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Fermentation GutHub: Designing for Food Sustainability in Singapore

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The recent interest of hacker and maker communities in the optimization of everyday food practices connects the urban geek and foodie movements with traditional food cultures. The present DIY experiments with urban food fermentation show a growing citizens' interest in alternative models of food production and distribution. That was a starting point for the GutHub project conceived around practices of DIY food fermentation to support local food sustainability in Singapore. The community of enthusiasts gathered around the GutHub project has designed a number of technological tools to augment the fermentation efforts. In this paper, we present data from eight months long engagements with the GutHub community. We elaborate on the advantages and limitations of such DIY food-tech efforts and situate the findings in the context of HCI discussions on urban food sustainability.
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Fermentation GutHub: Designing for Food Sustainability in
Singapore
Markéta Dolejšová, Denisa Kera
National University of Singapore
11 Computing Drive, Singapore 117416
marketa@u.nus.edu, denisa@u.nus.edu
ABSTRACT
The recent interest of hacker and maker communities in the
optimization of everyday food practices connects the urban
geek and foodie movements with traditional food cultures.
The present DIY experiments with urban food fermentation
show a growing citizens' interest in alternative models of
food production and distribution. That was a starting point
for the GutHub project conceived around practices of DIY
food fermentation to support local food sustainability in
Singapore. The community of enthusiasts gathered around
the GutHub project has designed a number of technological
tools to augment the fermentation efforts. In this paper, we
present data from eight months long engagements with the
GutHub community. We elaborate on the advantages and
limitations of such DIY food-tech efforts and situate the
findings in the context of HCI discussions on urban food
sustainability.
Author Keywords
DIY cultures, HCI for food sustainability, Peer production,
Fermentation
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI):
Miscellaneous
INTRODUCTION
Fermentation GutHub is a food-tech experiment inspired by
fermentation subcultures that tests future scenarios of urban
food sustainability. The project involves a community of
enthusiasts interested in food fermentation - a traditional
food making technique using microbial cultures (so-called
"starter cultures") to convert food sugars to acids, and
enrich our meals with new tastes, textures and nutritional
qualities. During the eight months of regular meetups in
Singapore's Hackerspace.sg [15] the GutHub community
has designed a number of DIY (Do-It-Yourself) tech tools
and online platforms to better facilitate its collective
fermentation efforts. These tech features include a Github
fermentation cookbook [14]; a DIY fermentation incubator
[24]; a Fermentation Bank of starter cultures [8]; a
crowdsourced fermentation map [32]; and a Facebook
group for online troubleshooting [9].
The project was initiated by four NUS (National University
Singapore) scholars (including authors), to support local
food sustainability efforts and create a platform for citizens
to experiment with DIY food production. This initiative is
of particular importance in Singapore that heavily relies on
imported foods distributed through a dense supermarket
infrastructure. We wanted to create alternative to this
system and through the collective learning and exchange of
fermentation experiences decrease our dependencies on the
mass food market. The GutHub community is particularly
interested in exploring similarities between traditional ways
of sharing fermentation knowledge and the newer hacker
and maker style activities, which support various forms of
technological folklore. We see GutHub as an example of
such a folklore rejuvenating the traditional food practices
through tinkering with low-cost DIY technologies. Along
with the "smart" fermentation community connected over
various technologies, we probe limits and advantages of a
sustainable food-HCI design.
HCI scholars have shown a substantial interest in the issues
of urban food sustainability [4,12,20,21,33]. Still, little
attention has been paid to the use of HCI in DIY food
sustainability interventions leveraged directly by citizens.
Such efforts are especially important in the context of
Singapore's food system, which is still rather immature in
terms of sustainability. Considering the city-state's plans to
create efficient ICT infrastructure and become the world's
first "smart nation" [17], food-tech projects like GutHub are
of a great relevance in the local context. In this paper, we
elaborate on our experiences from the GutHub community
and introduce core ideas of the project, as well as the
limitations encountered so far. We elaborate in detail on the
opportunities that HCI offers when designing peer-learning
interactions around sustainable food practices. Thereby, we
hope to inspire other HCI scholars and practitioners
interested in designing for sustainable food futures.
