Learning about Urban Agriculture

My group in Lauren Serota’s “Interaction Design Research and Synthesis” course is studying urban agriculture education in Austin. We’re interested in the challenges, wins, barriers and victories of teaching urban agriculture in the Austin community. Specifically, we are focused on the experience of a person teaching urban agriculture and, through design thinking, we aim to generate potential aids/solutions to the barriers and challenges they face. (Yes, we are presuming that urban gardening is a positive contribution to Austin and we’d like to assist its growth).

To learn about this firsthand, we contacted several urban agriculture teachers in Austin. The teachers we found run the gamut from permaculture to urban community gardens to teachers who train other teachers to educate Austinites on how to grow their own organic food. What we discovered was the sheer number of amazing programs that currently exist in this field. We also learned about the challenges of reaching and teaching to diverse age groups, people from varying economic, racial or cultural backgrounds, and ensuring that Austinites attending these classes/trainings feel educated enough, and empowered enough, to put their new knowledge into action creating their own garden.

We used a design research method called “Participatory Design” in which participants, in this case, urban agriculture educators, give the design researchers insight in their individual experience doing their work, sharing what challenges there are, what barriers exist to their desired outcomes and what exactly those desired outcomes are. This method was appropriate to our focus because we want to really learn about the unique experience of these professionals. Participatory Design allows us to do that and even allow them to generate their vision of the ideal experience doing their work. The final segment of a participatory design process is the participant’s chance to creatively lay out their ideal vision of what it would be like to, in this case, teach urban agriculture to the community. They use words and pictures to creatively layout a representation of what their ideal experience would be like and what it wouldn’t be like. In doing so, they are able to really show and teach us what an ideal experience of doing that would be. Then as designers, we’re able to look at that, compile it with the experiences of other people working in that field, and look for possible “innovation spaces.” What that really boils down to is the participant sharing their unique experience with designers and designers then being able to bring their experiences and awareness to the equation to potentially come up with new design work based on the insights. It’s really quite a cool process. We found that the ideal experience teaching urban agriculture had a lot of surprising elements to it, things we never could have guessed at or gleaned from traditional research methods.

Essentially, the process allowed us to collaborate with a participant and give them the space to think creatively about their own field, with no limitations on what was possible. Very cool!

Since we are students just learning these methods, there are plenty of kinks to work out- for example, recording the sessions with a camera that picks up better sound (!), or looking for more patterns and themes as the process goes along and reflecting those back to the participant for their feedback potentially generating even more complex and/or specific insights during the process.  But we’re learning- and the best any of us can do is to keep fine-tuning our methods as we notice what facilitation methods or participants best suit this unique research process. Here’s to inspiration arriving in many forms!