Guest post by Sarah Smith, Research+Design Manager, Institute for the Future. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Food+Tech Connect.
In 2013, IFTF’s Global Food Outlook program undertook a yearlong exploration into the ways that emerging technologies and sciences are reshaping the global food web. Along the way, we explored how several core strategies radically transformed, and continue to shape, our food system. Production aims for intensification. Distribution requires efficiency. Manufacturing is standardized for scalability. Shopping centralizes food in a common marketplace. And when it comes to eating, convenience and affordability still trump all else.
But it’s not clear that these strategies will work for future generations—they’re encountering limits. Today’s planetary challenges such as widespread food waste and the rise of chronic disease present a call to rethink the food system that we cannot ignore. Across this cycle of human food experiences—production, distribution, manufacturing, shopping, and eating—emerging technologies are poised to take us beyond those limits and transform our food experience.
We created our 2013 Global Food Outlook map, Seeds of Disruption: How Technology is Remaking the Future of Food, to tell the story of how emerging information technology will reshape every step of the food system. Click the image to the right to explore a sneak preview of this map.
Seeds of Disruption is a tool for starting conversations about how emerging technologies can be used to close important gaps in the food system. It includes forecasts of how technologies will disrupt the five core strategies:
The map also includes signals, today’s innovations that indicate a direction of future change. For example, small food producers could learn from ColaLife’s strategy to tap into existing distribution infrastructure by literally filling the gaps in shipping containers. Or small, autonomous robots, such as Prospero, could enable cultivation on hard-to-reach surfaces and depopulated rural farms.
At the edges of the map are “strains of uncertainty,” wildcards that are low probability but with the potential for high impact. These are seen in experiments such as Ghost Food that use multisensory technologies to explore future dining experiences in an eating landscape that has been altered by climate change and biodiversity loss.
Many of these disruptions are starting right here in Silicon Valley. Tech Crunch recently reported how food startups are “Riding a VC Gravy Train” and have raised nearly $350 million since the second quarter of 2013. Despite this recent wave of investment, the ties between Silicon Valley and the nearby Central Valley, where a majority of America’s produce is grown, are not as strong as they could be.
As Silicon Valley’s Mixing Bowl founder Rob Trice noted, “Unlike other industries, the food and agriculture sectors are not very well connected to Silicon Valley’s IT and innovation ecosystem, and yet many of the technologies that are changing food—like the Internet of Things, Big Data, Mobile and Social Marketing—are being led from here.”
For over 46 years, part of IFTF’s core business has been to connect innovators in Silicon Valley and around the world with industry leaders, policymakers, and the broader public. With Seeds of Disruption and our ongoing food futures research, we aim to bring systematic futures thinking to food system efforts, with a view that encompasses multiple scales, levels of uncertainty, and radically different possible futures. From wherever you stand in the world food web—from food scientists to farmers, entrepreneurs to politicians, to all of us eaters—we invite you to engage in this conversation, and seek the disruptions that will be useful in the long term.
On Friday, June 20 I will represent IFTF at The Mixing Bowl and FEED Collaborative’s Food IT: Soil to Fork conference. At the event, I’ll “set the table” for the day with a few possible futures scenarios and encourage participants to take a systems view to better understand how technology will reshape the next decade of food experiences. Then I’ll be joined by an amazing group of experts—including Stanford professor and Startup Owner’s Manual author Steve Blank, Cisco Internet of Things initiative’s Pavan Singh, and Mattson Executive Vice President and Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good author Barb Stuckey—for a panel about how IT can shape trends and meet challenges for food.
For more information about accessing the full map content—as well as a series of deep-dive perspectives with insights about how these technologies intersect with human values around convenience, freshness, satisfaction, and sustainability—please contact Dawn Alva.
Hacking Dining is online conversation exploring how we might use technology and design to hack a better future for dining. Join the conversation between June 2-30, and share your ideas in the comments, on Twitter using #hackdining, Facebook, LinkedIn or Tumblr.
Sarah uses design as a medium to visualize complex systems and provoke people to think about the future in new ways. As a research manager on the Health Horizons and Global Food Outlook teams, she draws from her experience in a range of disciplines – international studies, graphic design, creative writing, and the food service industry – to explore how emerging technologies and social practices will change the way people and communities seek and create well-being. She then works closely with the production team to help conceptualize and create maps, infographics, and artifacts from the future.
Prior to joining IFTF Sarah led a research-based design project with Chicago’s Iraqi refugee population to create a book of Iraqi recipes and stories about hospitality to inspire cultural exchange between newly arriving refugees and American volunteers. She has also designed campaign materials for Amnesty International, where she helped to promote health as a human right.
Sarah holds a BA in International Studies and Visual Communication from Loyola University Chicago.