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CHIuXiD '16, April 13-15, 2016, Jakarta, Indonesia
© 2016 ACM. ISBN 978-1-4503-4044-1/16/04
$15.00
DOI:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2898459.2898470
BACKGROUND
Food and HCI Convergences
The unfolding globalization and standardization of food
production have a caused a shift in people's dietary habits
and led to the debilitation of local food cultures [28,35].
Especially in big cities that are most exposed to these
changes, there has been a growing interest in using
alternative food sources and artisanal methods of food
production [16]. Urban food initiatives promoting
sustainable food production emerge all over the world
[7,12,25]. These efforts have recently become popular also
in Singapore [6,26], as locals begin to realize negative
environmental impacts of the escalating globalization of the
city-state [23].
Along with the increased availability of digital
technologies, the food sustainability efforts are increasingly
augmented by online food services and mobile applications.
These enable users to track nutritional values of available
food products [10] or engage in neighborhood food swaps
[30], urban food foraging [25] and food waste minimization
[21]. Aside from the services involving consumers only as
'mere' end users, some DIY food-tech platforms exist that
are operated by lay consumers themselves. [5,29]. The user
communities gathered around these platforms emphasize
the importance of DIY peer-sharing of knowledge to
support consumers' direct engagement in food production.
Food making and eating are one of the most authentic forms
of people's engagement with the world around them.
Enabling consumers to participate in food production and
negotiation about food issues is thus an important factor to
keep the human-food ecosystem in balance. DIY food
fermentation represent one such attempt to support these
participatory engagements and rejuvenate the heritage of
traditional food cultures in industrialized urban
environments.
Urban Food Fermentation
The traditional technique of food fermentation has been
popular in all continents since the Neolithic times [16]. At
the heart of the urban fermentation revival is a DIY food
activist Sandor Katz, who advocates it as a way "to break
the confining and infantilizing dependency of consumer on
mass market, and taking back our dignity by becoming
producers and creators" [19,p.7]. Fermented foods rich in
probiotics (microorganisms produced within the
fermentation process) are hailed for its beneficial effect on
human immunity as well as digestive and oral health.
Fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir or kimchi
containing the 'friendly' probiotic bacteria thus became a
popular part of healthy eaters' diet (figure 1).
Aside from individual health benefits, fermentation also has
some larger environmental impacts. The homemade food is
likely to lower consumer's dependencies on proprietary
food supply, thus mitigating the negative ecological impacts
of mass food production and distribution. Important for the
fermentation process are the starter cultures (or so-called
"starters"), which are microbial media that activate and
catalyze the fermentation process. Starters such as yeast,
whey, or salt promote the fermentation process by
inhibiting the growth of undesirable microorganisms
Figure 1. Preparation of kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish
made of fermented vegetables. Image © GutHub
Interesting feature of starters is self-propagation, i.e. their
ability to 'feed' each other: A starter added to one jar helps
to ferment the its content, which can be later used as a
starter to initiate a fermentation process in another jar.
Thereby, the starter becomes a superfluous commodity that
can be re-used multiple times and initiate more
fermentation processes. This self-propagation feature
creates unique microbial genealogies, as well as relations
between people who share them.
Figure 2. Tempeh starter in a form of freeze dried tablets. Image
© GutHub.
As we will show later, starter sharing can become a social
networking activity, connecting people over their interest in
a particular fermented food. The GutHub project builds on
this social networking idea, and uses the practice of DIY
fermentation to support collective food sustainability
efforts. Along with the GutHub tech tools [14], the projects
aims to attract a broad public attention and make the
sustainable food practices 'digestible' also for the young
tech-savvy generations. By cultivating a welcoming
community for support and guidance, we hope to inspire
more locals to participate in this growing gastronomical
movement.
