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Formal and informal actors in the supply chain: all at the same table with the SCIN-GO project, to design more equitable and sustainable food environments.

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By: Giulio BurroniPublished: July 9, 2024
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Imagine and then formulate good practices that improve access, distribution and redistribution of food in urban areas; designing new food environments by involving actors from formal and informal networks in participatory processes in which future scenarios are co-created.  These are the goals of the Spoke 1 SCIN-GO project by OnFoods.
We talk about it in the article, which also includes a video interview with Marta Corubolo, researcher at the Design Department of the Politecnico di Milano.

In the last century, we have witnessed significant changes in consumer habits and an increased demand for food from industrial processes, due to various factors such as population growth, urbanization, and the difficulty of accessing healthy and sustainable food for everyone.

Although the increase in a longer-living population compared to the past has led, especially in already developed countries, to a decrease in the global demographic growth rate, according to the United Nations, in some regions such as Africa and Asia, the population will continue to grow, reaching between 10 and 11 billion people by 2050.

And the expected new population increase will correspond to an inevitable rise in food demand, which the current production systems must be able to meet in a resilient and effective manner for a dual purpose: ensuring the global demand for safer and more nutritious food is met and respecting the systemic boundaries that must not be crossed to avoid disrupting the planet's natural balances and causing irreversible changes to the Earth.

It is well known, in fact, that the food production system is responsible for a significant environmental impact. According to the most recent data, 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to the agri-food sector, as well as 78% of the eutrophication of oceans and freshwater bodies.

Can the Eco-Agro-Food System Withstand Such Significant Shocks?

The FAO's annual report (SOFI, 2022) leaves no doubt that we are regressing in our efforts to end hunger and ensure fair and adequate access to healthy food. With only seven years left until 2030, the distance to achieve many of the SDGs is progressively increasing.

Despite this, global food production does not seem to be decreasing, significantly outstripping population growth. In terms of per capita kilocalories, the European system already provided nearly 3,400 kilocalories per day in 2019.

It follows that, in an optimal condition of redistribution and waste limitation, the current production of food would be more than sufficient to feed the 800 million people worldwide who suffer from severe hunger.

However, there are other significant factors contributing to the instability of the food system: food security and nutrition continue to be under pressure due to worsening conflicts, pandemics, extreme weather conditions, and economic shocks.

These factors, combined with the high cost of healthy and nutritious foods and increasing inequalities in access to them, create further problems for adequate nutrition for all.

Urban Food and Environments

According to United Nations data, currently over half of the world's population, about 55%, resides in cities. This trend is growing: each year, 1% of the global population moves from rural areas to urban centers. This amounts to about 76 million people, more than the population of Italy, leaving rural areas every year. If this trend continues, by 2045, two out of three people will live in cities.

Is it sustainable to feed this enormous population with a model based on monocultures? Or is it preferable to incentivize local production models as much as possible, perhaps by equipping small producers with the technologies and tools to face agricultural challenges? Currently, family farming provides food for 70% of the world's population. Actively supporting it, as a guardian of biodiversity and a guarantee of quality, should be a commitment of both governments and consumers.

However, the processes of urbanization tend to exclude small farmers from formalized value chains, making it difficult for them to compete in an increasingly complex market dominated by large players.

Food Deserts

In many large cities, a phenomenon of true food desertification has been observed, where physical access to supermarkets and stores is becoming increasingly complex.

This was clearly seen during the lockdown, when many non-essential businesses were forced to close, which meant that many workers, especially those in more precarious positions, lost their jobs, while entrepreneurs faced severe financial difficulties. The mobility of the local population was restricted to their municipality of residence, reducing access to grocery stores outside that area. Not only metropolitan areas but also, and especially, mountain communities and rural areas are increasingly vulnerable to food desertification.

All these factors have made the vulnerabilities in supply chains more evident to everyone.

An extensive debate has thus opened up, both scientific and public, on the need for resilient strategies to address the health and economic challenges of our city-centric lifestyles.

Peri-Urban Areas and Alternative Food Networks

Today, a quarter of the world's population lives in peri-urban areas of small and medium-sized cities and towns, regions that can serve as crucial nodes to strengthen rural-urban links and improve the functioning of value chains.

