• Isolated Inventors

food banks and wicked problems

This post is our response to Challenge #4 — How might we help food banks keep helping those who rely on them? Because this challenge is a "wicked problem", background information and research to fully understand the opportunities to help. Therefore, we have responded to this challenge with a resource page to help you begin to think of solutions. For some of you who are familiar with design processes, the first half of this post may be repeating what you already know. If this is the case, skip forward to “breakdown of the issues” for more accessible ways to address Challenge #4.

What is a wicked problem?

According to the aptly-named website 'wickedproblems.com' a wicked problem is:

“A social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

If you would like to know more, they go into detail about wicked problems on their site so it is worth checking out. However, the basic gist is that these problems are usually the ones that we want to solve the most; the ones that pull at our heartstrings and keep us up at night. The reason that they are wicked, is because they are usually huge problems that can be hard to scope out and identify ways we can impact them without changing the whole world.

Often when addressing these issues, as designers, it is possible to end up down rabbit holes of research. These projects almost always leave you with a feeling of despair and helplessness—we think we already have enough of these feelings at the moment so here are some ways that you can begin to think about tacking wicked problems.

How do we tackle it?

1. Do some research:

Sorry, there is no escaping this one. Going into a problem blind, especially big ones, is never a good idea. However, there are more enjoyable ways to research than reading articles online. For new research ideas, you can look to the experts, IDEO, and download their free PDF about human-centered design here.

2. Break it down:

You will never be able to tackle the entire “wicked problem” in one go. It is a fact. This does not mean that you can’t help to solve it. If you break it down into smaller problems or insights, you can address them one at a time. Turn these problems into mini briefs, framing them as a question like “how might we tackle [insert mini problem/insight].”

3. Look for ways similar problems have been solved before:

It is rare to find a wicked problem that others have not already tried to tackle. Look at these solutions and analyse them; what worked and what didn’t? What elements can be re-used? If someone has already done some of the leg work for you, then use it. There is no point in starting from scratch unnecessarily—if your idea is going to improve people’s lives, why would you delay getting it to them?

Design fast, fail fast, learn fast

When addressing wicked problems, the solutions are rarely perfectly refined. It is important to create quick and scrappy prototypes (even if this is prototyping a service or interaction) and start testing them quickly. There is no point in designing something to a high quality if it does not work. You will learn from your failures, so fail fast and fail often. Refine as you go and don’t get disheartened. Please note that if you keep failing it may be time for you to pivot on your idea —this is also okay.

Moving on…

That was a very quick whistle-stop tour into a process to addressing Wicked Problems. There are many ways to tackle these challenges, trust us, we spent two years getting degrees in this. However, we feel this is enough for you to get started. So now, back to the challenge….

Tackling Challenge #4.

Fortunately for you, we have already done some of the research around this problem. We have broken our findings down into some key issues that need tackling. There is a “brief” attached to each problem to get you started.

Break down of the issues:

Due to the new limits imposed by supermarkets to prevent people from stock-piling, people are now only allowed to buy 3 units of each item. This means that people are no longer able to buy extra items to donate.

How might we encourage people to buy smartly and buy enough to be able to donate?

How might we change people’s buying habits to leave enough food-bank appropriate items left?

The safety standards to prevent the spread of the virus are getting higher and higher. Many food banks do not have the resources to keep up with these standards.

How might we create simple, effective ways to keep people safe while volunteering?

How might we help people do volunteering jobs whilst maintaining 2 metres distance from each other?

There are many businesses and companies willing to prepare and produce food for the food banks, but there is currently little infrastructure to organise the resources and manage the people to deal with this.

How might we help food banks process and manage new sources of food?

How might we help food banks process and manage information during this unprecedented time?

Restaurants are happy to donate food, but it is hard to get the food from the restaurants to the people that need it.

How might we help to get food from restaurants to the people who need it?

Food donations are down because people can’t get out to donate.

How might we help people donate without going outside?

If food banks are unable to open there needs to be new ways to get food to people safely.

How might we create new ways to safely distribute food to people who need it?

Many volunteers for the food bank are over 70 and it is therefore now unsafe for them to continue to volunteer. This means that there is a major reduction in the food bank workforce.

How might we encourage a younger generation to volunteer?

How might we help food banks to manage with fewer volunteers?

Have an idea?

If you have an idea and don’t want to make it alone then reach out to others, there are plenty of people out there looking to help in this situation. We are always here if you want to discuss ideas or brainstorm. We are also looking into ways we can help you find other Isolated Inventors to collaborate with—if you have any suggestions let us know!

If I don’t have an idea are there other ways I can help?

If you are well and you are not at high risk then, according to the government, you can still volunteer your time. This is obviously something that you should listen to official advice about and we are in no position to give this to you. All we can do is provide the links to charities for you to see how you can help them:

The Trussell Trust Food Bank Network

Local Volunteer Centres

Volunteering Matters

Reach Volunteering

If you can't or do not want to volunteer you can also donate food and money charities where you can. For more information about where you can volunteer, safety precautions associated with volunteering and ways you can financially help the situation these articles is quite informative:



Stay safe and keep using your brains for good!

Timi + Kate


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