THE GUTHUB PROJECT: SUPPORTING EDIBLE
INTERACTIONS IN SINGAPORE
The project has been initiated in January 2015, during the
graduate module "Design for Public Engagement" given at
the NUS department of Communication and New Media
[3]. Our goal was to create an interaction design scenario of
future urban resilience that would support citizen's
engagement in education and innovation processes. We
have quickly identified the problem of local food
unsustainability and decided to probe a scenario of "smart"
fermentation community self-governed through online and
DIY technology. After the initial literature review, we
followed with hands-on fermentation experiments with
vegetable pickling and yogurt making (figure 3).
Figure 3. The First fermentation trials with vegetable pickling.
Image © GutHub.
To gain a better insight into the diversity of fermentation
practices, we also reviewed the activity and working
routines of three online fermentation groups based in
Singapore and Prague (CZ). This online research helped us
to identify potential problems of starting a local
fermentation community, and informed the eventual
GutHub design.
Bread And Water Kefir Fermentation: Examples from
Prague and Singapore
Based on the previous literature review, we decided to
focus on two types of foods that are popular, but quite
challenging to ferment in Singapore: a sourdough bread and
water kefir. For the sourdough research, we selected a
Czech community "PečemPecen.cz" ("pečem" = baking;
"pecen" = bread loaf) organized via a public Facebook
group [27]. The reason for choosing this group was the
large site traffic, and also our familiarity with the Czech
language and culture. We did not register many sourdough
communities in Singapore; however, we noticed an
increased local interest in homemade breads, as well as
newly emerging artisanal bakeries.
The PečemPecen.cz community had over 21 600 members
on the date of the analysis (April 10th). A lively discussion
on the group timeline includes recommendations on the
sourdough making, members' exchanging ideas and
providing feedback to fellow fermenters, as well as proud
pictures of homemade breads (a picture of a heart-shaped
bread loaf would generate some 1000+ likes). Interesting
habit adopted by the community are regular live meetings
where they swap their sourdough starters (so called
"leavens"). The swaps are performed on a barter basis, and
participants either exchange one leaven for another, or, if
they do not have a leaven to share, they 'pay' with a cup of
coffee, homemade cookies or some similar treat. This
model of starter sharing greatly inspired the design of
GutHub scenario, as we will describe in the next chapter.
The water kefir research was held at multiple Singaporean
websites. We looked up Facebook pages, local discussion
forums, as well as fermentation weblogs. However, after
conducting an extensive research, we could not find a single
collaborative group that would offer a continuous and
updated discussion on water kefir fermentation issues. Most
close to our expectations was a blog post titled
"Introduction to Water Kefir, Milk Kefir, and How to Make
Them" published on a personal lifestyle weblog [18]. The
author offers an overview of water kefir's health benefits,
taste aspects, as well as preparation ideas. Most
importantly, she offers her water kefir starter, known as
"water kefir grains", to share. This offer sparks visitors'
attention and becomes a leitmotiv of the discussion below
the blog post. However, the author soon updates that she
ran out of her kefir grains, which does not prevent the
visitors in asking for other potential sources. It was
apparent that there is a huge interest in water kefir grains
among locals, as well as a pressing lack of local supply
channels, which further informed our GutHub plans.
Thanks to this preliminary online research, we were able to
set up a list of goals for the soon-to-come GutHub project.
These include a solution to:
Facilitate a smooth exchange of starter cultures
Provide an interactive communication platform
and create an online community to discuss various
fermentation issues
Encourage members' substantial participation
Organize regular live meetups with hands-on
fermentation tutorials
Having settled the core ideas and motivations of the
GutHub project, we organized the first public workshop
[11]. The workshop was organized in the premises of
Edible Gardens Singapore [6] on April 14th and hosted
around 40 participants. We prepared a variety of fermented
refreshments, and asked participants to do the same. We
were surprised that many people brought also their starter
cultures and offered them for free sharing (figure 4). During
the workshop, we presented the idea of the "smart"
fermentation community as well as the concepts of the
abovementioned technological platforms [14]. Since then,
the GutHub idea has turned into a real community of food-
tech enthusiasts who regularly meet, experiment with
fermentation, discuss various local food issues, and share
their ideas as well as their (starter) cultures
Figure 4. The First GutHub workshop. Image © GutHub.
