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Project Feeding Milan

Date interview: December 22 2015
Name interviewer: Carla Cipolla
Name interviewee: Member of the Polimi DESIS Lab
Position interviewee: Member of the Polimi DESIS Lab

Social-technical relations Social-ecological relations Re-orientation Re-invigoration Other initiatives New Organizing New Doing Connecting Competence development Academic organizations

This is a CTP of initiative: DESIS - POLIMI DESIS Lab Italy (Italy)

The project Feeding Milan was a CTP because “Instead of looking for social innovation, we were developing our own social innovations, and this was a turning point... I know that previous European research projects (EMUDE project, for example) were centered on collecting cases, so they were about studying social innovation (…) The effort invested in this project was great, 5 years”.  

The aim of the project was to design “a system of services and infrastructures to develop a more efficient and effective Milanese agri-food chain (involving both the city and the “Agricultural Park South Milano”), in order to shape a scenario of sustainable and innovative metro-agriculture”.

The project “was about the creation of shortened food chain services in order to connect the city centre with the peri-urban area of Milan”.  

The project promoted “the short supply chain (where it is possible to produce, purchase and exchange fresh, organic and local produce directly from farmers, retailers and catering operators, associations and organized groups, e.g. sustainable solidarity districts, purchasing groups, etc.), with the aim of reducing the environmental impacts resulting from transportation, and sought to promote a food chain supported by traditional farming practices, without the use of pesticides and other contaminants in production”.

It was identified that “the citizens of Milan, who were in search of high quality products, could only find them outside the region, without taking advantage of the agricultural park available in the city. In addition, building speculation was challenging the Park South area and the boundaries between the city and the peri-urban countryside were blurring”.

The core idea was to develop services and the most visible one was a market called the “Mercato della Terra” (Earth Market) but other initiatives were developed such as a local bread chain, a box scheme, the creation of a local distribution hub in the city, and a vegetable garden in the campus of Politecnico di Milano.  

The peri-urban area mentioned is the Agricultural Park South Milan (Parco Agricolo Sud Milano) which “was established in 1990 to preserve, safeguard and enhance the natural and historical heritage of the Po Valley. “The park comprises different areas such as agricultural land, peripheral boroughs of Milan, a number of communes and cities of the Province of Milan, river basins, sparse woodlands, cascine (farms), local city parks, as well as historical monuments” (source: Wikipedia).  

The project was based on two main actions: “on the one hand it sought to foster the collaboration among producers to achieve economies of scope; on the other hand, it sought to foster the relationship between the city and the productive countryside through the "de-mediation" of the agri-food chain” .   

“In the last decades, the Parco Agricolo area has been used by farmers mainly for monoculture production, such as rice and corn. We found that the situation should change for the benefit of both consumers and producers. Our first step was to support farmers in diversifying their production so that they were able to sell their products to Milanese citizens”.  

“We started with the first discussions and roundtables in 2008, and the project started officially at the end of 2009”.  

“The last experimentation (prototyping one of the services) done by the Polimi DESIS Lab was in the Autumn of 2012.  Later, we continued to analyse the results”.  


The project was developed as an initiative aligned with the purposes of EXPO 2015; the Universal Exposition that was held in Milan in 2015. The theme of EXPO was “Feeding the planet: energy for life” (

The stimulus for the development of the project Feeding Milan was the awareness by the people involved that the ambitions of the EXPO 2015 were in contrast with the situation of the city of Milan, where few efforts had been made, on a policy level, in terms of developing an urban food plan.   

It was evident also that the Parco Agricolo Sud Milano ("Rural Park South Milan"), which is a large territory in the south of Milan and that had been preserved by the authorities to preserve its agricultural identity, should be involved in any initiative to develop an innovative agri-food chain in the city.  

The park is managed by the Province of Milan.  However, the project relied on the economic support provided by the Cariplo Foundation (a bank foundation) and was created as a joint initiative developed by Slow Food, Politecnico di Milano and the University of Gastronomic Science (Italy).

Related events

Two main events are related to this CTP.  The first, the event Slow + Design developed in 2006, discussed the relation between the emerging design practices, particularly those related with social innovation, and their relation with the values of Slow Food. It aimed to identify how the two approaches could benefit from each other. It was not the only collaboration between the DESIS Lab and Slow Food Italy, but it was an important step for the future development of the Feeding Milan project.  The second event is the EXPO 2015. The event was focused on innovative approaches to food production, provision and consumption.  The event stimulated the partners to develop the project Feeding Milan as an innovative approach to be developed in the city of Milan.  

2006 – Event Slow + Design: Slow approach to distributed economy and sustainable sensorality. It was a seminar conducted by: The University of Gastronomic Science, Slow Food Italia Politecnico di Milano (Design Faculty), Istituto Europeo di Design and Domus Academy. This event was an important step towards the collaboration between the Polimi DESIS Lab (called DIS at that time) and Slow Food Italy, which later continued with the development of the Feeding Milan project.  The event considered the “Slow Food” approach and how it could impact the new design practices, which were emerging from the practice of the design for social innovation.  

