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SAFE SPACES TO CHART COLLECTIVE FUTURES: SHARED FOOD PREPARATION AS A PARTICIPATORY FUTURES METHODOLOGY

Updated: 3 days ago

By Estefania Simon-Sasyk



The "bottom-up approach" resonates with the ideals of participatory democracy and community empowerment. Variants such as "participatory democracy," "local democracy," and "concerted management" all point toward a local concertation approach — a collective process through which a community can retake control of its destiny. This approach grants the local community and its stakeholders the agency to express their views and shape the development trajectory of their area in alignment with their aspirations and plans.


Yet, the bottom-up approach is easier said than done. Despite its just and frankly logical intentions, its application could be more challenging. Cultural contexts, colonial and nation-state historical legacies, and power dynamics often pose significant hurdles. Recurrent challenges include trust-building, overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers, navigating power dynamics, and aligning priorities. These obstacles are not just theoretical but tangible realities in the field.


In response to these challenges, specifically in the field of food systems transformation, we created a novel methodology named TRANSFORM. Developed to address the inherent complexities of participatory processes, TRANSFORM leverages the unifying power of food to hold horizontal spaces for collaboration with and within communities. It champions a departure from conventional approaches, replacing post-its and flipcharts with the intimacy of preparing and sharing a meal.


TRANSFORM facilitates gatherings where individuals engage in shared tasks such as cutting and peeling, fostering an environment conducive to open dialogue and meaningful connections. By intertwining food preparation with discussions on collective legacies and future prospects, TRANSFORM enables stakeholders to explore how their individual actions can contribute to shared goals.


This innovative approach transcends traditional foresight methodologies by embedding them invisibly within communal activities. Rather than focusing on successfully utilizing the tools, TRANSFORM emphasizes collective-belief in, and mapping of, pathways toward preferred futures.


At its core, TRANSFORM advocates for creating new communal spaces where candid discussions about shaping collective futures can thrive. It embodies inclusivity, blending innovation with tradition — regaining lost communal spaces — to address the urgency of our multifaceted challenges. By moving beyond conventional tools and adopting new, inclusive methodologies, we aim to find transformative pathways toward a more equitable and sustainable future.


OUR LIVED EXPERIENCES HAVE DRIVEN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE TRANSFORM METHODOLOGY

In my previous life as a chef, I learned that prepping large amounts of ingredients can induce a meditative state. I knew I wanted to share that experience with others. The breakthrough in using it to think about the future came as a group effort, with Mycelium Gastronomy Network members having open conversations. TRANSFORM was born as a concept.


The need for us was clear, in our extensive work within various communities, we noticed a recurring pattern: conventional stakeholder engagement methods for foresight often failed to foster genuine dialogue and collaboration. The terminology and dynamics felt very academic and hard to access to practitioners all along the food system: farmers, chefs, factory workers, entrepreneurs… We were creating barriers to entry, asking them to engage in activities that take a steep learning curve to get the hang of.


Instead of fostering a sense of ownership and empowerment, these sessions made participants feel disconnected and disengaged. 


On the other hand, exploring future opportunities for development powered through local food ecosystems has proved to be an accessible entry point into people's lives, a window — everyone is excited to share about their foods, what they grew up eating and what comfort and luxury foods mean to them specifically. In these conversations, time and again, we have seen challenging topics such as intimate partner violence and drug abuse often naturally emerge in conversation.


Drawing inspiration from the rich tradition of communal food preparation found in cultures worldwide, we envisioned a methodology that would harness the power of shared meals to create spaces for authentic dialogue and collaboration.


EXPERIENCES CARRYING OUT TRANSFORM

Through our experiences with TRANSFORM, we've gained valuable insights into innovative stakeholder engagement and community-centered approaches. Working with diverse stakeholders has underscored the importance of inclusive spaces and adaptive methodologies. It also has reinforced the significance of active listening and embodied conversations in fostering meaningful dialogue.


We have used TRANSFORM in three engagement types:

  • Online community gatherings: We have hosted online gatherings of the Mycelium Gastronomy Network community, where participants were prompted to find all the veggies lying around in their homes that might be wasted to prep them for pickling during our call (a brine recipe was provided to complete the task). At the same time, we shared learnings from our latest projects. While the online format was challenging at times, many participants found to be reminded of our time together for weeks and months to come as they went through their pickles. TRANSFORM’s physical output proved to be an excellent strategy to keep on top of the minds of our stakeholders.


  • In speculative experiences: Together with futures strategic agency Invisible, led by Stef Silva, we devised a provocative dinner for IBEX35 executives to reflect upon systemic challenges and prompt their personal and corporate agency in the matter. Invisible created a complete narrative of a train ride from Spain to Sweden in 2100. We used a jelly that participants were instructed to cut with millimetric precision to evoke a future of water scarcity and rationing. This jelly was later used to garnish a Japanese wagashi, a confection often in natural shapes such as flowers, that symbolized a scenario where craftsmanship seeks to honor live forms that have disappeared due to climate change and loss of biodiversity. TRANSFORM served as a striking embodied experience of what the future might feel like in a path of corporate inaction and managed to break through the repetitiveness of themes such as climate action, prompting personal stake in the issues.


  • In participatory government planning processes: Navarra’s Tourism and Commerce Board (a regional government agency in Spain) aimed to find new avenues for their gastronomic tourism. In this context, we held “traditional” futures workshops with key youth stakeholders. In these workshops, many stakeholders mentioned their need to create a “foundational” document of the new gastronomy nascent in the region: sustainable, unbounded but inspired by tradition, and that drives development for their rural and agricultural areas. This document was created using TRANSFORM. We gathered food system stakeholders, from farmers and chefs to political activists and politicians, to devise the “Sustainable Gastronomy Manifesto.” Traditionally, this mix of stakeholders can be fatal to the success of the engagement. Yet, breaking the ice by preparing a traditional vegetable for the region, cardos (in English, thistles), automatically reshuffled hierarchies — with those with the better thistle-prepping technique taking front and center of the conversation. Slowly, themes were introduced to different parts of the 15-meter-long table to discuss their collective legacy to future generations communally. TRANSFORM paused power dynamics for a few hours to create a safe space that produced a foundational document for the Region’s sustainable tourism strategy.


Guided by skilled facilitators, these discussions are thought-provoking and action-oriented, inspiring participants to think critically about their challenges and explore potential solutions.


HOW IT UNFOLDS

  1. Alignment Session: We define and refine the area of interest or challenge we’ll work on during the TRANSFORM session.

  2. Session Design and Pitch: We use the collected information to design a unique experience that suits the pitch. We do this in collaboration with chefs, designers, and foresight experts. These ideas will be the starting point for collaborating with the project's sponsors. 

  3. Logistics: We meet, brainstorm, and fine-tune details in preparation for the event. 

  4. TRANSFORM Session: As participants gather to perform seemingly simple tasks, like peeling garlic or shucking corn, they'll find themselves enveloped in a novel yet familiar sensory experience. With silent minds and present hands, new ideas and insights will soon start forming, and profound conversations will happen facilitated with carefully thought-out futures methods, from three horizons to futures wheels.

  5. A Shared Meal: All attendants will feast on the fruits of their labor. This isn't a typical catered meal but the tangible outcome of a moment of togetherness and a profound pathway-charting experience. 

  6. Final Outcome: We'll capture the session's results in a strategic report to share with all the relevant stakeholders. 


Making TRANSFORM a part of your toolkit

Our journey with TRANSFORM has enhanced our professional skills and deepened our commitment to creating positive change. As we continue to refine and expand this methodology, our ultimate goal is to empower changemakers in the food space and beyond with the tools and support systems they need to accelerate collaboration pathways and foster collective intelligence.


if you work in community engagement in the future space, especially in food systems transformation, and are looking for pathways toward change — we would love for you to get in touch and find ways to make this tool available to you.


We want to multiply the impact of the experience and can provide local assistance with our 100+ network nodes distributed globally in the US, Latin America, South Europe, and SEA. It would allow food and futures practitioners to incorporate the tool and use it confidently in their practice. The ultimate goal is to provide changemakers with a tool and a support system to accelerate collaboration pathways by creating a safe space that allows the emergence of collective intelligence toward better decision-making.


 

Estefania Simon-Sasyk is the founder of Mycelium Gastronomy Network, an organisation of multidisciplinary professionals seeking to create a more sustainable food industry. We aim to transform how we approach, process, distribute, and understand food.


Estefania is a Michelin-trained chef with a passion for transformation. She has led kitchens across Asia, South America, and Europe, but her desire to make a broader impact led her to become a food innovation and foresight practitioner. She’s collaborated with organizations like the WTO and IDB, tackling critical issues such as health, sustainability, and regional economic development. She holds a master’s degree in Innovation and Entrepreneurship Management from HEC Paris.



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