LAUNCH Legends: Journey to the Past To Inspire Future Healthy Food Choices

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by Davar Ardalan

Every sense is awakened as you travel through Timor-Leste: vast farmlands, deep turquoise waters, and steep rugged peaks that bear the clutch of history in this young Southeast Asian nation. Timor-Leste became a sovereign state just fourteen years ago but it’s striking natural beauty contrasts sharply against its staggering rates of poverty and acute malnutrition as indicated by high prevalence of childhood stunting and wasting. 

In his recent book, The Seventh Sense, author Joshua Cooper Ramos notes that ancient roots offer the energies we need to understand modernity in this era of connected crisis. What a gift to a storyteller embarking on a journey to the future of food, to begin with learnings and inspirations from history. Paying respect to traditional way of eating and the power within the land in Timor-Leste where so much nature is still untamed helps me understand why the world craves to be healthier and more productive. 

My nature, our nature — by design works as a system. When you tear the system apart and stop nourishing it you upset its equilibrium. So in our era of "connected crisis,” as Ramos says, what are some of the unexpected innovations we can create to construct narratives that are inclusive and impactful? 

We at SecondMuse through our global innovation platform LAUNCH, are embarking on an exciting journey together with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s innovationXchange and communication technologist Ben Kreimer. Our goal is to team up with Pacific nations, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste to support the exploration of new ways to inspire pride in traditional local ingredients and thereby support positive impact in nutrition. 

All around the world, agencies for sustainable development are becoming attuned to the value of immersive storytelling technologies - like 360° video, virtual reality, augmented reality and gamification - to both galvanize a bigger, stronger network of change makers and derive greater impact from their partners social impact campaigns. But we understand that even if we apply VR/AR tools to healthy eating social engagement campaigns -- we need to tap into the past in order to make an impact in the future.

As storytellers, digital technologists and development agencies we are asking this question: Can we use emerging communication tools in this disruptive age directed by ancient wisdom to inspire positive change in the lives of many around the world who are in the process of being connected for the first time ever?

Virtual reality and game projects, for example, could help inspire a “day-in-the-life” journey focused on the key health and food challenges facing the community. An augmented reality-enhanced card game with local legends as the protagonists might help promote an image of good nutrition from traditional foods and thereby reduce the consumption of nutritious poor imported food with high sugar, fat or salt.

In October 2016, together with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s innovationXchange (DFAT iXc) Ben Kreimer and I traveled to Timor-Leste as part of a LAUNCH innovation capacity building project for food innovators based in the Pacific region. We documented the work of food innovators in the cities of Dili and Baucau using new 360° video/virtual reality (VR) storytelling. We also trained local Timorese on how to use these new immersive storytelling tools, and loaned them a couple of our toolkits. 

With the immersive toolkit we left with them, Catalpa International has been documenting the Hamutuk project, (an initiative aiming to reduce stunted growth in Timorese children under age two and supported by DFAT iXc and others). In our soon to be released, Eating with the Seasons 360°/VR video, we included a scene captured by Catalpa during one of their nutrition training workshops. In addition to contributing content, Catalpa's Gabriela Leite-Soares did the narration for our 360°/VR video. DFAT iXc and Catalpa have also been actively producing their own content, with viewers including Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo of Timor-Leste. 

Furthermore, our first team of LAUNCH producers, including Tash Tan of Australia’s S1T2, are beginning ground-level ethnographic research, content development, and technology access iteration to help grow a local movement around healthy eating in the Pacific rim where malnutrition is at crisis levels. 

At a recent LAUNCH Legends roundtable in the Bay Area, Tan recounted his investigative journey to Fiji, where he learned about the history and culture behind Fijian storytelling traditions. Tash shared his experiences with leading experts in immersive storytelling and food and nutrition, from sharing legends and folklore around the kava bowl to reading the pages of treasured books.

“Just as stories are shared through time,” Tan says, “the traditional recipes and culture of healthy and organic eating are passed down through each generation in the most magical of ways. My fear is that this culture is now under threat because the traditions of the people are being replaced with new-found values in foods that are highly-processed and rich in salt or sugar.”

The focus of the roundtable was to engage guests’ collective insights and knowledge, get feedback, and explore opportunities for collaborative partnerships that could benefit the goal at hand— to make an impact on nutritional outcomes within targeted sites in the Pacific using immersive storytelling and emerging technologies. 

“The roundtable participants came from a diverse range of backgrounds, from nutrition to virtual reality and journalism, which created a fertile environment for creative problem solving around the nutrition challenges we’re looking to tackle with our toolkit of emerging technologies,” said Ben Kreimer, technical advisor for LAUNCH Legends.

The aim of our prototypes: to impact health and nutrition outcomes within targeted sites in the Pacific through experiments using new storytelling tools and to grow understanding of malnutrition more broadly as a development problem, particularly acute in the Indo-Pacific.

We will be working on delivery systems that will make such content accessible to people who don’t have high speed internet access, or own the necessary mobile device or computer. By fostering content creation and the development of delivery platforms that cater to non-western audiences, we hope to help democratize access to 360°/VR/AR technologies while helping create crowdsourced movements in the service of development and social good.

We have eight prototype proposals from VR/AR Producers on ways to bring immersive storytelling technologies to the Indo-Pacific. Let us know if you’d like to partner on this learning journey with us. 


Davar Ardalan is Director of Storytelling & Engagement at SecondMuse where she leads storytelling around sustainability and social impact issues, citizen science, health and nutrition, ocean conservation, and materials innovation. Ardalan directs the LAUNCH Legends VR/AR project and sits on the Advisory Board of the VR/AR Association of Sydney, Australia. As a veteran journalist and former social media strategist at NPR News, Ardalan’s real-time campaigns garnered millions of impressions on Twitter and Facebook. She has been recognized with a Gracie Award from the American Women in Radio and Television, two NABJ Awards, and a shout-out in the popular comic strip Zippy.


Established in 2009, LAUNCH is an innovation-centered platform founded on the belief that today’s problems are too big to be solved by any one organization working alone. To date, LAUNCH has accelerated 100 innovations disrupting pathways for sustainable change. LAUNCH Legends is a program supported by the Australian Aid program’s innovationXchange.