Co-designing a Sustainable Food Justice System with Blockchain Futures

Prototyping more-than-human values for the food commons with urban agricultural communities

Project Team

Sara Heitlinger, Lecturer in Computer Science, City, University of London


Alex Taylor, City, University of London 

Lara Houston, City, University of London 

Supporting Partner(s)   

Spitalfields City Farm

Ruth Catlow – Furtherfield

Gaia Foundation

Project timeframe

Start: September 2019 
End: April 2020

Focusing on human benefit drives unsustainability

Intensive agricultural production has failed to acknowledge the ways in which humans and other species are interdependent, and has contributed to degraded soils, polluted waterways, the loss of crop diversity and mass extinctions, ultimately threatening food security for all life on the planet.

‘Nonhuman actors’ – such as plants, animals and soil – are being exploited to the point of extinction. We need to find ways of redistributing value and power to them in order to restore balance.

Technological innovations can make existing imbalances within the food system worse. For example, genetic modification (GM) can lead to seed patenting which profits multinationals by displacing locally-grown and adapted crop varieties and making farmers dependent, sometimes with devastating consequences (e.g. farmer suicides in India).

Can we use new algorithmic infrastructures in order to create more sustainable and just food systems?  

This project aims to …

… understand how algorithms play into the production and distribution of food and will explore the possibilities for more sustainable and just ways to achieve food sovereignty and security.  

Specifically it will …

… conduct an exploratory pilot project with urban agricultural communities in London involving a series of co-design workshops. The project will experiment with alternative configurations of humans and non-humans such as plants, animals and soil, as well as technologies and their infrastructures, with a view to distributing control of resources more evenly and promoting autonomy.

An algorithmic approach to creating a sustainable food justice system using blockchain will be explored in a cross-disciplinary approach, drawing on methods from art and design, science and technology studies (STS) and computer science.

Three clearly defined justice problems as well as incentives to solve them have been identified, and they could all have algorithmic solutions:

  1. The need to develop a more-than-human value system in order to in recognise the interdependency of humans and non-humans (such as soil, other species, water, microorganisms etc.).
  2. The need to find a way to sustain the food commons in order to create food sovereignty and manage resources more equitably for the benefit of low income, ethnically diverse communities, rather than corporations and monopolies.
  3. The need to ensure that the algorithmic approach is inclusive - for example to small-scale famers – to avoid intensifying digital exclusions and inequalities. 

To meet these aims, the project will use an inclusive speculative participatory design approach that the researchers have developed, tested and synthesised. Blockchain will be used as it has the potential to embed the interests of non-humans into algorithmic systems and create new value systems, leading to radical regulation and redistribution of power.  

This project’s social impact is …

The project builds on prior successful partnerships with urban agricultural communities in London, to work with people from low-economic and culturally diverse backgrounds, who may be out of full-time employment. 

It will contribute to social impact through a more sustainable food justice system. A novel method of inclusive engagement with blockchain will be developed and tested with diverse urban growers and capacity will be built within the community for economic resilience in ways that are more nourishing to each other and the earth.   

Expected outcomes include: 

  1. Specifications for a more-than-human value system  
  2. New understandings of how to sustain the food commons  
  3. Prototypes for blockchain-based solutions
  4. A new method for co-designing blockchain to incorporate inclusivity  
  5. Implications for designing algorithmic solutions to sustainable food justice futures including best practice for engaging diverse citizens  

It is innovative because …

It applies the treatment of algorithmic justice to a novel application area: food justice;

It extends recent work into the ‘civic blockchain,’ addressing the problem of food justice with a novel combination of more-than-human and commons-based angles for blockchain;

It takes a novel approach to engaging diverse citizens in blockchain, synthesising best practice and merging the speculative and the participatory. This ensures that the outcomes are future-facing, whilst remaining grounded in the current needs, lived experiences, and values of real communities.  

So Far …

The team have carried out a series workshops at Spitalfields city farm in East London, led by the project research team and Ruth Catlow from Furtherfield.

The first workshop, ‘What does this city farm need to thrive into the future?’ had around 15 participants from a range of community gardens and organisations as well as staff from Spitalfields Farm. Participants were asked to consider and explore relationships between all the human and non-human stakeholders of the city farm/community garden both now and in 2030, and then map the different resources according to which was most valuable and which was scarcest.

The materials generated informed the development of the next workshop:  ‘Now London is a City Farm’. In this workshop participants played a game with various characters to imagine a more sustainable, just and inclusive future food system in the city. The game – played in a Live Action Role Play (LARP) format – drew on the previously-generated materials as well as current facts about food and environmental injustices. 

The final workshop, ‘Prototyping the Food Commons’ aimed to generate ideas for new algorithmic systems to create a future food commons. The scenarios from the second workshop’s LARP were used, each exploring a different challenge for commons management, including membership requirements, local rule-making and conflict resolution. A key focus was an exploration of how the work of insects, animals and plants could be re-valued, in order to create balanced ecosystems that provide abundance for all.

You can read full accounts of these activities here: Workshop 1, Workshop 2, Workshop 3.

Next Steps …

These include a book publication that brings together the three prototypes with reflections on the co-design process and a toolkit to allow other groups to develop their own live action role-play games.

Explanation of key terms

Blockchain: A growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked using cryptography (a method of protecting information through the use of codes). Examples of blockchain include Spotify, a decentralised database that connects artists and licensing agreements with the tracks on Spotify’s service.

Speculative design: Speculative design is a design method addressing big societal problems and looking towards the future—and creating products and services for those scenarios. It intends to provoke, while engaging in a participatory process that includes the people who are most impacted by current systems. “Where typical design takes a look at small issues, speculative design broadens the scope and tries to tackle the biggest issues in society.”