There are many challenges that the pursuit of sustainable development is asking us to implement. The greatest of all is perhaps that of changing ourselves. Sometimes, immobile in the face of the great upheavals that take place both in our individual and in the social sphere, we always set in motion the same mental schemes, failing to see that right there in the difficulty, in the movement, in the upheaval there is precisely the opportunity, to design a new story, an evolution towards ever better scenarios. It takes courage, flexibility, great foresight to change and to see what has never been seen. This is a bit of the figure of the Designer that Sonia Massari passed on to me with enthusiasm, passion and tenacity. Born in Argenta in the Province of Ferrara, now living in Rome, she is a senior researcher, consultant for companies and foundations, professor of Design, and sustainability through food. Twenty years of experience as a researcher, teacher also in the USA, consultant and designer in the fields of education, sustainable food design and innovation in the agri-food sector, tells us about the importance of training, of the figure of the designer, especially for the moment, history that we are experiencing, and of how much sustainable development is essential to a holistic approach, which embraces every aspect of life and every aspect of society. Because if it is true that nothing exists independently of everything else, we can only open our eyes, look at reality for what it really is, roll up our sleeves and act starting each and every one from their own sense of responsibility.
You truly have an amazing resume. Years and years of study and experience in Design applied to Food in the field of sustainability. What are the contents of the subjects you teach?
In the School of Design I teach students to understand the changes that society is facing at the moment and what are the opportunities and emerging behaviors to structure new cultures. With my focus on both food and sustainability, young people can learn to grasp those elements already inherent in our habits and rituals that can be taken up and used to in some way enhance the design of new products and services or systems. In this case it is more a study and research work to design something new and innovative. The Food sector, being a cross-cutting issue of sustainable development, is a good starting point for understanding how much our food choices, which affect the entire supply chain, are influential on the planet every day. Starting from food, we can then expand to address all the objectives of the 2030 Agenda, therefore also the role of education, of women, the concept of quality of life, well-being, the family and relationships within it. In Economics, on the other hand, the subject I teach is included in the Innovation and Sustainability degree course and there my role is to help young people, who have already graduated in economics and are taking the specialist, to think in terms of sustainability by seeing things from a perspective different therefore not strictly according to the standard economic fees. In my course we try to understand what are the human values and the values behind new entrepreneurship, start-ups and innovation in general. From this we try to understand what sustainable development is by observing it from a systemic and transdisciplinary point of view. In this course the rigidity of the boys emerges strongly. They are not designers so they have more difficulty seeing how impactful economic choices can be on a social, environmental and other level. In fact, in a transversal way they can create very strong negative long-term consequences. Precisely for this reason it is necessary that the new cultures designed are increasingly sustainable. This is the methodology I apply to the courses and modules I do for other universities. I am currently also teaching at the Polytechnic School of Milan where there is a Master in Food design. There we talk about new technologies and the type of skills that must be had to design innovative products and services in the agro-food sector. Then for some years I have also been teaching in other European universities: at the Rome Business School, at the school of Intrecci Formazione, at the Master in Food Design in Lisbon, at the Master of Gastronomy: Creativity, Ecology and Education of Gastronomic Sciences, always with the setting of modules. marked to open the mind a little to see things not linearly but in a systemic way. Based on what they are already learning, I help the children to acquire a critical and at the same time creative approach to food, to understand the present in order to plan a different future.
How do they react to these inputs?
Unlike what they are used to. School is our mental gym and there are many intelligences but over time we realize that we’ve done gymnastics only to train a part of them. We learn many concepts and many fixed points and instead it is important to see things also in a different way. The more you come from a scientific, economic hard skill context, the more difficult it is to indulge in creative processes and acquire new perspectives. On the other hand, the design student often has less experience in the use of critical and integrative thinking. However, all students generally have the common difficulty in reacting to “alternative university teaching methods”, they often consider them chaotic. They feel confused, they no longer understand anything, then when the skein uncoils the effect is surprising. During and at the end of the course I always ask for their point of view, their opinion. It is important to train people who know how to think more critically, more creatively, with an engaging approach. Some write to me after two or three years or even more and tell me how useful it is for them to apply the techniques they learned during my course. It is the thing that gives me the most pleasure.
Why did you decide to dedicate yourself to teaching in this sector?
