Systems Thinking for Sustainability: BarnRaise 2017

Blog Post by Andre Nogueira (PhD Candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology, Institute of Design). This post is about BarnRaise 2017, a conference focused on food waste solutions, held at the IIT Institute of Design.  All diagrams by Andre Nogueira and Raina Russ

It’s no secret that the food industry is in great need of reform in Chicago, especially when it comes to waste. From agricultural fields to kitchens, from markets to tables, food waste is being generated, and that has direct negative impact on many other systems, including public health and safety. These numerous inefficiencies in Chicago’s food system create a bounty of opportunities to explore different interventions and create value. Until Chicago addresses the negative impacts it is creating by avoiding sustainable approaches to food waste, large-scale systemic sustainability will remain a challenge at the city scale. Chicago’s food system must become more operationally effective and efficient, provide better services to achieve social equity, and reduce environmental impacts at every step of the food production and food consumption system.


The UN define a sustainable food system as “a food system that delivers food and nutrition security for all in such a way that the economic, social, and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised”. Though the goal is clear, many organizations struggle to understand how the transition to a sustainable food system should inform everyday practices, as they lack adequate tools for integrating collaborative solutions.

On October 9 -11 2017, The Merchandise Mart and Whiner Beer Company at The Plant hosted BarnRaise 2017, a two-and-a-half-day impact-driven conference led by IIT’s Institute of Design (ID).  Over 130 participants from 35+ organizations represented diverse sectors, levels of expertise, and domains of action across Chicago’s food system. Participants were split into ten groups and tasked with using design-focused activities to creating system interventions that would accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system in Chicago.

Led by Andre Nogueira, PhD candidate and adjunct faculty at ID; and Raina Russ, market manager and master of design student at ID, the event was part of a larger research project that consisted of (1) three months of design research on the topic of food waste in the City of Chicago, which resulted in a report shared among participants, (2) a design brief followed by a workshop with five design firms focused on co-creation of the BarnRaise 2017 conference structure, (3) the conference itself, and (4) an application for funding to continue community engagement and project development.

The Process

BarnRaise Process

The User Experience

BarnRaise Conference

Complementary activities, such as a waste sorting activity led by Liz Lyon (Plant Chicago’s Market Manager), were held to enhance the educational experience of the conference. Speakers were selected with the strategic goal of framing and giving information to expand participants knowledge in both food systems and design practices.


The Outcomes

Design-led ideation sessions supported the multidisciplinary groups with the task of co-creating platforms for sustainable food systems in the City of Chicago. Out of many complex challenges, two major patterns could be identified in the groups conversations: (1) How do we make it easy? (2) How do we make it valuable?

Transforming the way people perceive value and even experience the services provided by the existing food industry was a major concern of dealing with sustainable solutions for Chicago’s food system. Groups focused on concepts to meet people where they were, in an understandable and accessible way. They also presented concerns around replicability and scalability, considering unique contexts, and how to generate system value. Designing system transitions requires continuous iteration and prototypes of new interventions, especially when it comes to context-sensitive situations related to humans’ capabilities, biases, values, beliefs, desires, and their interaction with the environment in which action is taken. As such, researchers and community organizations are collaborating to activate new partnerships and integrate the development of the concepts into new systemic offerings. Ultimately, resources should serve to structure innovation-driven networks of community-based agents seeking to promote community-based collaborations to support transitions towards sustainable food systems in the City of Chicago.
Below is a diagram that briefly introduces the concepts that emerged at BarnRaise 2017.

BarnRaise Outcomes

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