Sunday, January 22, 2012

Three Local Food Projects

My students have finally articulated what they will work on for the rest of the quarter, and I'm loving each project. Their original task was "to enhance the Western NY food economy in the winter months." But as they dove deep into their research, they made some discoveries that required them to fine-tune their original goal. Now their goal is "to make local food more appealing to main-stream customers," and with that in mind they've got some pretty cool offerings..

Team 1, Top Chef Local
This team decided to host a series of events based on the popular television show Top Chef. They want to create experiences in which newbies to local food could learn about cooking it together. Top Chef is a contest in which three chefs are given only a few ingredients with which to make an elegant meal, a format plays well with local produce and will be even more challenging in the winter. We recently had a winter potluck and man were there a lot of potatoes on the table. So, yes, great challenge.

Team 2, Cracker Barrel Bodega
Wanting to bring local food to the heart of the city, this team took inspiration from Cracker Barrel. I'd never heard of this place before, but apparently it's one part restaurant and one part retail food store. The hook is that if you like something that you eat in the restaurant side, you may go next door and buy it to take home. Put that model into an urban corner store with a deli counter or something, stocked with dishes made from local ingredients, and BAM! I'm there.  

Team 3, Flash Frozen Packaged Food
Wanting to make local food easier to prepare than whole food, this team wants to lightly process and package the food and sell it frozen. Not only does this team include two packaging science students, but they've got an electrical engineer on board who says he can design a flash freezer, normally starting at 10k, for a fraction of the cost. Should be fun. I'm super excited about this one. Well, who am I kidding, I'm excited about them all.

Want to come to our final presentation? Pop me a comment and I'll let you know the deets.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Thinking outside of the brain

Designers are kind of addicted to putting themselves into unfamiliar situations. Why? Well, as Allan Chochinov says in a recent interview with Rachel Singer, “It helps you to be fresh.” Staying true the behaviors of my clan, I'm immersed in several unfamiliar scenarios at present and, collectivity, they’re really keeping me on my toes. They are:

1. Designing local food products & systems for main-stream customers

2. Going for an Executive MBA

3. Preparing to speak at SxSW about Open Source Communities

LOCAL FOOD FOR THE MAIN STREAM.  I've been an early adopter of local food systems for years now, shopping at farmers markets and joining CSAs. And while these systems have been growing in popularity as I've been a part of them, there seems to be a steady divide between those who eat local and those who don't. So I'm stepping out of my brain, my perspective, and leaving it to my students, who don't shop or eat local, to figure out what will make local food interesting or delightful to them and thus, we hope, to mainstream customers? Why? Because adoption by main-stream customers will give the local food movement wings. Current food systems the students are borrowing from are CrackerBarrel, BirdsEye, and Top Chef. Love these ideas. Love them all. I especially enjoy how the students are deconstructing these known models to figure out what parts make sense for a local food application and what parts don’t.

EXECUTIVE MBA. I am blessed to be in the EMBA program at RIT's Saunders College. As I've mentioned before, the math part is a real challenge for me, so challenging that sometimes I wonder if I'll make it through. But I'm in love with the conceptual stuff. As a designer interested in sustainability, I love learning about how firms make their make/buy decisions, the decisions to either make their own products or buy ready-made from a supplier. Most of the time these are strictly financial decisions though we've already studied one case in which, even though it made financial sense to transition to making a product, the firm found later that it did not make sense from a personnel perspective. My larger point here is that it's so great to get out of my design brain and into a business brain to look at supply chain issues.
Another gem is this one from my accounting class: "The Role of the Firm is to Generate Owner Wealth." Fact. The flexible part of this definition, however, is in how the owners define wealth. A very useful piece of information for me. As much as I complain about the math, learning how key concepts are defined is just priceless.

And one more insight is from the many management cases we have to analyze. In case after case, the issue isn’t that management doesn’t understand the problem or doesn’t know the solution. The issue is that they don’t know how to implement an effective plan of action. Fascinating. This is a problem space that designers can offer a lot of value, I think, with their attention to human behavior and reactions to props and prompts. This is probably why behavioral economics is so appealing to designers. (I’ll write another post about his last point, me thinks).

SXSW INTERACTIVE. OMG, just a few months ago my friends and I were sitting around bitching about how "boys club" Open Source Communities are and now we're headed to SxSW to talk about it in front of a bunch of people. Like I said, I'm addicted to stepping out of my comfort zone. I believe that that's when we learn the most. So if by going there I learn how to be a better participant in Open Source Communities, and if I can model that vulnerability and learning process for other women in my situation, well then, I've done some good. If nothing else, I get to work with my super bright colleague in the RIT's Journalism Department, Andrea Hickerson. And Andrea just recruited Mo Duffy (!) as another panelist, in addition to Sara Brown. It should be super fun and if you're in Austin and if you're willing to think outside of your brain, then you should come. You are more than welcome to our club.