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Squat & Grow: Designing Smart Human-Food Interactions in Singapore

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Squat & Grow was a two-week series of workshops, talks and field trips aimed to support a sustainable food culture in Singapore, and test alternative scenarios of the Smart Nation plan. The project encouraged citizens to participate and co-design an open platform organized around DIY low-cost technology and "smart" food practices. In this paper, we describe two Squat & Grow workshops run by tutors from Indonesia and Singapore and show how the Smart Nation can be differently built through DIY biological and technological activities. We also demonstrate how Singapore becomes a conduit rather than a center for technological innovation and economic development within the region.
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Squat & Grow: Designing Smart
Human-Food Interactions in Singapore
Abstract
Squat & Grow was a two-week series of workshops,
talks and field trips aimed to support a sustainable food
culture in Singapore, and test alternative scenarios of
the Smart Nation plan. The project encouraged citizens
to participate and co-design an open platform
organized around DIY low-cost technology and "smart"
food practices. In this paper, we describe two Squat &
Grow workshops run by tutors from Indonesia and
Singapore and show how the Smart Nation can be
differently built through DIY biological and technological
activities. We also demonstrate how Singapore
becomes a conduit rather than a center for
technological innovation and economic development
within the region.
Author Keywords
Food; DIY; Maker; Smart Nation; Singapore; HCI
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g.,
HCI): Miscellaneous
Introduction
Squat & Grow (S&G) was a two-week series of
workshops, talks and field trips aimed to support a
sustainable food culture in Singapore, and test
alternative scenarios of a smart city [13]. S&G served
as a site where citizens co-designed an open platform
organized around do-it-yourself (DIY) low-cost
technology and "smart" food practices. In this sense,
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SEACHI 2016, May 08-08 2016, San Jose, CA, USA
ACM 978-1-4503-4194-3/16/05.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2898365.2899798
Markéta Dolejšová
National University of Singapore
marketa@u.nus.edu
Cindy Lin Kaiying
University of Michigan
cindylky@umich.edu
the project is a DIY response to existing smart city
plans claiming to use technology to create transparent
interactions between citizens and governments [4].
S&G specifically addressed the Singapore's Smart
Nation (SN) plan to "harness technology and create
more opportunities for citizens to engage in
participatory activities" [7]. Even though SN introduces
innovative solutions, most of them regard citizens only
as end users. By inviting designers, researchers,
hackers and food-tech enthusiasts from Southeast Asia
(SEA), S&G aimed to test alternative scenarios of a
peer-governed SN future built directly by citizens. The
project was initiated by three Ph.D. students (including
authors) and supported by local initiatives Edible
Garden City Singapore, Hackerspace.sg, and OneMaker
Group (OMG). S&G accommodated 21 events ranging
from food workshops such as fermentation and herbal
medicine tutorials to maker sessions on DIY food-tech
gadgets.
HCI has shown considerable interest in user
participation and food sustainability issues. Scholars
have offered a variety of scenarios to enhance urban
food sustainability [2,3,9], while accentuating a need
for citizens' hands-on engagement in "everyday food
science" [8]. S&G encouraged citizens' participation and
supported speculations of sustainable food culture in
Singapore to inspire alternative SN visions. Here, we
describe two S&G workshops and show how the smart
nation can be differently built through DIY biological
and technological activities. We also demonstrate how
Singapore becomes a conduit rather than a center for
technological innovation within the region.
Smart (Food) Cities
The concept of smart city involves the use of ICT to
transform life and working environments beneficial for
the city and its citizens [4]. Thus, the inclusion of lay
people in the making of a smart city is essential.
However, present plans mostly include lay people as
mere users of ready-made solutions, and preserve the
creative processes in the hands of experts and start-up
intelligence [4,7]. HCI scholars have questioned such
lay-expert divide and highlighted advantages of lay-
people's inclusion in social innovation processes [1,11].
S&G followed and probed "smart" future scenarios
where expert stakeholders are periphery to decision-
making processes. Smart city plans concerned about
environmental sustainability are highly connected to
issues of sustainable food production [6]. Singapore’s
food supply is fulfilled largely by imports, and the local
food sustainability infrastructure is still rather
immature. However, as more Singaporeans realize the
negative environmental and individual health effects of
unsustainable food practices, a local demand for eco-
friendly food products and services increases [12]. This
shift has prompted local policymakers [10] to improve
people's awareness of sustainable food practices.