Fermentation Bank
Inspired by the leaven swaps within the Czech bread
community, as well as the generous starter sharing
encountered at the GutHub workshop, we have created a
scenario of P2P (peer-to-peer) exchanges of starter cultures.
In this scenario, the starters are utilized as a form of
microbial cryptocurrency, something like organic Bitcoin.
The circulation of Bitcoin occurs over a shared blockchain
ledger that lists details of all performed transactions [1]. To
ensure transparency and smooth flow of our starter
exchanges, we decided to create some similar form of
depository and opened the Singapore's very first bank of
fermentation starters. The Fermentation Bank [8] is
conceived as a public place, where people freely withdraw
and deposit their starters, and exchange them with others.
As a physical space for the Bank, the Hackerspace.sg,
where we now hold the regular GutHub meetups, kindly
offered their spacious fridge (figure 5).
Figure 5. Microbial deposits in the Fermentation Bank. Image ©
GutHub.
The motivation behind the Bank is to support friendly
barter exchanges of food resources, and show an alternative
model to food purchases in supermarkets. It is conceived as
an open public institution leveraged by citizens, who are
welcomed to withdraw and deposit starters according to
their needs. Instead of paying with money, we want to
promote a prosocial behavior and ask the Bank visitors to
leave something ideally another starter for exchange.
However, as there are likely to be many 'fermentation
novices' who do not have any starter to share, we made it
clear that the Bank visitors are welcomed to offer any skills,
talents, knowledge, foods, or tools they have in exchange
for a withdrawn starter (figure 6). This barter trade has
worked quite well so far, and the fridge contains a good
repository of starters, ranging from sourdough leavens and
kombucha scobys, to water kefir grains (finally!). People
who come to make a 'withdrawal' almost always leave some
fermented foods or starter for exchange. Few visitors have
also offered to give fermentation tutorials, e.g. on beer
brewing, or even on a more unique fermentation techniques
such as making of a sourdough durian bread. That has
supported our goal to facilitate fermentation peer-learning
and some members have started fermenting their own bread
and beer on a regular long term basis. Thus, it seems that
the idea of "microbial blockchain" embodied by the
Fermentation Bank is a good trigger of people's attention
that helps to extend knowledge of sustainable food practices
among locals. However, there are also some limitations in
terms of the Bank's public openness. Visitors are usually
hesitant to look into the Bank by themselves, and wait for
approval of some present GutHub member. That somewhat
curtails the idea of the Bank as a peer-governed space,
operated directly by citizens.
Figure 6. The Fermentation Bank's rules. Image © GutHub.
Online Map of Fermentation Starters
As an extension of the starter swaps performed over the
Bank interface, we have opened an online map with
locations, where individuals offer their starters to share
[32]. The public map (figure 7) is open for editing and is
inspired by similar food mapping projects [4]. We -
somewhat cheekily - speculate that such starter exchanges
resemble the system of P2P file sharing via the BitTorrent
protocol [2]. In accord with the BitTorrent terminology, the
GutHub map network (or "swarm") of starter swappers
consists of "seeders" (those who offer a starter for sharing)
and "leechers" (those who want a starter and are willing to
meet some seeder and get it).
Along with the map, we again want to highlight the - once
natural - character of food as an item existing beyond the
notion of a marketable commodity. The guerilla character
of the BitTorrent metaphor is supposed to foster the
somewhat underground feeling of the GutHub community,
which aims to provide a mass food market alternative.
While enabling live exchanges of tangible starters among
people who might have not known each other before, the
map supports social bonding and networking. However, we
realized that personal security of map contributors needs to
be considered, and suggested that only approximate area
locations (rather than exact addresses), should be listed on
the map. The particular time and place of the eventual
starter swap should be arranged by participants on
individual basis.
Nevertheless, even with this precaution, people are still a
bit reserved in terms of listing their starts in the map. For
now, the map contains only around 20 entries done mostly
by the core GutHub members. Another barrier for people to
use the map seems to be the requirement for some basic
technological skills. The map runs on a Google map
platform, which offers relatively easy navigation
however, mainly the older GutHub members have reported
their lack of confidence to log in their own entries. This
limitation confirms the digital divide issues symptomatic
for the majority of projects involving use of ICTs, and we
need to further discuss possible ways how to increase the
number of the map entries.
Figure 7. The Starter Swarming map. Image © GutHub
GutHub Facebook Group
To support troubleshooting with fermentation issues, we
have also opened a public GutHub group on Facebook [9].
Considering the relatively high (59%) Facebook penetration
in Singapore [34], we assessed it as a convenient
communication channel for our purpose. In contrast to the
starter map, Facebook proved be accessible communication
platform for the local fermentation enthusiasts, and the
GutHub group has so far gained 178 active members, which
is relatively high number. That could be caused by the local
popularity and overall familiarity of the Facebook network,
but also by the relatively low requirements on member's
activity. Reviewing the group timeline, it is apparent that
only around 20 people are regular contributors, while other
seem to be passive lurkers. Nevertheless, the timeline is
continuously filled with fermentation recommendations,
tricks, feedback or ideas on where to buy good utensils. The
Facebook group also attracts attention of other food
initiatives, whose members occasionally post invitations to
their events. Overall, the group interactions are warm and
friendly, as could be illustrated with a timeline post from
8th June, where the author asks for a babysitting for her
kombucha scobys (as she plans to travel overseas for a
longer time). Interestingly enough, she eventually finds her
scoby babysitter (figure 8). The Facebook group seems to
create a welcoming environment that is supportive to
newcomers as well as long-term members. However,
although the group proved to be a useful platform for a
quick troubleshooting, we realized that it is not so
convenient interface for the exchange of lengthy
fermentation recipes and how-to tutorials. Thus, we decided
to open a GutHub page on the Github platform (a hosting
service for P2P software development and open source code
sharing) [13].
Figure 8. Kombucha baby-sitting service in Guthub Facebook
group. Image © GutHub
GutHub Github: A Fermentation Forking
The GutHub Github page [14] for collaborative editing of
fermentation "source codes" was inspired by similar Github
food projects [11]. Following the Github ethics of open
source code sharing and tweaking, or so-called "forking",
our page contains editable repositories of fermentation
recipes and how-to guides; a regularly updated list of
deposits currently present in the Fermentation Bank; or
source codes of the GutHub tech tools. This forking
strategy enables for continuous updates, as well as flexible
corrections of potential errors in the uploaded content. The
idea behind the GutHub forking is that no recipe or tutorial
is ever complete, as there exists an infinite number of
culturally or otherwise conditioned fermentation techniques
and approaches. Along with the Github page, we have
encountered similar problems as with the starter map, and
we still struggle with a relatively low frequency of user
contributions. The idea of sharing of fermentation 'source
codes' seems to be too avant-garde and inaccessible to
many members, primarily because of the Github
requirements for user's advanced technological skills. On
the other hand, the Github page enables the more tech-
savvy members to regularly edit and update the source
codes of some of our DIY tools - such as the fermentation
incubator.
Mother 0.1: A DIY Starter Incubator
The last technological feature of the GutHub design we will
introduce here is the Mother 0.1 starter culture incubator
(named after the Mother computer in Ridley Scott's Alien
series) [24]. Incubators are commonly used for supporting
growth of microbiological cultures while maintaining the
optimal temperature (around 40 C) and other conditions,
such as the humidity and oxygen content of the atmosphere
inside. The Mother consists of a Styrofoam box as a basic
container, an Arduino-based temperature sensor and a relay
module (figure 9). The temperature sensor measures the
degrees inside the incubator, and once it exceeds 40C, the
Arduino switches off the light bulb with the relay. Thus, the
temperature is automated to stay within a set range of
degrees.
Figure 9. The Mother 0.1 Arduino controller. Image © GutHub.
This system enables remote control and convenient
management of the fermentation process that occurs in the
jar placed inside the incubator. Besides the relay we also
designed a sketch for a pH sensor using microfluidics
device with a cabbage juice monitored by color sensor,
which would catch the reaction of the cabbage juice to
elevated pH levels (it changes its colors to blue). As for
now, the Mother prototype is still under a construction - we
are still optimizing the program of temperature control and
hope to upgrade for a "Mother 1.1" soon.
