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Neighborhood Dining Halls - updated

Transform restaurants into weekly dining halls with meal plans for local residents. Over regular meals, neighbors will build community at themed Social Tables and collaboratively address issues at Challenge Tables.

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In an office overlooking Marina Bay, Singapore, Mrs. Tan calls her teenage son, Kevin. She tells him she has to work late.

“Don’t worry,” Kevin says. “I’m on my way to the dining hall already.” He walks down Orchard Road with his neighbor Daphne.

Daphne checks the dining hall app on her phone. “They have chili crab tonight! And one of the table topics is the article in The Straits Times about school stress."

The pair arrives at a restaurant in their neighborhood. At the door, Kevin and Daphne swipe their cards and pick up name tags. Inside, the restaurant has been transformed from its usual state into the neighborhood dining hall. Tables have been pushed together to create larger groupings and more walking space.

At the entrance, a diagram of the restaurant shows table numbers and topics. Kevin considers going to a Social Table to talk about the Olympics, but decides to go with Daphne to the Challenge Table on school stress instead. 

As they make their way to a half-filled table, the teenagers stop by the dining hall’s bulletin board. Flyers advertise talks and meetings to discuss issues of local and global importance, opportunities for activism and community service, fairs, parades, tutors, babysitters, furniture for sale, and more. The dining hall website, set up much like Nextdoor.com, includes an online forum for these postings as well. 

Kevin and Daphne sit down with a multi-generational group that discusses the pressures on students and ways to reduce stress. The table host, the community member who submitted the topic, guides the group through refining their ideas and planning how to realize them.

People pass dishes of food down the table to the teens. As Kevin spoons broccoli onto his plate, he sees a six-year-old, Franklin, wrinkle his nose.

“What? Broccoli is great!” Kevin takes a bite. “Mmm.” Franklin covers his face and shakes his head. Kevin asks, “Daphne, you want any broccoli?”

“Sure!” Daphne accepts the bowl of broccoli from Kevin. After serving herself, she asks, “Franklin, you want some?” Franklin pauses, then nods bravely.

Franklin’s father, Mr. Koh, asks the teens how school is going for them. Hearing that Daphne likes chemistry class, Mr. Koh introduces her to a young chemist at another table who tells Daphne about summer jobs in the lab.

Kevin notices that an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Ang, isn’t there like she usually is. He gives her a call. She’s all right, but she forgot to eat dinner. Mrs. Ang thanks Kevin for checking in on her. She says it’s nice to have a community that looks out for one another.

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While we live more densely than ever before, proximity alone does not create the conditions for close friendships to develop. According to Alex Williams’ July 2012 New York Times article, two other conditions are also needed: “repeated, unplanned interactions” and “a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” It is no surprise that many people meet their lifelong friends in college, where all three conditions are present in settings like dorms and dining halls. 

Why limit the dining hall experience to college students? Community members should partner with local restaurants to set up weekly or twice-weekly neighborhood dining halls. You could eat and commune with others without the social investment of extending invitations, the effort of making plans, and the stress of figuring who will pay the bill. At a dining hall, you could casually bump into neighbors and catch up, circulate among several groups, and stay much longer than a restaurant would allow. Unlike restaurants or coffee shops, neighborhood dining halls would be laid out to encourage dining in larger groups than most nuclear family units. Name tags could have conversation prompts to fill in (e.g., "Ask me about... coaching my daughter's chess team," or "I like... posting videos of my cat on YouTube.")

Neighborhood dining halls would be conveniently located close to home. Families and individuals would purchase meal plans allowing them a certain number of meals per week, month, or year. Low-income members of the community could apply for subsidized meal plans. Members could bring guests who would pay a higher, non-member price for a meal.

In partnership with the restaurant, members could vote on whether to boycott certain food suppliers, or only buy organic, local, or healthy ingredients for the meals served in the dining hall. They could establish types of foods that would be regularly served on certain nights so that members would know what to expect when signing up.

Neighborhood dining halls would have three types of tables:

1) Challenge tables. Through the dining hall website or app, members submit issues for the community to address. Issues can range from the local (e.g., “How can we reduce traffic congestion?”) to the national or global (e.g., “How can we prevent overfishing?”). When members arrive at the door, they see the challenges labeled with table numbers. If a challenge piques their interest, they sit at that table and discuss it over dinner. The member who submitted the challenge acts as table host. With the help of a printed guide or app, she guides the participants through analysis of the problem, inspiration, concepting, and refinement. White boards on wheels provide a chance to diagram solutions and develop action plans. The table host records the action plans and follows up with those who volunteer to take action. Some challenges span several nights or several tables.

2) Social tables.The list of tables at the door also includes tables with social discussion topics or themes, also submitted by members through the website or app. Examples include: “international travel,” “advice for new parents,” language tables, newspaper articles, and book club discussions. As with challenge tables, the member who submitted a social table topic is the table host for the evening. He invites newcomers to join and makes sure that everyone feels welcome at the table. 

3) Open discussion tables. A number of tables are left with no assigned topics for those interested in normal, unguided conversations.

The dining hall could calibrate the number of tables in each category based on experience and the number of topic submissions by members. 

