Innovation in action, or how I learned to love design thinking and how it might help fix journalism and food

Innovation. It’s a word that’s freely tossed about at Stanford and in the Silicon Valley. But what does innovation mean for journalism, when every day, the business of media is being broken and remade, or “disrupted” in Valley parlance? I came to Stanford as a JSK Fellow because the program champions innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders as they try to reinvent journalism. As an entrepreneurial fellow, my challenge was to make Civil Eats’ food policy news part of the daily American media diet, while innovating on funding opportunities that could be applicable for all independent media publications.

As one of the few working fellows, I did what all innovators do: I pivoted. I felt the urgency to use my time at Stanford wisely, and quickly realized I didn’t have the luxury of taking classes for personal or professional development. Rather, I was on a mission to accelerate my learning for Civil Eats by identifying those who could help me move the needle further faster. I canvassed my contacts and available assets, and luckily gained the mentorship of a trusted colleague at Andreessen Horowitz, whose advice largely steered my thinking this year.

Knowing that most people are not willing to pay for content, his creative and timely advice was to think about whether Civil Eats is a merely a media site or whether it could and should also be a technology site. If we thought of it as the latter, what tools might we offer to our “users” (i.e., our readers) for which they would be willing to pay above and beyond the content?

In order to investigate this question, I co-taught an experimental class with the FEED Collaborative’s Matthew Rothe in the d.school in both the Winter and Spring quarters. This work became the center point of my year as a fellow, and though I had some initial uncertainty about design thinking, I have come to value it as a vital tool for rethinking journalism as well re-imagining our food system.

Together with our students, we deeply engaged and used human centered design to help us to solve a real-life problem: how to encourage people to pay for content and/or support independent journalism. Before we even began to answer this question, we used design principles to uncover a very rich data set from our users/readers — self-proclaimed food-focused Millennials — who revealed a very real need about how they are navigating a complex, and often confusing, food marketplace and the lack of available and reliable sources to help them do so.

We also found a startling amount of anxiety and contradiction around the food shopping experience. As it turns out, Generation Y is one of the most anxious in recent history. And while they are also one of the most food-obsessed groups, Millennials’ anxiety extends to the fear of making the “right choice” when it comes to buying food. They also shared with us a high level of skepticism and distrust of authority. Our research indicated that there was a great design opportunity to help this growing and powerful consumer cohort make the “right choice,” while scaling up sustainability, and hopefully creating a new revenue stream for Civil Eats as the trusted authority in this space.

We worked toward better understanding this very human need, and questioned whether current technology, including apps intended to shop “better,” are actually appropriate. We concluded that apps are not solving for the needs we identified and sought to avoid the “app trap” that many fall into. This critical insight led us to dig deeper in the spring quarter to find out what other solutions (high or low-tech) might be appropriate, while also examining a subset of our original group, Millennial moms-to-be or mothers of young children.

We examined the plethora of food tech that exists, from Instacart to Munchery to meal kits like Blue Apron or Purple Carrot, and asked our user group whether these technologies are helping solve for their needs to not just feed themselves and their families well, but to also be nourished in a deeper way. We uncovered yet another very real design challenge: a lack of humanness in the food tech space and the desire for a high-touch human approach to answer many of the questions that parents have about what to eat and how to feed their families. The feedback confirmed my assumptions that food is a very human activity, and that many of the recent technologies have been created for efficiencies, but not for connection; it’s nearly impossible to disrupt the human relationship to food.

Rothe (who devoted his time off during the Spring Quarter to work with me on this project) and I will continue to work together and with IDEO, which has offered to help us in the next phase, to better design for the needs of this burgeoning user group. The continued collaboration as colleagues and the future work between the FEED Collaborative and Civil Eats has been one of the most exciting outcomes of my year as a JSK Fellow, and I’m grateful for the guidance and support I received to apply design thinking to innovate on my work.