Action Research: Birmingham as a laboratory

In 2016 we asked ourselves what role, if any, a city like ours could play in making a positive difference to food resilience and sustainability for others as well as ourselves, given the parlous state of the world’s resources. (for more about this, see our horizon scanning report: Back from the Future (2018).

In order to answer that question, we’ve spent the last couple of years devising an Action Research programme in which Birmingham is a ‘laboratory’ for a series of experiments, and discussing its feasibility with experts from diverse fields.

It’s summarised in this ‘bike’ infographic, designed by the ultra-talented Oliver Tomlinson, founder of TDL Creative:

This programme is part evidence-based, and part (what we call) ‘Narrativium‘ based; i.e. using the arts as a means to amplify and disseminate the research.

And, as the bike infographic implies, we’ve negotiated several ‘labs’ within the city, representing both demographic and geographic communities.  We’ve started to analyse data through our Archetypal Household project.

We’ve also set up a small group of experts in what we’re calling the SCOFFS unit to advise us on tools, apps and context.

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Can changes in our demand make a difference?
We can’t increase food supplies within the city; over 99.99% of all we eat and drink is grown outside the city boundaries.

(That’s not to say food businesses in the city don’t add value to the food that’s brought it. They do, and considerably so. In the UK, the food processing sector is the larger than several manufacturing sectors put together, as these facts’n’stats put together by the Food & Drink Federation indicate.)

In this blogpost in October 2016, I quoted Tim Benton: We recognise that demand for food is driving emissions and work to change that to meet the supply-side improvements halfway.” Could we here in this city change our our diets, change our food demand and be a measurable element of meeting the ‘supply-side improvements halfway’?

Will people be motivated to change their diet in order to change the agricultural landscape?
Conversations with various communities around the city have told us many are highly motivated to contribute to Birmingham making a positive difference to to global food resilience and sustainability. There’s also interesting evidence from the US Department of Agriculture Economics Group to suggest the Millennial generation are making qualitatively different food and beverage choices than previous ones and that they’re motivated by food security issues.

Hence our Action Research experiments will test the notion whether information fed into the system about global food security (via what-if patterns in the bike infographic above) will impact what within an ‘engine of change’, currently comprising three sets of ‘cogs’:

How can we measure change and its impact?
This city, as others, has a global footprint. As elsewhere, too, citizens consume food and drink with zero or low nutritional vale. Few, however, recognise that consumption of these products impacts global food resilience, security and sustainability.

We recognised that VAT is a useful metric as only food and drink products with zero or low nutritional value carry standard-rate VAT. Using food and drink categories listed by HMRC, our analysis of Defra stats showed 30% of UK household food and drink spend is on VAT-rated products, with a further 4% spent on cakes and pastries. (For historical reasons, cakes and pastries carry 0% VAT.)

Will changing diets have economic impact locally? 
We also investigated what the cost was of poor diet; we found that for every £1 we spend on food and drink, it costs over £0.90 to deal with its dietary impact, costs which are mostly locally borne — and our analysis didn’t include dental costs (for which we couldn’t find data, but are still searching!), nor mental health costs related to diet, nor the costs of recycling (we’ve calculated that the City Council has to recycle or otherwise dispose of 132M bottle and cans from Coca Cola alone.)

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What level of reliability can we put on production ‘back wheel’ info?
There’s a wealth of information about the production end of our food supply network (represented as the back wheel of the bike infographic above). There are (at least!) two issues with this information, which we’re discussing with potential collaborators:

First, the data sources are dispersed across the food network and some are not in the public domain (e.g. much of the logistics info, and who owns what at the field-level in the UK). Secondly, the academics rightly hedge about information quality into the ‘what-if’ patterns, and we’re beginning to think about how machine learning could play a part in meeting this challenge.