How does your concept inspire collaboration between individuals, private sector organisations, and the government in an effort to create cleaner neighbourhoods?

At the core of the concept is collaboration between private restaurants and community members. The relationship could be initiated and mediated by a local non-profit organization, such as City Harvest Community Services Organization (CHCSA): http://www.chcsa.org.sg/2012/index.htm Challenge Tables would provide an in-person forum for collaborative thinking about design for social impact in neighborhoods and at other levels. In addition, members could share information about local issues and events on bulletin boards and the dining hall website.

How might your concept be scaled in a way that creates even more connections between people?

In order to engender a sense of community, dining halls should serve a limited geographic area. If the first neighborhood dining halls are successful, members should share their experiences with the news media to spread the idea. The National Environment Agency or members could tell other restaurant owners about the model and present member feedback. They could invite other restaurant owners to visit successful dining halls as guests to see if they are interested in establishing dining hall nights themselves. Then they could partner with new venues to replicate the model in other neighborhoods. Some of the participating restaurant owners may have multiple locations that could host dining hall nights.

How might you design a small experiment around your concept that would mobilise action?

How to get started: 1) Find a venue. Start with an existing restaurant in a residential area since restaurants are already equipped, staffed, and licensed to sell food. Later, when moving to scale, dining halls could be established in community centers and invite members to volunteer their time. The ideal venue for piloting the model would be a restaurant that has a few slow nights of the week and is looking for novel ways to increase business. 2) Develop a business model. In collaboration with the restaurant owner, choose one or two slow weeknights per week to transform the restaurant into the bustling neighborhood dining hall. The number of nights per week can increase later if there is demand – best to start small. Sketch out meal plan options, prices, and the number of members needed for the weekly or twice weekly dining hall to be profitable for the restaurant. Suggest serving set menus family-style to reduce wait times and demands on restaurant staff. 3) Spread the word. Promote opening night of the neighborhood dining hall through targeted advertising. Servers at the restaurant could tell patrons about the event and include a flyer inside the menu. Emphasize that anyone can come to opening night and they can decide afterward if they want to sign up for a membership. Post flyers in the neighborhood, drop them in mailboxes, and slip them under apartment doors. Create a website. Advertise the event on neighborhood social networking sites like Nextdoor. If needed, offer special deals for opening night on Groupon and Yelp. 4) Hold an opening night. Welcome anyone who is interested to eat at the restaurant on opening night. Have a dynamic and well-liked speaker from the neighborhood give a brief presentation of the concept and meal plan options. Pass out name tags. Lead ice-breaker games. Take questions. At the end of the night, invite people to submit sign-up forms then and there or on the website later. 5) Snowball your membership. Encourage members to bring guests, especially other neighbors, to show them how great the dining hall is. Continue to advertise at the restaurant on non-dining hall nights of the week. Allow people to sign up for memberships at any time by submitting forms at the restaurant or online. There’s no need to restrict membership to those who live in the neighborhood; most of those who sign up to eat at the dining hall so regularly are likely to live nearby. And if a few non-neighbors want to join, why not let them? 6) Evolve. Set up a community governance structure for the dining hall in partnership with the restaurant. Let the mission and activities grow organically. Evaluate member satisfaction and follow their suggestions for improvement.

Evaluation results

7 evaluations so far

1. How easy would it be for citizens to get involved and take initiative for this idea?

Very easy; this would rely on ground-up participation from the beginning. - 14.3%

Somewhat easy; there are ways for citizens to get involved, but an outside organiser may be needed to sustain and grow this concept. - 57.1%

This concept needs to be led and maintained by the government or private business. - 28.6%

2. Can you build this concept on top of something that already exists, like an organisation, physical space, or system?

Yes. This could fold into, or extend from, something that already exists. - 57.1%

This concept taps existing networks for a few things, but also needs a lot of new processes, materials, relationships, etc. - 28.6%

This concept requires a new system to be built to support it. - 14.3%

3. After the initial launch and support, could this concept be sustained and cared for over time by the community it's designed to serve?

Absolutely! This concept is easy to keep going. - 14.3%

It depends. There are opportunities for growth, but it's not yet clear how the concept would thrive after launch. - 71.4%

Probably not. A lot of effort would be needed to keep this concept going. - 14.3%

4. Does this concept create community?

Yes. It naturally brings people together and inspires them to take care of one another. - 71.4%

There is potential to create a thriving community. - 14.3%

No. It doesn't galvanize people to come together for a common cause or interest. - 14.3%

5. Overall, how do you feel about this concept?

It rocked my world. - 57.1%

I liked it but preferred others. - 28.6%

It didn't get me overly excited. - 14.3%

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DeletedUser

Tables, maybe but dining might not work out. There's too much involved in having a dining setup. You need to have a kitchen with gas supply, airduct and lot's more in order to have a functional kitchen. Not to mention where are you going to keep all the utensils.

If it's down to ideas and discussions, I would probably want to propose to NLB (National Library Board) to probably spaced out a room called "The Thinking Room" and have specific events on certain days.


Edmund Ng
http://www.internetempire.com.sg

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