Building community with Detroit's good food entrepreneurs

People around the country are paying more attention to local food systems, entrepreneurship, and sustainability as our economy changes. This attention is well-deserved as organizers in our urban centers are exploring myriad ways to strengthen our connections to food and community. We recently began working with FoodLab Detroit, a part of this emerging movement, to help it plan for an online presence.

FoodLab supports and connects entrepreneurs who are running good food businesses — those that contribute to a healthy, green, fair, and affordable food system. The organization has taken a special approach that we admire: it is building a strong cooperative network based on face-to-face interactions, trainings, and events that build trust among entrepreneurs. In just two short years, FoodLab has cultivated a valuable offline community while using a few free online tools to facilitate basic online communication. That's just the beginning. FoodLab staff members Jess Daniel and Anna Hipsman-Springer are ready to grow the organization's capacity with new online infrastructure. This infrastructure will support and reinforce the existing culture of FoodLab's entrepreneurial network and mark a pathbreaking step forward for good food businesses in Detroit.

To get the process started, FoodLab engaged us to complete a collaborative website visioning project. Our shared goal was to determine the organization's online needs and document concrete ideas for website design and development. We worked to refine plans for a new website that serves the public and offers internal resources for members. The website will be administered by staff or trained leaders within the organization. The public-facing features of the site will include member business profiles, news, and events that are relevant to consumers who care about good food. In a members-only section, the site will include shared documents, a dynamic database of resources that are recommended by members, and tools for members to update their business profiles.

We’re excited to share that we just completed our research and discovery work to map out the details of our design and development process. After many conversations and user interviews, we developed the following materials to help FoodLab share its vision with stakeholders and supporters:

  • Online Infrastructure Competitive Analysis
  • User Stories
  • Website Features
  • Sitemap
  • Homepage Design Concept (shown at the end of this post)

Together, these materials lay the foundation for creating a comprehensive online infrastructure, which is expected to launch in 2013. Our aim for the project is to create participatory, well-designed, and scalable online tools using open-source software. Unique member needs and experiences will drive the content creation and organization. This is an important aspect of the project that sets it apart from existing websites aimed at entrepreneurs. During our competitive analysis phase, we were unable to find entrepreneurial network websites that rely on member wisdom and experience to recommend or curate content. In contrast, FoodLab’s online infrastructure will allow members to share resources with other members and offer helpful comments related to resources. For example, a member could share details about a local accountant that understands small food businesses. She could share her experience working with the accountant and other members could comment on the accountant’s services over time. Through interactions like this, FoodLab members can strengthen relationships and learn using the collective wisdom of the network.

Building an online community customized for Detroit's good food businesses will certainly be a innovative process and we look forward to getting started. FoodLab's new tools will make it easier for entrepreneurs to connect with one another and for consumers to find triple bottom line food businesses. Stay tuned for more on this project next year!

Learn more about FoodLab at its Facebook page.