Singapore's SN plan can be considered as one step in
these efforts.
Smart Nation Plan: Innovation and Sustainability
in Singapore
Initiated by the Infocomm Development Authority of
Singapore (IDA) in 2013, the SN plan represents
Singapore’s goals to become the first Smart Nation
globally [7]. Along with the state’s worries about the
impact of population ageing and density on food, water,
and energy resources, the SN aims to encourage
makers and tech entrepreneurs to resolve such issues
collaboratively. For instance, IDA committed an
approximate S$10 million budget to build physical
spaces for citizens, companies, and state
representatives to "tinker with tech" [7]. While SN
plans express desires to engage with smaller actors in
innovation, the role of citizens is predetermined by the
state’s development pursuits. This is not to say that SN
is not relevant to laypersons; however, it fails to
recognize how citizens can also be SN co-creators,
rather than mere participants. Furthermore,
Singapore’s positioning of itself as a regional hub for
SEA [7] suggests that technological innovation does not
happen elsewhere, outside the city-state. S&G
responds to these issues by steering meaningful public
Figure 1. Fermentation
workshop tutored by NUS
students. Image © S&G.
engagement in the making of smart nation, as we show
on the example of two organized workshops.
Squat & Grow
Fermentation Workshop
S&G hosted several fermentation workshops, including
DIY rice wine making by Sewon FoodLab Yogyakarta,
kimchi tutorial by The Asian Raw Chef, and
fermentation session run by a group of NUS scholars.
Along with these events, we aimed to support people's
engagement in DIY food making and show a way to
decrease our dependencies on the mass food market.
The NUS group gave a tutorial on vegetable pickling
(fig.1) and introduced a scenario of a "smart" urban
fermentation community connected via online tools,
such as a crowdsourced online map or a Github
cookbook of fermentation recipes [5]. They also
prototyped a DIY fermentation incubator with light and
temperature sensor regulated through the Arduino and
open-source relay module. During the workshop, we
tinkered with the incubator (fig.2,3) and made some
improvements (e.g. a Wi-Fi microcontroller Photon to
enable remote control). From this initial stage, the
"smart" fermentation project was released as a public
initiative, which is now known as "Fermentation
GutHub" (FGH) [5]. FGH’s workshop asked participants
to bring jars and utensils to share them with others.
This peer-sharing scenario worked well, and many
participants even brought fermentation ingredients and
offered their own "starters" (i.e. microbes catalyzing
fermentation process) for exchange. This inspired a
scenario of a peer-managed public space, where people
would freely deposit and exchange fermentation
starters. This scenario later materialized into the
"Fermentation Bank" project, now operated in
Hackerspace.sg [5]. When S&G ended, we organized a
tasting session of the fermented foods prepared during
the workshops. An enquired about the safety of
consuming these DIY goods. We replied by reiterating
that the peer-governed S&G initiative has no deputies
responsible for safety risks. These incidents opened
dialogue on responsibilities over potential risks of
experimental DIY practices, which is an important issue
in hacker and maker culture in general.
Fruit BioSynth Workshop
Among the more non-conventional food experiments
was the Fruit BioSynth workshop run by members of
Lifepatch lab, Yogyakarta. The workshop was held in
National Design Centre with the logistical support of
OMG and built on the "Tiger BioSynth" circuit designed
by one of the Lifepatch members (fig.4). During the
workshop, we exchanged knowledge on the function of
BioSynths' electronic components and experimented
with its applications and uses (fig.5). Participants were
also asked to bring fruits native to the region and treat
the moisture in the fruits as data that can be visualized
and embodied through sound. The evocation of several
senses created a different understanding of food data
and encouraged other modes of thinking about food
and technology. From this, we learned how to run
creative food experiments beyond conventional cooking
practices and expensive tools. The Fruit BioSynth
(fig.6) questions the functionality of self-designed
objects by alerting participants to different ways of
reading food data. Moreover, Lifepatch’s workshop
exemplifies how Indonesian technologists and artists
legitimize their innovations in Singapore. S&G
encouraged participants to acknowledge the
technological work that Indonesians do and, in turn,
question Singapore’s position as an innovation hub for
SEA market.
