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'Value-centred innovation will help create regenerative models for holistic transformation’ - Chhavi Jatwani [Interview]

Article-'Value-centred innovation will help create regenerative models for holistic transformation’ - Chhavi Jatwani [Interview]

Head of design innovation at the Future Food Institute, Chhavi Jatwani has a passion for cooking, the cultural importance of food, and its potential as an agent for systemic change.

Currently based in Bologna, Italy, she has a Master of Science in food design and a second Master in food innovation and entrepreneurship.

You are head of design innovation at the Future Food Institute. What does your day-to-day job entail?

“I wear many different hats at the Future Food Institute – business developer, project manager, consultant, designer, researcher, educator, and facilitator. As an active problem solver, I enjoy listening and observing the needs of my clients and team and crafting ideas, solutions, pathways, and projects that bring them closer to their goals.

“When working in an industry as complex as food, one needs to be a T-shaped professional, which means we need to have both a specific deep expertise and a broad knowledge of how different systems within food work.

“I work with human- and planet-centred methodologies to create new product innovation pathways where my cross-disciplinary team of culinary scientists, designers, and researchers joins hands with the R&D teams of food companies to develop food solutions that are just, healthy, delicious, and sustainable.”

You are Indian but have lived in Italy for almost 10 years. Do you enjoy living somewhere that has such a strong culinary heritage or, as a food design innovator, do you find it too traditional?

“Italy has a lot to give to an innovator in terms of values. Italy's Mediterranean heritage has deep roots in human-to-human and human-to-nature relationships. Most of the problems we have created today are a result of 'ego-systemic' ways of thinking, where growth-at-all-costs has been the main focus.

“We have eroded our planetary boundaries and are yet falling short on many of our social foundations. We need a shift towards 'eco-systemic' ways of operating that respect the social and natural environment around us.

“In Italy, we value conviviality, sitting around a table, and sharing food with our family and community. Italy takes pride in producing the best quality and best-tasting ingredients and raw materials. The recipes are simple but you can taste the abundance in every single tomato and basil leaf.

“In Mediterranean countries, scarcity led to more sustainable ways of eating where traditional lifestyles include mostly vegetables, consuming less, and walking. This is why the Cilento region in Italy is one of the blue zones of the world where people live up to 100 years.

“In other words, I feel that in Italy, we give value to the important things in life. We cannot continue to innovate with the same growth-at-all-costs mental models that have led us to our problems.

“Embracing value-centred innovation will help us get creative with what we have and what we believe in, so that we can create new regenerative models that not only do less harm but create holistic positive outcomes.”

What made you choose a career in the food industry; did you see it as the best place to make a positive impact or did you ‘fall into’ it by chance?

“For me, food is a very elemental pleasure. [I have] an irrational love for everything food! The act of making food, sharing food, and the power it holds in our lives to shape cultures and also destroy them. I love to cook, feed, share and enjoy food.

“In my alma mater, I used to organise big feasts for all students who missed north Indian food because we couldn’t find it around us in Bangalore at the time. For the longest time I wanted to open my own restaurant in Italy and ran many pop-up restaurants. My husband and I often joke about setting up a pizza shack on the Goan beaches in India. I have also won awards as a street food caterer.

“So, I entered this world out of passion. As I went deeper into designing for food, I discovered the many systemic complexities that govern what we eat as well as the negative externalities of our choices across the entire value chain. From procurement managers to R&D scientists, formulators and chefs to marketers, they all have tough choices to make to ensure our food is convenient and affordable.

“In the post-war era, our priority has been on producing enough calories and not on the quality of calories or maintaining healthy soils. This presents tremendous opportunities for food lovers and innovators to engage deeply with a system that needs to be rethought and redesigned.”

Can you give us an example of a food design project you worked on?

“I once led a project focussed on developing healthy snacks for young working women in the US. We discovered that, for women, health is a much more holistic idea. It is not only about fewer calories but what kind of calories and the impact different foods have on their mood and self-image.

“We ended up developing an indulgent mid-afternoon snack that marked mini treats to celebrate small wins during their work week. It wasn’t positioned as a classic healthy, low-calorie snack but more as a guilt-free indulgence with a clean label. At the same time, the process brought new insights about snacks that are bought by women but are loved by the whole family. These were bite-sized fruit snacks that were initially designed for women but were absorbed in the company's universal portfolio.”