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Integrated sustainability assessment of social and technological innovations towards urban food systems

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SustUrbanFoods (Integrated sustainability assessment of social and technological innovations towards urban food systems)

Reporting period: 2016-06-01 to 2018-05-31

Urban Food Systems (UFS) are sprouting over cities around the Globe, particularly in developed countries, where citizens have boosted the re-integration of food production into cities, which have been outlined as essential elements towards addressing global concerns. UFS increase urban food security while coping climate change. UFS are social and technological innovative ways of further developing local food production. While socially-oriented UFS address social gaps (e.g. social inclusion, food deserts) by combining complementary for-profit functions (e.g. education, training) and food production, technological UFS use high-tech solutions (e.g. greenhouse, aquaponics) to reach high crop yields and become resource-efficient. Such innovations results from the constraints related to urban environments (e.g. land availability, land costs) and the need to be competitive in the current food industry. To date, UFS have mainly been assessed from a quantitative perspective regarding their environmental benefits, such as by employing Life cycle assessment (LCA), widely used to compare the environmental impacts while avoiding trade-offs between stages. However, economic and social aspects of UFS were not widely analysed from a quantitative approach.
To efficiently promote sustainable cities, we must ensure the development of sustainable UFS from a three-bottom perspective (environment, economy, society). Thus, a comprehensive sustainable method to quantify the performance of UFS must encompass the three dimensions of sustainability and must analyse the entire nature of such complex systems. While LCA is a robust method to account for impacts, other frameworks focus on the provision of benefits, e.g. ecosystem services valuation. Furthermore, the inclusion of stakeholders knowledge and interests via bottom-up research design is essential to develop a comprehensive and integrated quantitative method that supports policy-making processes that promote the development of a local green economy around UFS. As well, the assessment of multiple UFS that represent different models in Europe are crucial to define thresholds and establish recommendations for policymakers and stakeholders.
The goal of the project was to assess the sustainability of UFS, focusing on social and technological innovations. To do so, the objectives were: (a) to develop an integrated sustainability method to assess UFS in a comprehensive way by integrating LCA and ecosystem services, (b) to apply the method to multiple case studies for observing sustainability aspects of UFS, and (c) to define a policy brief on developing a competitive and sustainable urban food sector towards a green economy.
Beyond the research project, this MSCA aimed at developing the career of the experienced researcher to reach a higher level of independence and maturity through this two-year training, in terms of attaining a leading position, widening competences and training on transferable skills.
This reports covers the entire duration of the project including the tasks from WP1 to WP5.
WP1 involved the project management and the training and career development of the experienced researcher. Several courses, workshops and knowledge exchange with the host and secondment institutions were performed. Career development activities (e.g. mentoring, awards, guest editing of journals) took place during this action.
WP2 entailed the methodological development, a core activity of this project. A literature review about the sustainability assessment of urban food systems preceed the preparation and development of two participatory research workshops, where stakeholders were asked to mind-map about the concepts of the sustainability of urban food systems and the potential indicators to quantify it, considering a three-bottom perspective (i.e. environment, society and economy). The method was designed based on the outputs from the participatory research process and the existing frameworks in three main steps: selection of sustainability elements to be evaluated, selection of quantitative indicators to evaluate such elements and creation of indicators for uncovered elements. The resulting sustainability framework entails multiple indicators for each of the sustainability dimensions.
WP3 included the data collection for 11 case studies representing different social and technological innovations, forms in different spaces of the city and different techniques of UFS (see Table). Mostly placed in Bologna, case studies from other European cities (Barcelona, Dortmund and Paris) were chosen to represent diverse innovations and the development of UFS in different regions of Europe. In particular, aquaponics development in Dortmund is contextualized in the need of developing soil-less systems to face the soil contamination risks of such area, where the heavy industry (steel) caused large contamination in available brown fields.
WP4 encompassed the compilation and analysis of the results of the quantified sustainability metrics. Based on them, main similarities and differences were outlined between forms of UFS, social and technological innovations and spaces of the city, with the aim of compiling a list of policy recommendations for future development of UFS. The following figure summarizes the results of the assessment, highlighting the better performance of social innovations in the three dimensions of sustainability.
WP5 covered the dissemination and outreach of the project. The research process and the results were disseminated throughout the project to the scientific community and to the general public through specific activities.
The results of this project contribute to progress the state of the art in sustainability assessment of urban food systems, quantitative sustainability metrics, participatory research methods, sustainable urban design and policy-making.
Methodological advances:
- Development of an integrated quantitative sustainability assessment framework
- Development of a participatory research design framework for designing sustainability metrics
New knowledge and data:
- Enlarged knowledge of the sustainability of urban food systems
- Increased knowledge of social and technological innovations in urban food systems in Europe
- Evaluation of 11 case studies of social and technological innovations in Europe
- Provision with new environmental, economic and social data of urban food systems
Advances in future urban food systems in Europe:
- Identification of common and divergent trends of the sustainability impact of social and technological innovations of urban food systems
- Design and policy-making recommendations towards sustainable urban food systems

All these advances are key in the future development of sustainable cities and the growing urban food sector in Europe. While produced data can be employed as threshold and reference by not only designers and practitioners but also policy-makers, the developed method can be used as tool to assess initiatives and the progress of policies on urban food systems. Furthermore, the body of research produced in this action can be the basis for further research on sustainability assessment and on the topic of urban food systems.
Sustainability evaluation of social and technological innovations in urban food systems