Where’s the value? Or how I got lost in the haze.

As a student at the Austin Center for Design in his first quarter, I am learning how to practice design research. Design research is a process for uncovering opportunities for innovation within complex human-based systems. As fledgling design researchers, my class was tasked with understanding the animal product value chain within Austin. My team decided to narrow our focus to understanding the distribution chain between farmer and restaurant. We have been practicing ethnographic techniques for producing qualitative data – interviews, stories, photos, drawigs, and observations – which we will learn to synthesize later in the course. Practically speaking, this means my teammate and I have been traveling around Austin speaking to farmers, restauranteurs, a food distributor, a farmer educator, and a meat manager for a grocery store. We are attempting to get at how the distribution chain is experienced on the human level through the stories of the people that interact within the problem space on the day-to-day. We want to analyze the mundane in order to find something extraordinary and unexpected – to discover insights that are meaningful and actionable.

What my research looks like
What my research looks like

Just three weeks into the project and I am already swimming in data – transcripts of hour long conversations, physical and remembered images, sense experiences, participant constructed artifacts, my teammate’s perspective, and my own baggage – all of these bits and pieces contribute to how I am trying to make sense of the food distribution chain. I feel like my head is in a thick fog of information. Listening to how people make meaning of their work is endlessly fascinating and complex. So far, I am finding that to stay somewhat grounded, to stay focused on what I am researching, I look for themes that connect all my disparate experiences. (Even though the teacher practitioners keep reminding the students not to make sense of the data right now. That’s what we will do during the synthesis phase.)

In fact, as I write this blog entry, a clear theme starts to emerge: how the food value chain is co-constructed. The first interview my teammate and I conducted took place on a local farm. We were led on a tour by an energetic and industrious farmer who is just as passionate about the feel of healthy soil as she is in talking to potential future farmers at the local elementary schools. She consistently returned to where she finds value – in keeping the community healthy through nutritious food. She has been committed to farming for years sustained by the beliefs like that when a mustard green is bitter enough, it will help consumers eventually avoid hefty medical expenses that consuming non-nutritious food will lead to. One of the most salient moments happen when she plucked two pods of okra and urged us to eat it.

And so, we did.

Lovely okra

Much like Proust’s madeleine, as I tasted the okra, I got lost in memories. Though unlike when Proust was brought back to his childhood at first taste, I got lost in memories I never participated in. They were the memories of the local landscapers that contributed to the compost on the farm that ultimately led to healthy bacteria rich soil. They were the memories of the decades of love that the owners of the land had put into tilling the land, the necessarily accurate data collection, and 20 year long relationships between the farm and community that support the farm keeping in operation. This bite of okra represents how rich the ethnographic research experience is. I get to experience first hand the product value chain.

And then, as my teammate and I meet other actors along the value chain, we learn about how  they contribute to the flow of value from the nutrient rich soil and eventually to the plates of (discriminating? – need to research) consumers.

In the abstract, value is easily translated into monetary terms — how much something is worth in dollars and cents tells the world how much it should be valued. And this perception then reinforces itself – if today I paid x amount for a carrot, I demand that tomorrow that price remain stable. Yet, as my team has worked its way through the value chain of food, we have discovered other forms of value from the perspective of the humans who interact with the product before it lands in front of the customer – rich relationships between a food distributor and the farmers he trusts to work with (he often gets lost in conversation on his pick up route as he gabs with the farmers he has been working with) and the restauranteur at a high end restaurant who pridefully lists all of the vegetables local farmers are currently harvesting (because to excel in the farm-to-table market you “gotta be in the game”).

As my team and I move forward in our research, I start to see gaps in our information. How do customers perceive value? Why do they choose to eat the way they do? How does distribution support or inhibit the value chain? Where are there disruptions that may lead to a monetary devaluing of products? How can the perceptions of food providers contribute to or inhibit more sustainable farming practices and fair exchange?