Global Design Futures Blog: “Food for Thoughts”

This is the report of our student Shikha Kanakia– you can read the original blog here

Food For Thoughts

Food Personalization in 2039

We can trace back our conversations about the future so far into our pasts, that it seems almost comical to take it in all at once. Since our childhood, we become obsessed about what lies in our future- “What do I want to be when I grow up?”, “Will my house have french windows or an open floor plan?”, “What will my family look like?”- outcomes we look forward to and consequently, work towards making them happen. We like to nestle in the comforts of knowing or predicting the future, whether it’s in the way of a weather forecast, or a daily horoscope. It either makes us hopeful or better prepared for what’s to come. The mystery of our origin and our future will always be something that will tug at our curious minds. While the challenge of prediction seems impassable, we have the collective power to work on a good ‘today’ to design a better tomorrow.

Thinking about the future helps us look at alternative systems in a different world. It opens questions, discussions, raises awareness and provokes actions. Speculative Design provides with tools that help us understand current trends and drivers; project them in probable, possible, plausible and preferable future scenarios. Today, there is a growing need for speculation to design future services. Private entities as well as government bodies, use this form of speculation to implement policies and make improvements in their current functioning.

In this blog post, I want to dip my toes in the year 2039; I want to get “a taste” of the evolution of food service. As my other foot stays planted in the now, I want to ground my predictions by examining current drivers leading to future trends, explored through an artifact to drive discussions on desired topics

First, let’s address why we need to talk about food: You’d think the reason that ‘food is one of the primary requirements for human survival’ would be a sufficient answer, but a very real question hangs in the balance- “Could we ever run out of food?” The UN predicts the world population to grow to 8.5 billion by 2030. Cities will have to take responsibility to feed their growing, hungry population. Most predictions estimate that by 2050, there will an additional two billion people on the planet. Without a new sustainable approach to food production and consumption, there is a very real possibility that we simply won’t have enough food.

As a Speculative Design classroom project, we started with investigating the effect of overpopulation on aquaculture, leading to changing trends in food consumption. This then led us to explore a probable future service through an artifact to raise discussions on the future of food. To get to the artifact, we studied a few signals, drivers, current trends that helped us to predict a possible future.

Let’s jump into the crux of it- What will our food be like? What would it look like? Will it be holographic or minimalistic? Will it be uniform across the world? Will the food of the future be NASA inspired superfoods? Will it smell the same as it does today? Or will it be 3D printed? Professor Sheenan Harpaz of the Volcani Center in Beit Dagan, Israel; predicts that the future food will look the same as today, but overpopulation will stress the reliance of genetic engineering to make more pest and virus resistant, nutrient-rich crops, to save time and reduce wastage.

Due to ingrained social and cultural influences, the changes in diet have been very slow in the past. A gradual continuation is more likely in the future rather than a radical shift of this existing trend. With the constant changes in the climate and increase in the population, a drastic increase in the cost of meat can be expected; which will eventually be marked on its premium and quality. Sainsbury’s commissioned a report with research from plant biologists and futurologists to explore what food the majority of the population will be eating in 2025 and how will it be produced. This report explains how more people will be aware of the challenge of climate change, animal welfare, and personal health; and will put the planet first before deciding their shopping list.

Will there be regulations to restrict the use of antibiotics in food production?
The misuse of antimicrobial drugs in the treatment and disease prevention in aquaculture, as well as livestock and crop production, has caused a potential risk of spread of antimicrobial resistant organisms. This is a serious public health problem that requires incurring long term costs for expensive healthcare and medication. Nearly 47% of the fish we consume today is farmed. A 99% fall of antimicrobial use in farmed fish was observed in Norway between 1987–2013; with the help of strict regulations, increase in use of vaccines and excellent stewardship (Keep, 2009). It still produced a 20 fold increase in output. With the help of Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA), the livestock sector has already started using smart technology, genetic innovation and breeding solutions, greater use of vaccines and better nutrition. (NFU, 2019) Harpaz predicts “There will be a focus on foods that animals eat — since that is a reflection of what we ultimately eat.” It is observed that there is a growing market trend for consumption of “antibiotic-free” meat. Unfortunately, this can result in incurring of extra costs by customers and meat might be seen as a form of luxury.

