The food-sharing project promoting urban sustainability

16 Feb 2021

Image: © sewcream/

ShareCity is a project based at Trinity College Dublin that aims establish the potential of ICT-mediated food sharing.

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As we work towards creating a more circular economy, one of the key elements needs to be reducing waste across all industries.

One project addressing this concern is ShareCity, based at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), which aims to assess the practice and sustainability potential of city-based food-sharing economies. It defines these as any group that grows food together, eats food together or redistributes waste and excess food.

ShareCity’s principal investigator, Anna Davies, is a professor of geography, environment and society at TCD and directs the university’s Environment Governance Research Group.

Last year, she received the European Research Council’s inaugural Public Engagement with Research award for using social media to further her research into food sharing – though she told this was very much a team effort.

While ShareCity aims to establish the potential of ICT-mediated food sharing, Share IT is one element of this work that is looking to assess the impact of food-sharing activities. Share IT provides a free toolkit for initiatives to help estimate, communicate and improve sustainability impacts.

Alwynne McGeever has been working on Share IT with Davies since June 2020. Her background lies in environmental science and her PhD project examined the impact of human activity and the climate crisis on forestry.

“In my role, I share information and provide support to food sharers interested in using the Share IT toolkit,” McGeever said. “My priority is to make it as easy as possible for them to register and complete their sustainability impact assessment.”

Six women stand either side of a large sign that says ShareCity.

ShareCity launch in 2016. Image: Trinity College Dublin

How Share IT works

Share IT is an online platform, organised into three virtual spaces serving different functions, to capture the sustainability impacts of food sharing.

The Toolshed is a sustainability impact assessment tool that gathers data using novel indicators of impact specific to food sharing. It automatically generates reports on social, environmental and economic impacts while also linking the food-sharing initiative’s work to the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Talent Garden is an online space that captures alternative, qualitative evidence of impact by enabling food-sharing initiatives to demonstrate sustainability with narrative, stories and images. And the Greenhouse is a networking portal where food sharers can connect with other food-sharing initiatives to share knowledge and experiences.

“It emerged from a co-design process with food-sharing practitioners,” explained Davies. “The key assumption underpinning Share IT’s design is that the practitioners are best placed to understand their own impacts and needs.

“The suite of indicator questions was informed by interview data with food sharers, and the Talent Garden concept emerged from their stated need to capture evidence for the more nuanced sustainability impacts they are delivering, that cannot be captured directly through indicator questions.”

‘Implementing the findings of our research is extremely challenging because it demands system-level change’

The pilot toolkit was tested for usability by food sharers and the ShareCity team launched the Share IT toolkit in 2020 as a freely available resource to all food sharers.

Along with the Share IT toolkit, the ShareCity project has also produced the ShareCity100 database, which features information for more than 4,000 ICT-enabled food-sharing initiatives in 100 cities around the world and ethnographic profiles of nine of these cities. The project is also building on the outputs of its Sharing Futures workshop in 2019, which examined what the future of urban food systems might look like under different scenarios.

“We are also responding to the pressures of the recent pandemic by reviewing how food sharers have responded under Covid and how it has affected demands on their services due to the social, economic and supply chain disruption that the pandemic has wrought on the food system,” said Davies.

Demanding system-level change

While the concept of food sharing can sound simple, the research can be challenging because it means working across several different areas.

“Implementing the findings of our research is also extremely challenging because it demands system-level change,” said Davies. “This means policy structures and supports – and disincentives – need to change as well as well-embedded assumptions about what and how to value activities around food.”

The impacts of food sharing span a wide range of sustainability issues, from the climate crisis and land management to food insecurity and social injustice.

While Davies said the positive impacts of food sharing are cumulatively significant, they are dispersed across many different government departments. “As a result, the aggregate benefits are often missed and remain uncounted. A key question is how do we support multifunctional sustainability initiatives with diverse and distributed impacts?

“Silo thinking in policy around our social and environmental challenges could miss the opportunities groups like food sharers bring and undervalue their role for achieving a more sustainable future,” she added. “Integrated thinking and valuing impact across policy sectors could challenge the misconceptions and low visibility of food sharers’ significant impacts and high potential.”

As ShareCity approaches its project end later this year, Davies said the team’s primary goal is tying up loose ends and planning next steps. They will also be looking at how the pandemic intersected with food sharing.

In the coming months, the visual future scenarios promise to spark reflections and conversation about what our sustainable food future might look like,” she said.

“Share IT will continue providing free sustainability support to equip food sharers to maximise and communicate their many and diverse impacts. We’ll be looking to explore potential funding streams and business models for rolling out Share IT nationally and internationally.”

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic