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The cover of the CoFood Initiative submission.

BA (Hons) Design Management students celebrated as 'the next generation of changemakers' at the RSA Student Design Awards

Written by Chloe Murphy
Published date 30 June 2020

Megana Mikučiauskaitė, Atlana Puntigam, Alec Strobel and Bryan Branco were recognised for their CoFood Initiative, which supports prisoners to develop new skills and build relationships.

The RSA Student Design Awards have supported emerging designers since 1924, challenging them to tackle pressing social, environmental and economic issues through design thinking. Both current students and recent graduates from across the world respond to briefs that have been developed in collaboration with industry partners and encouage them to think differently about the boundaries and purpose of design.

A team of BA (Hons) Design Management students from London College of Communication (LCC) were recently named winners in the ‘Cultivating Community’ category, which asked designers to consider ways of reimagining common spaces to build diverse communities through food.

A lack of support, space and opportunities in correctional facilities make it difficult for prisoners to build relationships with visiting families or their peers, which in turn has an impact on reoffending rates - in 2016, the Prison Reform Trust found that 38% of prisoners who maintain visits were less likely to reoffend. The CoFood Initiative uses a participatory and systems-led approach to enable prisoners to connect with others and rebuild existing bonds through the creative and collaborative potential offered by cooking and gardening classes.

We chatted to Project Lead Megana Mikučiauskaitė to find out more about the initiative, as well as her experience as a student on the BA (Hons) Design Management course so far.

A promotional social asset for the Communities Brief.
Image credit: RSA.

"Something rather transformative in a short period of time"

Tell us a little bit about your journey to success at the RSA Student Design Awards.

"As part of our Interdisciplinary Projects and Practices Unit, the original assignment was a month-long ‘sprint’ to design an appropriate solution to one of several RSA briefs on topics such as ‘Circular Fashion’, ‘At 100’ and ‘Cultivating Communities’. My team decided to tackle the latter one, taking our interests, strengths and weaknesses into account since the team members shared a passion for social innovation and systems thinking.

"The 'Cultivating Community' brief also felt extremely relevant due to issues like loneliness, bullying and growing depression rates unfolding in our global, interconnected society. The current COVID-19 pandemic and protests for human rights have exposed how powerful communities can be when working towards a common goal. After all, it starts with a person. That person can then build something great by acting through their choices.

"Choosing to enter the competition was optional, and as a team, we decided to submit our proposal no matter how imperfect the outcome. Interestingly enough, the briefs were released in September, but we started working on our response at the end of February, with the final outcome delivered in a week and submitted right before the deadline on 19 March.

"Success is often defined as pure talent and hard work while in real life, it's more like hard work, talent and a lot of luck. We worked extremely hard on the CoFood Initiative, but it’s equally important to acknowledge how lucky and therefore grateful we are to accomplish something rather transformative in a short period of time."

A banner from the project summary, titled 'CoFood Initiative'.
Image credit: Megana Mikučiauskaitė, Atlana Puntigam, Alec Strobel and Bryan Branco.

“Be bold, curious and have loads of empathy"

Who does the CoFood initiative aim to help, and how does it aim to help them?

"Our CoFood Initiative uses systems thinking and participatory design to enable meaningful interactions between prisoners and their families.

"It’s a human-centred programme, and its feasibility was proven after interviewing prisoners from a correctional facility situated in the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, alongside interviews with staff working there. Having the opportunity to do this was highly valuable in the sense of designing something with a target audience. Nowadays, I think the biggest mistake too many designers make is designing for the sake of designing. There are so many unaddressed needs and unresolved issues - the key is to be bold, curious, and have loads of empathy to get out there and do something about it.

"Food and gardening are at the core of our CoFood initiative, which is based on the idea: ‘today’s inmate is tomorrow’s neighbour’. Our goal was to challenge the status quo by inviting people from 'outside' to participate in cooking and gardening classes while changing their perceptions towards prisoners along the way.

"The other factors addressed by our work are the below-average conditions in the majority of prisons in the UK alone, while the quality of food - a vital part of everyday life - is overlooked. It also takes into account racial differences which make a considerable difference to how prisoners are treated, contradicting basic human rights.

"The CoFood Initiative could be seen as the starting point of an extremely uncomfortable conversation which has the potential to ultimately improve the daily lives of prison communities. One of our inspirations was the design of Halden prison in Norway, which has an underlying philosophy that everyday life in prison shouldn’t be a punishment as the sentence already is."

A mindmap exploring the concept of empathy as part of the project.
Image: a mindmap explores the central theme of empathy.

"The huge amount that's possible to achieve with limited resources"

How has taking part in this project helped you to develop your skills for the future?

"This project notably contributed to my professional growth as it was designed under pressure with limited time, yet the final result stood out as a meaningful, high-quality proposal that was recognised by the RSA. It also carries personal sentiments since it’s related to my home country where our primary research was collected.

"Exploring the experience a bit deeper, I would say that intense teamwork provided a lot of room for personal improvement in regards to being an honest and fair leader as well as a team member. Candid feedback can be the greatest teacher when appropriate to the situation. Atlana, Alec and Bryan shared this view, and consequently, we have managed to develop a more humane way for interaction in correctional facilities.

"I acquired and developed several skills during this time, but I would be keen on noting the importance of candour, critical-thinking, project management and teamwork."

What have been the best things about your time on the BA (Hons) Design Management course?

"My highlight so far would be our tutors' support. I'm beyond thankful to Lucia McGuinness and Robert Urquhart who were not only supportive but also stimulated creative freedom. For example, without honest feedback from Lucia and the industry guests, we wouldn't have dared to radically change the direction of the project and generate a more innovative solution for community cultivation. I believe the encouragement and motivation provided by inspiring people can a tipping point in one's creative journey.

"In addition, LCC supplies students with various opportunities, ranging from exchange programmes to various summer school opportunities that I appreciate greatly. The resources of the LCC and other UAL colleges is another factor that makes studying experience exciting and increases the quality of the work produced.  

"I'm passionate and highly satisfied with my course, its diverse range of resources, content, and possibilities to curate work to a chosen direction."

Atlana, Megana and Alec chat on a Zoom call as part of the process.
Image: Atlana, Megana and Alec chat about the project.

"Empathy, considered research and systemic thinking"

Lucia McGuinness, Lecturer on BA (Hons) Design Management at LCC, emphasised the significance of the award in recognising the talents of our students.

“It is an incredible achievement that in the space of just four weeks, Megana, Bryan, Atlana and Alec have identified a key opportunity in driving change in the prison system,” she said.

“Through empathy, considered research and systemic thinking, they have found a way of cultivating relationships between prisoners and their families by using the benefits of growing and sharing food. They are a great example of how design management can play a strategic role in shaping a better future.”

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