2015 - Expo 2015: Feeding the Planet.  It was a Universal Exposition hosted by Milan, Italy. The opening took place on May 1, 2015 at 10:00 CEST, and the Expo closed on October 31, 2015. The exhibition included seven sub-themes: Science for Food Safety, Security and Quality; Innovation in the Agro Food Supply Chain; Technology for Agriculture and Biodiversity; Dietary Education; Solidarity and Cooperation on Food; Food for Better Lifestyles; Food in the World’s Cultures and Ethnic Groups.  The project Feeding Milan was proposed to develop an innovative approach for the Agro Food Supply chain in the city of Milan    


  “More than a contestation, it was a surprise.  We found ourselves around a table with representatives of the University of Gastronomic Sciences and Slow Food experts. It had an ‘unsettling effect’ and this was also felt by the farmers. I remember that, in the meetings with farmers, there was a need to find a common ‘language’".  

Therefore, this was not a contestation, but something unexpected. This moment of displacement was overcome by showing that the designer's collaboration was useful. This was more evident in the experimentation phase because prototypes of new services gave visual format to ideas, engaged users in the process and were operations that we developed successfully, so the legitimation of our work came from practice, in the field work.  

Clearly, we had recognition and legitimation, otherwise we would not be a member of the consortium. Historically in this research unit (DESIS Lab), we have worked with food issues. There had been many theses, degree programs and dissertations about design and food.  Therefore, there was already a body of knowledge about food issues. However, bringing these previous experiences to a new process, to be developed with a community of farmers, together with new actors and experts was different”.  

There were obstacles perceived in the development of the projects:  

“I`ll give you an example, the farmers' food box, which was a service to deliver fresh vegetables. It was a very difficult project because it required: the organization of a network of farmers able to supply the food products; organize the logistics; decide where and how to send the boxes".   

This service did not go ahead because there wasn’t a service provider, i.e. an entity able to carry out this service. The question of how to make a social start-up that takes care of product delivery at ‘zero kilometre’, was a theme on which we were not prepared, or only partially.  

Our initial idea was that the consortium of farmers would do that, but obviously we were not able to empower the farmers to take responsibility for setting up a company. Slow Food could not assume this role and we are a public body.  Often, social innovations require new players. This is the usual theme: who collects the legacy of these innovations?  

It was a shame because the service was working, all had been done, which included the online platform. We did a test with 300 people, we delivered a lot of boxes. We created the logistics. We did two tests runs of the project (pilots). We also made deliveries in offices.  

One of reasons was the farmer’s preference to provide for mass distribution and not to get involved in entrepreneurship:   

"We received very positive feedback from users about the services. Even though the service was very well designed it was strange to see a favourable user community and a community of providers that was not”.    


Yes, it was understood as a CTP because “this project was an opportunity to really experiment our thoughts and ideas about social innovation in a specific context, with a specific community, with specific stakeholders, so it was a turning point, let’s say, to shift from the theory of researching case studies to actually create our case studies”.    

The Polimi DESIS Lab, particularly one of its researchers, has a long trajectory in investigating the contribution of Design to food related issues, particularly focused on the promotion of more sustainable patterns of production and consumption of food. It includes a long term collaboration with Slow Food and the University of Gastronomic Sciences.  Therefore, the project Feeding Milan was a result of all these efforts and activities.


Feeding Milan resulted in many lessons learned for the team involved.   From the design for social innovation`s point of view, it brought the theory of design for social innovation into practice, which included a 5 year process. 

This process was developed in different phases with different lessons:  

“The first part was about creating a connection between all these actors participating in the scenario of the project Feeding Milan: food producers, users, gastronomic scientists, experts.  So the first step was to create a community of interest around this topic (...)”  

From this we understood the role of design in the process, i.e., “we were a bridge among all stakeholders, we did a 'translation' of the different languages spoken by each actor".  

Another important lesson about design and its role in developing social innovations “was the ability to turn discussions and conversations into practice. Because we started to think several services ideas and then we experimented with them”.  

The development of the activities in the Mercato della Terra (Earth Market) “allowed us to get in touch with the local communities. The engagement of users in the development and organization of the market was a contribution that we were able to make.  This included getting feedback from them about the services that were being developed in the market, and promoting convivial activities in the market. It transformed the market not only from a selling point, but also as a ‘place of experience’. These are the points that made the market a social innovation, because social innovation happens when it is done in collaboration with communities”  .

The analysis of the results following the conclusion of the Feeding Milan project was also important: “several projects had good results, but the most important one was the creation of a farmers’ market, which is still going on. Another important result was the creation of a social start-up, created by two members of Slow Food, that are now creating a community of producers to offer good quality products. But a lot of the services didn't succeed and this was a lesson for us”. 

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