Initially I didn’t think it was my way. I’ve a some what schizophrenic background. I graduated in Communication Sciences convinced that I’d work in marketing as I’m passionate about advertising and new trends. If I had to define myself negatively, I’d say that I’ve always been “an unsatisfied pioneer”. I’m always looking for the new, I ride the novelty before it arrives, but I’ve to start over and immediately go looking for another one. The positive side is that I prefer to call myself an “insatiable visionary”. I always need to see something new. The last year of university I decided to do a Masters in video editing and web reporting. At the time, there were four women all over Italy doing this job. Then my thesis research focused on how digital fiction could become a training narrative. After graduation, I immediately started working in advertising and during that time I wrote a project on digital storytelling to train inmates. In 2003 there was still no talk of DAD (distance learning, ed) as today, e-learning was at the beginning and my project was very “out of the box”. This project allowed me to win a scholarship in the United States. When I got there I signed up for any course I could and started getting to know the Design department well. By attending, going to conferences, talking to teachers, they gave me the opportunity to teach in a Design course, my first as a teacher. When I returned to Italy, after having worked in EU planning and international cooperation, I realized that it was not the right place for me and that I wanted to return to classroom training. So I asked any school in Rome, where I had moved, to be able to teach. I needed to interact with the students, to follow the training process. I don’t see teaching as something that I give but as an exchange on both sides where there is a co-construction of knowledge. The end of the story is that I met an international school that did not entrust me with a single course but an entire program on behalf of an American university. After this experience, I was hired to design from start to finish, as a Designer does, the first Institute in Italy to accommodate future Food Studies. A place where training and food are taught at the university level but in a different way, more experiential, interactive, and connected to the real world of the agro-food chain. I was director of the Institute from 2008 to 2020. In the meantime, I earned a PhD in Engineering during which I studied the cognitive dynamics of Food Experience Design and the impact of digital technologies on food acts. From 2015 onwards I started teaching in various Italian universities.
What does design represent for you?
If you can understand it by going beyond the technique, it is a very strong tool. It allows you to look beyond the hedge and understand how things are going. Here in Italy everything has changed after the educational and media movement linked to food brought by Expo in 2015. Before that, no one had asked me to give a course on Food Design. The downside was the initial chaos: the Food Designer is not the one who dishes, that is the chef, or the Food artist or Stylist. Design is a research method, you can apply it to any field but there is still a lot of misinformation. To better understand this discipline, it is necessary to start from the word design, which is the key point. Design in English means to design. That must be the basis for reflection. Today you cannot design without thinking in a transdisciplinary and long-term way. We need to look at things in a systemic way to understand what the world is today and what you would like in 10-20 years. So think about how much what you are doing now will impact the planet.
What role does Food play within the 2030 Agenda?
At 360 ° as the scientific literature tells us as it is transversal with respect to all objectives. We think about the environment. Plastic, therefore, packaging often goes to the seas and coasts. If you pollute the coasts it means that the fish will not get close and therefore the fishermen will not be able to catch the food. Or the fish will come up and eat the plastic and in turn will be eaten by big fish that we will eat too.
The goals are all interrelated. We also think of the school talk where a meal is given and it is the only sustainable one for the family because it is a service offered. Food becomes the means by which to attract girls and boys to school, and thus provide them with training and perhaps even future employment. If we look at Save the Children’s data, there are also developed countries such as the United States where school becomes the only place to have a decent meal. So, on the one hand, school becomes the tool for accessing quality food. On the other hand, there are countries where through food, precisely because you offer quality food, you are somehow able to educate. School, culture and education help each other and go together. During Covid, the data is staggering. When you close a school, you not only close access to education but also close access to food for many. These are just a few examples. Some themes seem distant but they are not and they all have a very strong reference to food. We also think about everything we have in common as Mediterranean countries. The seas, but also the resources, the effects of climate change… in what way, then, does food impact on population movements? We think of deforestation and the impact on the life of many communities. The connection between food and deforestation is not obvious, quite the opposite. I am not saying that the cause is only this but it is an important element of reflection. When we think of the food system we think only of the final side of the supply chain but in reality when you produce you use resources. This will set in motion the distribution, marketing, consumption, and post-consumption … it is the part of the supply chain on which today we work so much fighting against waste and encouraging the recovery of waste to arrive at a balance that allows to increase the quality of life for more and more people. I think that universal sustainability is a utopia but we must still work to preserve the Planet. So talking about sustainability understood as a good quality of life with the key objective of managing resources in an equitable way. The choices we make in our diet have great power to change the fate of humanity.
How much attention is there from companies on this issue?
From large to small, I see that there is interest in understanding what sustainability is and above all in giving it substance. The pandemic within the time frame of the lockdown has given us for the first time tangible proof of what sustainable something is meant as supporting something of value. At that moment you had concreteness there because you knew what was important. It could be time, food, family. Since sustainability is a value it is difficult to acquire, you cannot simply take it for granted.
Creating a culture in this area in your company is one of the great challenges that many companies had begun to undertake even before the pandemic. Even if they still don’t understand what the role of design is in all this. If they have to think about innovation, unfortunately, they often do not turn to this professional figure. If anything, they go to the social media manager or graphic designer without actually managing to solve the problem at times. In my opinion there is a lot of ignorance about what its potential and role is. I think more understanding is needed for this figure to help companies emerge from a period of emergency. The Designer can truly become a pivotal figure in this moment of transition.
What is an international country that is managing to really grasp the value of this professional figure?
