); because consumers do not know what to do with it, and are not sure how long it is safe to keep it; and because consumers do not know how to prepare it. Thus one feature that is felt to be helpful is some way for notifying consumers about what food they have that is approaching its ‘use-by-date’: that way food would not get overlooked in the fridge or cupboard and subsequently be thrown out. Another feature is to suggest menus based on food that is coming up to the ‘use-by-date’ to encourage consumers to make use of food that they already have. Work by Sainsbury’s, a supermarket in the UK with a commitment to reducing food waste, found that many people are not knowledgeable about food preparation[2]. Another group (CanCook), working to find ways to deal with food poverty, notes that many people have very basic cooking equipment, as well as difficulties in storing fresh food[3].

It is with such a set of ideas that the design interventions will go forward to help to implement some of these features. Accordingly, technological support can be designed to be multi-purposed, serving both some of the soft, but extremely important, objectives (e.g. developing successful working partnerships between local people, supermarkets, local farmers and producers) while implementing clearer ‘hard’ goals (e.g. technological support to try to help reduce food wastage).

Going back to the theme of collaboration in multi-stakeholder initiatives, this project serves as an exemplar for other similar projects. In systemic terms, the project has, through the interests of the stakeholders, recognised, amongst other things, emerging themes and properties in their world:

consumers, retailers and producers who are linked in a food supply chain, but who as groups of individuals themselves have many other co-existing interests and motivations
researchers, coming from different disciplines, also with differing expectations about methodologies and end goals.
Collaborating together to articulate the larger vision has raised the work from being simply technological support, to understanding the many possible ways forward. The next step is to formulate ways to move the larger vision into design interventions, inspired by the paradigm of service design (i.e. services are the main output, whether these are delivered with technological support or via other means). For this, the boundaries, interrelationships and functions of each of the directions to be taken need to be articulated, in order to understand where the interdependencies lie, and how some features may affect interrelationships. For instance, a mobile app to provide on-the-spot advice may obviate food purchases that could be wasted. However, this could mean that gifts of food that are part of culture or opportunistic food purchases that are part of many consumers enjoyment when out shopping, will not be catered for.

The expectation is, that if each one of the projects is able to report back, not just on the implementations they have developed, but on the results expressed in systemic terms (boundaries examined, elements considered, interrelationships revealed, and functions (or activities) existing or desired), then there is a possibility to mutually understand concepts and potentially identify common findings, in order to create and maintain collaboration that is both initiative-wide and of strong practical use.

Acknowledgements: We thank the IKNOWFOOD research project

[1] Foodmiles: a mile over which a food item is transported during the journey from producer to consumer, as a approximate unit of measurement of the fuel used to transport it.

[2] Sainsbury’s:





Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2017
Title: Employing Service Design and Systems Thinking Approaches as tools to support collaboration across a multi-stakeholder initiative: the responsible food consumption exemplar
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 12 October 2017
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