Jon Alexander a founding partner of the New Citizenship Project – an innovation company that aims to speed the shift to a more participatory society – Zoë Arden spoke to him to find out what he has learnt.
Could a small shift in thinking — from Consumer to Citizen — make a big difference in our food system? This is the question that the New Citizenship Project has been asking many different actors over the past few months, the results of which are published in Food Citizenship: how thinking of ourselves differently can change the future of our food system.
It is wrong to think of ourselves as consumers when we talk about food. It’s easy to think this is just a word, but in reality this label serves to entrench deeply unhelpful dynamics in our food system by telling us that, as individuals and as organisations, our role is limited to consumption: that our power to shape the food system is limited to choices between products, and the signals these choices send through the system.
While we are stuck in this consumer mindset, we will not change the system. It drives the perception that most people don’t care about the damage caused by our existing food system, and this perception perpetuates existing behaviours through that system, at every level.
We believe it is time for those of us who are working for change in the food system — whether from within businesses big or small, in the public sector, or for NGOs — to pause, step back, and reassess what we are trying to do. We believe the time is right to start a new conversation in the food system.
The challenge for organisations across the system is then to give us that power, and to make it meaningful, creative and joyful to express it.
More broadly, we want to raise awareness of the limits of the consumer mindset that currently dominates so many aspects of society, and the enormous opportunity of moving beyond that and thinking of ourselves as citizens — active participants in society — instead. Our work begins with revisiting the perception that people don’t care. We absolutely do — almost all of us. In contrast, citizen-thinking begins with the assumption that people are naturally disposed to care, but need to have meaningful power in order to sustain that care.
There are so many ‘what ifs’ we can get excited about. What if government could run a national conversation on the future of food with the same kind of creativity that the big retailers develop their advertising campaigns — so we become policymakers, not just consumers? What if brands sought our involvement, not just our spend? What if NGOs celebrated the citizen movements already happening, and gave us ways to join in, drawing on approaches like citizen science, and helping us be participants — not just consumers?
The fundamental strategic shift on offer here is deeply positive: rather than seeing our task as to mediate the impacts of perceived human nature, it becomes instead to foster and channel true human potential.