Discussion
The DIY self-governance model employed by S&G was
not an attempt to replace state-initiated SN - in fact,
we have seen both pros and cons of these DIY efforts,
with interesting ambiguities related to risks and
responsibility-sharing. The exclusion of larger
stakeholders and corporate intermediaries provided a
space for flexible impromptu interactions, which
brought some unexpected and desirable results (e.g.
the Fermentation Bank). However, the participants'
reticence to accept responsibility for the "smart"
Figure 2. The DIY fermentation
incubator temperature sensor.
Image © S&G.
Figure 3. The DIY fermentation
incubator in the making. Image
© S&G.
collective actions (e.g. DIY food tasting) proved to be a
problematic issue. We have identified two kinds of
legitimizing work that need to be done to further
develop such "smart" DIY scenarios. Firstly, we have to
better legitimize the self-made, food-related production
that citizens still perceive as risky. Secondly, we should
facilitate the sustenance of legitimate knowledge
production in neighboring countries to destabilize the
hub-ness of Singapore. Both efforts relate to S&G goals
of inquiring into what a smart nation is and how it can
best facilitate sustainable development. We see such
efforts as frontiers to encourage Singaporeans to
reconsider risk-taking behaviors and technological
development strategies. Such work serves as entry-
point for future S&G pursuits to support not only DIY
initiatives in urban food production but also alternative
SN visions.
Conclusion
S&G became an experiment combining food,
technology and DIY methods to citizens' capabilities in
self-governed innovation outside of expert circles. This
allowed participants to re-think present and future
frames of local food policies and use food as a medium
in response to looming SN plans. We see interventions
in pre-defined social innovation frameworks through
grassroots cross-disciplinary efforts such as S&G as
important and viable way to supplement state-centric
visions like SN.
References
1. Mariam Asad & Sarah Schoemann. 2015. Designing
for civic events. Interactions, 22(6), 58-61.
2. Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, Marcus Foth, and Greg Hearn.
2014. Eat, Cook, Grow: Mixing Human-Computer
Interactions with Human-Food Interactions: MIT
Press.
3. Anna R. Davies. 2014. Co-creating sustainable
eating futures: Technology, ICT and citizen
consumer ambivalence. Futures, 181-193.
4. Mark Deakin & Husam Al Waer. 2011. From
Intelligent to Smart Cities. Journal of Intelligent
Buildings International: From Intelligent Cities to
Smart Cities 3 (3): 140-152.
5. Fermentation GutHub: http://foodguthub.github.io/
6. Food Smart Cities for Development. (2015).
[Website]. Retrieved from www.foodpolicymilano.
org /en/food-smart-cities-for-development-2/
7. IDA. 2015. UK Startups excited by Singapore's
Smart Nation Vision. Retrieved 28 January, 2016
from http://www.ida.gov.sg/Tech-Scene-
News/Tech-News/Startups/2015/12/UK-Startups-
excited-by-Singapore-Smart-Nation-Vision
8. Stacey Kuznetsov, Christina Santana, Elenore
Long, Rob Comber, Carl DiSalvo, C. 2015. The art
of everyday food science. Foraging for design
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fileadmin/ahk_singapur/DEinternational/IR/diffIR/F
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13. Squat & Grow:
http://www.facebook.com/events/7747361559274
68/
Figure 4. Tiger BioSynth
designed by Andreas Siagan.
Image ©Lifepatch.
Figure 5. Tiger BioSynth
soldering. Image ©S&G.
Figure 6. Fruit Biosynth. Image
©S&G.
... [17,18]). Examples of research in this community include: Choi et al. 's edited collection of CHI research into eating, cooking and growing food [13], Dolejšová and Kaiying's research that encourages citizens to co-design DIY food-related technologies [24], and Khot et al. 's 3D chocolate print system that offers users personalised 'activity treats' after exercising [39]. ...
... • Speculate: contributions that explore alternative food futures, or conduct meta-reflections on HFI as a research field (e.g. [12,24]). ...
... Many publications in this domain focus on social phenomena surrounding food practice. For example, [24] encourages citizens to co-design DIY low-cost technology to support "smart" food practices. Papers in the speculate domain are often co-categorised as source, store or produce. ...
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[Website]. Retrieved from www.foodpolicymilano. org /en/food-smart-cities-for
Food Smart Cities for Development. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from www.foodpolicymilano. org /en/food-smart-cities-for-development-2/
Chamber of Industry and Commerce
  • Singaporean-German
Singaporean-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce. (2013). Food Industry. Retrieved 28