I cannot identify a country that is more ready than another. But I can tell you what was happening in China before the pandemic, where they had to open a large school of Food Design in June 2021. During the presentation of the project they told us: “We have understood that so far we were not living well. We weren’t using the planet’s resources well. If we continue like this we will not be able to live that much. We understand that we need to change the quality of our life. In our opinion, Food Design is an excellent tool to do this. We want to start with our food ”. This is the key. They grasped what was the first step to take to implement an epochal change in lifestyle, in the type of production, resources, import export. I found it very much in line with what the role of Food Design should be today.
In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle in actually achieving sustainable development in the food sector? And what could we do to speed up this process?
Surely it is necessary to start from training. If you can act on it then you can bring about a change. When you have already trained people you cannot totally change their way of thinking, of creating a thought for themselves. Probably a job has to be done from the beginning, from the moment the kids enter the schools. Let’s go back to the sentence I said at the beginning. If you have worked out on just one intelligence instead of ten, then you should take everything else to the gym too. I will say something perhaps unpopular. Everyone has pointed the finger at the DAD, and a lot has been invested in hardware during the pandemic, therefore in tangible things such as desks, spaces, devices, the Internet … Without taking into account what was behind it, i.e. the software of things , therefore the people. We’ve had months and months to train people to do DAD or otherwise try to understand it. I know it’s difficult, even I am not the happiest person in the world to have to interact with female students and students from afar, but the emergency required this commitment. But blaming all the evils of school on an instrument seems reductive to me. If we have thought so much about how to reformulate spaces and desks, maybe I would have put the same effort into asking myself: how do I create new teaching realities, innovative solutions in the school, and above all what kind of training can I give to the teaching staff to make this happen? Today we complain by blaming the tools when in reality the problem was that we never took the human side into consideration. We have not looked at the problem or the opportunity to change, to improve teaching. It could have been a moment of enrichment of growth, of acceleration but it was not. You ask me what could help foster sustainable development in this and other areas and I think of another big obstacle: maybe people sometimes don’t want to accelerate or change their point of view.
Come out of your reasoning about how inelastic our mind is.
Creativity lies within everyone. The problem is that you are taught to atrophy it in favor of other skills and knowledge. It is clear that if you don’t train it is hard to bring it out. I have students in the class do a rapid prototyping exercise using clay and colors. At first they look at me in silence. After 5 or 10 minutes they play it and chaos comes. They tell me “look I don’t know if I did well or badly” but at that moment with the plasticine in hand they no longer understand anything. In reality, it is only a means to show them how in two hours of workshops, which we do also following rudimentary techniques, they can come to have a collaborative idea. Getting up in the morning and having an idea is not a scientific method. But there are methods that help you bring out solutions.
Young people took to the streets and awakened many, especially institutional, consciences on these issues. In concrete terms, according to your professional and personal experience, how widespread is the sense of individual responsibility in feeling that everyone can be the author of positive change?
They know a lot about the environment thanks to the movement raised by Greta strongly oriented towards climate change. They know very little about what their contribution can be, especially in the food part. There is so much chaos on the subject of food education. There should be food education geared not only to the health of the body but also to that of the planet. This is also an education gap. If this type of training were mandatory, if the topics were provided from when we were small, we would then have more aware citizens but also professionals who work differently. It is very good to have movements like Greta’s that are always good at an informative level but then we should give more consistency to the contents.
In my experience and the statistics I refer to, young people do not feel this responsibility. They too think it’s a next generation problem. An exercise I do in class to overcome this is to ask kids to write a letter imagining what their grandchildren would write to them in 2070 as grandparents. They are not catastrophic letters but 50 years from now they predict what there is now or the same chaos. It is as if they did not see a solution. If you are unable to see the future what kind of empowerment are you thinking of putting in place? This is the feedback I receive. I’ve been doing this for a year so I don’t have quantitative data but at a qualitative level I see a design only in the short term. However, it is a skill that can be learned. As you learned to do math, to read, to sing, so you can learn to plan and therefore to think in a systemic and long-term way.
Let’s move on to Goal 5 as part of your career. Has the fact of being a woman ever been a discriminating factor in everything you have achieved so far?
If you are a woman it is different wherever you are. I’ve always been the youngest and the smallest in all the things I’ve done. Being young and a woman is not easy. For a while, I also had blue hair and so this increased my being treated without respect. In my sector I see no discrimination other than in any other sector. However, I think that one point in favor of the education sector is the ability to network. Lately I am more and more part of women’s networks: I see them active, strong and I think it is very positive. On the side of teaching and research, the discrimination is so evident. In any case, the important thing is to get girls and boys to think differently. I put gender in all my courses as one of the points to work on. And I always say to girls: “I hope you don’t just want to be part of a group, but you also want to be the one to create something important”. I believe that as educators, we have an important role, we must help our children to become agents of change.