DISCUSSION
Over the course of its eight-months long existence, the
GutHub scenario has grown into a project with a stable
member base organized through regular meetups and
several online services. The overall goal of the GutHub
initiative is to facilitate a peer-governed platform for
Singapore locals to engage in communal learning about
sustainable food practices. Thereby, we aim to show that
there exist feasible alternatives to proprietary mass-
produced foods. While providing a space for hands-on
learning of basic fermentation techniques as well as
tinkering with DIY low-cost tools, the GutHub promotes
the idea that food making can be experimental, but also
sustainable and just activity, rather that an everyday routine.
Along with the traditional fermentation tutorials enhanced
with the DIY tech tools and online platforms, the GutHub
wants to be a public platform attractive for people across
age groups.
However, we have seen that the technological requirements
of the "smart" fermentation scenario entail certain
limitations and some members feel hindered by the lack of
their technological skills. We have seen that the GutHub
Facebook group works quite well, but the less common
tools such Github or the editable online map are rather
inaccessible for many members. It is even possible that the
technological requirements of these GutHub tools might
scare off some people and prevent them from joining the
community as such. These social gap issues are faced by
many HCI designers, and are even more serious in terms of
food-tech design. The efforts to create a "smart" food
sustainability community connected over technology needs
to consider also the late tech adopters, and make sure these
citizens are not left behind. One suggestion for the GutHub
would be to better facilitate the collaboration and mutual
help among more and less tech-savvy GutHub members.
The more techie members should organize occasional
workshops on how to properly manage the GutHub
technology platforms, or, in the GutHub P2P spirit, 'swap'
their tech skills for other goods and knowledge.
However, this does not mean that GutHub would not seek
to further invite older members. On the contrary, people
with knowledge and skills of traditional fermentation
techniques would enhance the GutHub peer-learning
efforts. In this sense, we try to extend the public awareness
about GutHub through occasional public workshops
organized outside the Hackerspace, for instance at local
farmers markets. We also try to develop collaborations with
other Singapore's food movements and initiatives to create a
denser network of enthusiasts interested in the local food
issues. Along with these activities, we hope to attract more
locals and create an open platform for DIY experiments
with food and technology, but also for discussions about
urban food sustainability and alternative modes of urban
food production. These are our future plans that need to be
further developed and brought into real actions; however,
the GutHub community is still gaining new members and
the project is in a continuous progress.
CONCLUSION
The GutHub project is conceived as a citizens platform for
peer sharing of knowledge, experiences, and material
resources related to the practice of DIY home fermentation.
Through this open system of sharing, further augmented by
the online GutHub platforms and DIY tools, the project
aims to support citizens’ hands-on engagements in
sustainable food production. The swaps of microbial
starters as abundant 'currencies' and sustainable sources of
nutrition offer an alternative model to the Singapore's food
distribution, based on a cost-wise import. This alternative is
performed within a small-scale community of fermentation
enthusiasts and does not aspire to replace the capitalistic
working logic of Singapore's food market per se. What it
does aspire to change is citizens' self-perceived dependence
on mass-market food products.
The GutHub community model tests possibilities of HCI
design to support urban food sustainability. The project
uses technologically enhanced human-food interactions as a
standpoint for public discussions about local food
sustainability issues. We believe that our existing
experience with the GutHub project, with all the limitations
described above, will serve as inspiration for other HCI
practitioners interested in designing for sustainable, but also
democratic and just food systems of the future.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We would like to thank all the GutHub members for their
active participation in the project. The ideas, skills and
material resources they offer to share with us make the
whole GutHub project happen.
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... Dolejšová and Kera 2016). ...
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... Some researchers (e.g. see Chen et al. 2021;Dolejšová & Kera 2016;Geleff Nielsen & Almeida, 2021) have studied fermentation practices as a platform to reflect on multispecies relations. For example, Fournier (2020) puts forward that fermentation can be considered a multispecies practice that involves symbiotic relations among microbial and human bodies in which both sides benefit from the sustained relation. ...
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