These are rural territories located on the outskirts of cities, characterized by a coexistence of agricultural activities and urban settlements, increasingly taking on the traits of fragmented and complex spaces, subject to equally complex transformation dynamics.

Over the past 10 years, agriculture in peri-urban areas has been taking on an increasingly defined shape. Various examples of this maturation include the spread of European parks joining Fedenatur, the European Federation of Peri-Urban Parks.

The transmission belt between these "worlds"—urban, peri-urban, and rural—can be found in alternative food networks (AFNs), more localized and diversified systems compared to traditional agri-food complexes. These initiatives present themselves as valid alternatives for the production, distribution, purchase, and consumption of food. They often incorporate social and environmental goals, such as reducing the impacts of food production or promoting more sustainable and balanced practices throughout the supply chain.

Alternative food networks also offer potential solutions to the fragmentation and overall crisis of the eco-agro-food system: they have the potential to provide greater resilience in the face of global shocks and meet the expectations of food access and quality in urban communities.

However, it is also necessary to create synergies between formal and informal food supply chains. An integrated approach that connects these two worlds can promote the development of sustainable and replicable practices, particularly relevant in urban and peri-urban contexts.

Marta Corubolo at the Palazzo della Ragione in Mantua talking about the SCIN-GO project's work on alternative food networks through methods of projecting into the future that aim to create scenarios by listening to the needs of network actors

The Work of the SCIN-GO Project

The Department of Design, along with the Department of Management Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano, is collaborating on the OnFoods research project called SCIN-GO (Scientific Innovation, Technology and Sustainability: Governance and Regulation).

The goal is to conceive and formalize best practices that improve food access, distribution, and redistribution in cities. This involves engaging actors from both formal and informal networks in participatory processes to co-create future scenarios. "These futures," explains Marta Corubolo from the Politecnico di Milano, "envision some trajectories for the evolution of the urban and peri-urban food system based on strategies that combine aspects of social innovation, environmental sustainability, circular economy, and cross-sectoral governance systems."

Marta and the entire design team at the Politecnico contribute to the project with their expertise in developing possible and aspirational futures, within which new services and new ways of managing the local food supply chain can be explored. They also design participatory and co-design processes.

"Basically, a workshop program has been developed where participants from Milan's food network, both formal and informal, collaborate and co-design to create new ways of interaction based on existing services and initiatives. The network of neighborhood food hubs of the Food Policy, farmers' markets, the network of covered markets, the Milan Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market, spontaneous initiatives for surplus recovery, and ethical and solidarity delivery services are some of the entities actively involved in the workshops."

This approach requires an effort of collaborative creativity to imagine future developments and to enhance all roles, tools, spaces, and skills necessary to make these projects feasible and effective. Design, in this sense, contributes to identifying points of contact between various actors, designing solutions that combine individual and collective benefits, and creating services that support a transition to a more sustainable system.

The work process involves continuous adaptation and development of design practices, projecting insights from the present into the future and seeking to give them structure and sustainability, both economically and socially.

"To achieve this, the tools employed by SCIN-GO go beyond building scenarios and participatory processes. In the coming months, they will expand to include activities such as staging and pre-prototyping some of the initiatives and services that have emerged, always in collaboration with the involved actors. Through various modes of digital and physical representation, solutions designed can be explored and experienced through simulations of new interactions, visits to prototypes of multifunctional and hybrid spaces, and the use of tools that foster collaboration."

Researchers adopting these approaches are the first to acknowledge that the outcome of such a journey is always uncertain, as design is inherently future-oriented and involving multiple stakeholders makes the process outcomes unpredictable.

"But this uncertainty is an opportunity," concludes Marta Corubolo, "because it is within such uncertainty that spaces for innovation emerge, spaces that can only be explored through dialogue and collaboration."

This blog post is related to

Spoke 01

Global Sustainability

Fair food market for healthy citizens

Lead organisation

Spoke leaderFilippo Arfini
Research projectSCIN-GO

Scientific Innovation, Technology and Sustainability: Governance and Regulation


Managed by


Principal investigators

Lorenza Violini

Referred to

Spoke 01

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