Will personalization in food be a rising trend?
Today a large proportion of the population uses apps like Fitbit, Google Fit and Nike Training Club, to keep a daily check on their health and diet. We like to know how our bodies react to what we do or how we eat. In addition to that, we adjust our lifestyles to meet the specific needs of our bodies. The need for personalization has increased and companies like Rawligion, VitaMojo, Seedlip, The Mindful Chef are working towards catering to individuals dietary requirements. To act on that knowledge, most food will be personalized by 2039. Not personalized in the sense that it would smell, look or feel different for everyone but rather optimized for each individual’s dietary and health needs. Food will not just be a source to satisfy hunger but it’ll be used to help us sleep, lift our mood, help us think better; all customized to our lifestyle. To produce such food, we will need data. “Once we have a complete picture of the human genome, we’ll know how to create food that better meets our needs,” says Prof. Yoram Kapulnik, director of the Volcani Center. The dramatic drop in the cost of genome sequencing will open up a wealth of possibilities around setting personal dietary goals linked to your own personal nutrition and health needs or food intolerances. Future Supermarkets will have tailored food stalked for every segment of the population — men, women, children as well as the aged. (Gertzman, 2015)

How will we like our food? Will people still cook food?
According to Kantar Worldpanel, people spent half the amount of time preparing meals in 2016 than what they used to in 1980. The time spent on purchasing and relishing food has significantly dropped in the past decade. The familiarity with shopping online and advancement in smart restocking technology will result in an increase in numbers of subscription buyers. This trend towards convenience has taken over traditional social meals. “UK’s food-to-go sector is predicted to grow, it is possible we could see a renaissance in ‘cooking from scratch’ which could slow the trend.”(NFU, 2019) Today, Hello Fresh delivers fresh food and recipes daily at your doorstep, Supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s sell food ingredients that significantly reduce meal preparation time. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) predicts that trends are already moving towards food consumption that is fresh, with a preference to health which will motivate people to eat more home cooked meals.It taps into the idea of convenience combined with a sense of creation by getting you to add one fresh ingredient. Hence, people will still prefer home cooked meals as it will give them some power over what they feed their bodies.

Will advanced technology be used in the production and development of our food?
Novel solutions in technology are used today to feed the growing hungry population. NASA and The US Department of Agriculture have invested in a program to develop agricultural imaging technology which helps to compare the crop from the previous season and plan trade agreements. The wide use of technology in the agriculture sector has helped to make work more efficient, faster and convenient. At Amazon high-tech convenience stores in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago customers can grab whatever they like and walk out of the store without checking out. To facilitate this, the store uses several technologies including computer vision, deep learning algorithms, and sensor fusion. (Tecvegas, 2019)

With the global population boom in the next twenty years, it is likely that the agricultural sector will heavily rely on technology like robotic fruit pickers, autonomous tractors, and drones for irrigation. This will have the potential to create great precision and efficiency but also in return, replace tons of manual jobs.

As a part of a workshop with Futurice, I and my group designed an instant food delivery service for 2039 which heavily relies on autonomous transportation. Drones, self-driven cars, bicycles, and eco- transport all exist today. With the awareness of environmental implications in the future, and it’s more widespread use, they will be available for cheaper and can be assigned alternate functions of efficient and timely food deliveries. The future food industry will rely heavily on technology to cut down wastage and make optimum use of available space and time.

Will the people of tomorrow be more informed and ethical about the kind of food they eat?
Regulations on food manufacturing and labeling increases production costs but makes sure that only safe, healthy and ethical foods are delivered to the customers. Researchers at Arup estimated that 90 percent of the packaged foods sold in the US today are labeled, which has led to a noticeable improvement of the citizen’s diet and significantly reduced healthcare costs. In the UK, Tesco is conducting an experiment using greenhouse-gas-emission labels to get an understanding of the importance consumers aligns with sustainable products. The sales of genetically modified foods dropped in the European Union after they were all labeled by law. Companies like ‘Lush’ label all their products vegan.

Over the past few years, British consumers have shown interest in knowing how their food is produced, and by who. This trend is likely to continue in the next two decades, particularly in regard to the impact on the environment. People would expect transparency in the food chain which will lead to new technologies to enable data capturing, monitoring and traceability at every point at the food chain. Experts interviewed, predict that future British shoppers will have access to more information regarding their purchase and they will want to feel good about the food they consume, not necessarily having complete knowledge. (Keep, 2009)

To test all the above themes derived from specific drivers, me and my team made an artifact to encourage discussions around the theme of food personalization in 2039. To ensure our artifacts encouraged desired discussions, we asked ourselves three questions based on our research and stakeholder engagement before designing it.

