Where Science Meets Muse

Tackling an Obese Nation – Making “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” a Design Competition!

Posted by Plish on April 8, 2010

I’ve been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  At first I wasn’t too keen on the show.  I didn’t like the premise: Guy from a different country comes to the US to make the US healthier as part of a reality TV show. The motive is good but it’s still Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  Deep down I feel that for this to be uber-successful it needs to be called something like, “The USA’s Nutrition Revolution – Living Life!”  Revolutions belong to the people, never to one person. (Yes, I realize that one person often starts a  revolution and that others join in – yet, I think this might get more traction if  the focus were changed.  I do need to point out that it seems clear to me that Jamie isn’t in this for his own glory.  He genuinely cares about the issue of obesity, especially in children)

Well, I’ve seen a couple of episodes, and I have to say that I’m intrigued and actually enjoy watching.  I’m shocked though by what I’m seeing: Kids that can’t name basic vegetables, bureaucracies that favor cheap pre-fab food over fresh foods, parents that have given up providing their kids with healthy food.  Every episode reveals something new and not always flattering about the nutritional delivery system in this country.

It also struck me that this show/movement  could be viewed as a design project. 

What do I mean?

Using the definition of Design Thinking from Wikipedia I examined the extent that the show uses design thinking.  My thoughts and observations are in blue.  Those process areas that are weak  I highlight in red. See if you agree with my observations of the show thus far.


Decide what issue you are trying to resolve. Obesity among the youth and in general in the USA.

Agree on who the audience is. Anyone who’ll watch the show. Ultimately parents, politicians and concerned young adults.

Prioritize this project in terms of urgency. He’s said that this generation could be the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.  Pretty urgent.

Determine what will make this project successful. Getting certain schools to change their lunch programs and create awareness nationwide. Ultimately contribute to healthier children and a healthier country.


Review the history of the issue; remember any existing obstacles. CDC publishes data on obesity. 

Collect examples of other attempts to solve the same issue. He uses his own experience from England, otherwise kind of weak on this.

Note the project supporters, investors, and critics. Most parents ‘pro’.  Many critics in kitchens and elsewhere (like I was).  This is starting to flesh out as the program moves along.

Talk to your end-users, that brings you the most fruitful ideas for later design. He definitely doing this-from cooks to highschool students to parents.  But it’s more from an buy-in aspect and less for ideas.

Take into account thought leaders’ opinions.  Jamie is kind of the guy leading the charge.  Some school chefs are pro others are con.  He does try and meet all their needs.


Identify the needs and motivations of your end-users. Yes kids need healthy food but this is kind of weak in how it’s being pursued.

Generate as many ideas as possible to serve these identified needs. Jamie is making it up as he goes. Not really a lot of ideas being used here. He’s trying what’s worked in the past.

Log your brainstorming session. (Do not judge or debate ideas. During brainstorming, have one conversation at a time.) Some minor brainstormings to get buy in from folks but not terribly strong here.


Combine, expand, and refine ideas. Create multiple drafts. Yes, but it’s only one idea at a time.

Seek feedback from a diverse group of people, include your end users. Yes from each group he’s working with.

Present a selection of ideas to the client. Basically it’s one idea at a time.

Reserve judgment and maintain neutrality. Since he only takes one idea at a time and he’s also the one doing everything, he’s not really neutral – he needs to succeed to get the next step.


Review the objective. Yes.

Set aside emotion and ownership of ideas. Not really happening here.

Avoid consensus thinking. Remember: the most practical solution isn’t always the best. Select the powerful ideas.  He tries what he can to keep moving forward.


Make task descriptions.Plan tasks. Determine resources. Assign tasks.Execute.Deliver to client.  When he’s got a task delineated Jamie does a great job of planning and executing.


Gather feedback from the consumer.Determine if the solution met its goals.Discuss what could be improved.Measure success; collect data.Document.  He does a pretty good job of gathering feedback.  He’s trying to improve based upon the tests.

So, it’s clear from the above that where the show is weakest is in the realm of generating multiple options, testing multiple prototypes and objectively moving forward.  It’s understandable though. This is  a TV show and it needs to move forward each episode. 

So what’s a solution?

Other than letting Jamie come up with and test multiple scenarios, the next best thing would be to turn this into a design competition.  Remember the X Prize?  It’s resulting in people and industry getting involved in everything from space travel to climate engineering to global development. So far, some pretty cool innovations have come out of the process.

So how would it work?

In this case, each team would work at designing systems with the goal of having healthier kids.  In the end, each team would not only have their main solution, but they would have contributed to the body of knowledge on eliminating obesity.  Interestingly enough, some solutions might not even have that much to do with food! I’ve diagrammed how this would work, below.

How this design competition could work

A typical competition would result in one winner taking the money and the glory.  While this could happen here, I propose knowledge sharing between teams.  

 That would really be the start of a revolution.  I think it could make some pretty good TV too.  What do you think?

5 Responses to “Tackling an Obese Nation – Making “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” a Design Competition!”

  1. Nils Davis said

    This is a great analysis! I’ve heard a lot about design thinking, but usually it’s not defined. So I’m glad to see there’s a wikipedia entry – and your example of how it can be used to think about a change situation.

    But I have another challenge for you (I haven’t done this) – analyze the show using the concepts in Chip and Dan Heath’s “Switch” book. The subtitle is “How to change things when change is hard” – which certainly captures the challenge of U.S. child obesity.

    Having not watched the show, I don’t know if Jamie is doing things like “Finding bright spots” (for example, schools where kids aren’t obese, even if they don’t necessarily know they’re different, and then figuring out what they’re doing and replicating it), and “Creating new habits”. There are lots of these techniques described in the book. To the degree Jamie’s project is going to be successful, I bet there’s going to be a good mapping to “Switch” concepts.

  2. Plish said

    Thanks Nils!

    Jamie has been working with families to try and create new habits and getting kids to learn about cooking. “Finding Bright Spots” sounds to me like the use of “positive deviance” (an article can be found here ) He hasn’t really done that though from what I’ve seen it would be a powerful technique.

    I need to get a hold of “Switch” it sounds interesting and from what you describe it sounds like there’s some design thinking folded in there. Thanks for the tip.

    By the way, if you want to watch an episode you can get them online. If you do, maybe you could post your own impressions and map them to “Switch”? 😉

  3. […] Tackling an Obese Nation – Making “Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution … […]

  4. […] Tackling an Obese Nation – Making “Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution … […]

  5. I’m using yahoo reader by the way.

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