Taking On the Global Food Crisis

The Doors of Perception conference in Delhi focuses on applying design thinking to modern challenges in food, water, and waste

John Thackara is doggedly pragmatic. The British design guru likes nothing more than to get designers, agitators, and average folks in a room together to hash out innovations that will improve daily life. His biggest and most celebrated gathering of the minds takes place every two years at the Doors of Perception conference (www.doorsofperception.com). The celebrated design and innovation network's goal is to apply design thinking to modern challenges, with an emphasis on putting ideas into action.

The latest event was staged in New Delhi on Mar. 2 and 3. And while Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales talked about his new search project, and Nokia's (NOK) Hannu Nieminen mused on the future of technology, most people were focused on the issues of food, water, and waste.

Dubbed "Juice," the gathering produced moments of true inspiration, as well as a few missteps. Its overall mission is to find design solutions to the growing crisis in global food systems—trying to cut the excessive energy use and spotty distribution while helping people feel more connected to what is actually on their plates.

Some Depressing Figures

Thackara set the tone of the Mar. 3 plenary by displaying two images: the grotesquely clogged artery of an obese American man and a New York sewage pipe largely blocked by fat from fast-food production. He then showed a statistical chart of the amount of fat in certain foods that, like graphs in the Al Gore movie, threatened to veer off the charts.

Add to that various averages, such as the ratio of energy used to produce food vs. the energy people consume (10:1), annual carbon emissions from a family of four in the West (8 tons), and the percentage of grocery dollars that go back to farmers (6%), and it would be easy to get depressed.

But Doors of Perception is about finding solutions. And among the most compelling of those was architect Andre Viljoen's work in Britain on urban agriculture. This goes beyond backyard lettuce plots to planned farming along roads, vertical plots, market gardens, and even aquaculture. As a model, Viljoen cites Cuba—a country that turned to urban agriculture out of necessity when the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union cut off 80% of its trade flow.

Do They Do Dishes?

City-based farming makes intuitive sense. It cuts back on food miles—the energy required to get food to your plate. It can produce food from even small spaces. (Another presentation by the Thackara-led "Designs of the time," or Dott 07, involves growing food around the industrial British city of Middlesbrough in plots as small as portable planters.) Such moves make a city feel alive and allow residents to feel connected to food production while increasing the green-ness of their environment.

Some of the examples were whimsical. Debra Solomon, the eclectic designer, artist, and "massively independent researcher" behind culiblog, recently created a restaurant/art installation in Amsterdam that served food grown with no land and very little light. With 31 kinds of sprouts, potatoes, and even pumpkin, the products from "Grow Yer Own Dang Food Sprout Restaurant" at least looked delicious. Her most memorable anecdote was of her visit to an Amsterdam restaurant where all the food is prepared by children as a way to make them think about their food.

There's a reason the Doors conference was staged in India for the second time in a row. The country, to Thackara, is both an inspiration and a challenge when it comes to food supply. On the inspiration side, Sanjeev Shankar and John Vijay Abraham looked at the rich Udupi food culture and how it has influenced much of India. In contrast, architect Naresh Narasimhan looked at the mounting sewage challenges in Bangalore, along with a small, low-cost way to solve them.

Water Mapping

What didn't really work in a conference setting was a series of workshops. Many of the foreign participants had arrived earlier in the week and set off in groups to look into key aspects of New Delhi's food mosaic, from the Sikh practice of Langar, or free kitchens, to street food and water management. The goal was to learn from the practices and suggest improvements.

The most informative project was on water mapping, in which the attendees randomly went to parts of the city and did a cheap test of nitrate levels in drinking water while talking to locals. The worst-quality water was at a hospital and a sports stadium. Some of the better drinking water was, ironically, in the slums where residents may be more aware of the risks.

Some of the suggestions, such as regular water testing and supplying filters to government employees, seem easy enough. But telling the government to stop the flow of open water through waste areas and crack down on the practice of filling plastic bottles with dirty water seemed unrealistic.

Value of Big Thinking

Conclusions from the other workshops were less profound and perhaps over-reached their expertise. One group interviewed a handful of people along the Yamuna River and said it didn't look clean, advising the government to clean it up. On another team, nobody was quite sure whether the street-food carts were really under threat following a recent government directive to close them (legislation and enforcement don't always go hand in hand).

But the overall value of the conference was its willingness to take on the big issues of the 21st century, with dozens of cutting-edge thinkers mulling over solutions. With that kind of brainpower and passion for the subject, it's a shame that Doors of Perception won't come around again for another two years.