  1. What would a service look like in the future that provides us with our personalized meal options?
  2. What will we be eating? Will edible vaccines be an irreplaceable part of our diet?
  3. Who would control what we eat?

Our final iteration of the artifact consisted of:

  1. Driver cards, to build a trend scenario for 2039 around food, technology, and people’s health. This was to give a context to the audience.

2. A video entitled ‘Sarah’s Kitchen’ to explain the service. Here is a link to view it:

3. A prototype of what the packaging could look like.

To make sure we were on the correct track for a future scoping exercise with endless possibilities, we repeatedly asked ourselves the question “What is it that we want our viewers to think about?” Many may not agree and some just might, but through the artifact, we attempted to give a summary of where the majority of conversations led us. Given below is a glimpse of our experiment and what all did it include:

  1. Here a customer of this possible personalized food delivery service receives her package with ingredients to cook a meal to cater to her personal dietary needs.

2. The package includes information on the supply chain, individual’s health requirements, and food preferences. It also includes a bill with the prices of the food.

3. Alexa scans the individual to get an estimate of the individual’s current dietary requirements and plans the next meals keeping that in mind.

4. Genetically engineered vaccines are an integral part of the food and people consume them in the form of seasoning.

5. Every individual’s data that Alexa receives, is stored in a universal database. The video ends with someone tampering with this data.


Some responses from the people who interacted with our artifact were as follows:

“With Alexa, it’s such a kind of sense in what that is already, it weighs it a bit heavily. You are tying it to an existing ecosystem of products and technology that already exists, that maybe distracts a little bit from what you are trying to say”

“Are we actually going to be eating Salmon and Peas? Or is the food going to be more liquid form? Will people still enjoy the food? Or is it going to consumed just to sustain?”

“Is cooking food going to be leisurely or something more mechanical that you need to do to keep yourself in tip-top shape?”

“I don’t think people be ok with not having any say in what they eat.”

Such future scanning exercises can be challenging as there are no rights or wrongs. Food is consumed by everyone and we are designing for everyone which could include scientists, teachers, children, policy makers, doctors, laborers, teenagers and even us — so it’s a great exercise to understand what each one thinks of its potential future. The whole idea of doing this experiment in the first place was to trigger a thought that could lead to conversations on desired topics of the future. These discussions served as feedback for us to re-evaluate and edit what we had already worked on. The questions raised were based a lot on each individual’s biases and opinions that derive from their age, upbringing and other contextual situations. Each person has their own justifications on what the probable, plausible and possible futures could look like.

What did we achieve from this experiment?
We had this experiment reviewed by a large number of people and we iterated the artifact considering the feedback we received. By the end of the experiment, we gathered a set of contradictory opinions. It stirred conversations around human reliability on technology and how it was advantageous and daunting at the same time. Some felt human scanning technology couldn’t be made that simple and some disagreed. There were debates on whether meat would just be luxury food or it won’t be available all together by 2039. Majority of the conflict was on discussing the kind of food that people could eat. Home cooked meals seemed like an ideal scenario for the next few years but some were of the opinion that two decades from now, kitchens will cease to exist and food will probably be in the form of powder, liquid, or tablets. The main purpose of the artifact was not to get answers to any of these questions but just to cultivate a thought on something that we would otherwise have not thought about.

What did I learn?
My takeaway from this entire exercise was that while wanting to raise discussions and predicting scenarios, it is important to have a balance of how much bias one shows on personal opinions and how much is left for interpretation. As there is nothing that is incorrect, it is also very important to observe the discussions and be open to ideas as it comes from a place that is very different for everyone. But then comes the question of which suggestions to take forward? This again includes personal biases. Thus, Speculative design extremely challenging. There is a constant conflict between whether to take in account one’s personal judgment or at the same time be indifferent to it.

Future is so uncertain. The Mayan calendar predicted that the world would end in 2012 and even though this caused a momentary wave of nervousness as many believed in it (they even made a film on it!) It’s now 2019 and we are all still alive! Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) describes the journey of two friends escaping the end of the world by traveling around the galaxy with their trusty guidebook that has the words “Don’t Panic” etched on its very first page in very calm letters. Our problem is real, and escape is not an option; we need to come up with our own guide and that reads “PANIC” in bold letters instead.


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