Some recipes are passed down from generation to generation, becoming long-standing traditions. Others invite us to explore new regions or inspire us to reinvent our bodies. They even encourage us to reimagine the food spaces in our lives, from kitchens to marketplaces. The Food Futures Lab at Institute for the Future cultivates a community of change-makers who use food as a medium for innovation and who write the recipes for the next decade. We draw connections across their stories to forecast unexpected possibilities and we provide them tools for thinking about the kinds of futures they’re building. Using methodologies developed over nearly 50 years, we challenge assumptions and reveal new opportunities to make a resilient, equitable, and delicious future of food. We’ve identified five Ingredients for Change—capacities, tools, and platforms to reinvent food experiences—that can be combined into new recipes for innovation. Here is a taste of these ingredients, and some signals of where we already see them today, for the Global Action Review. For the full forecasts, see IFTF’s report, “Food Innovation: Recipes for the Next Decade.” Scalable Biodiversity: Toward Robust Ecosystems in the Gut, Factory, and Field Anxiety over the shrinking diversity of plant and animal crops is tempered by the realization of stunning diversity many orders of magnitude smaller, at the microbial level. Microbes have been our allies in food innovation for hundreds of thousands of years, but our understanding and command of these living ingredients is getting more granular every day. The ultimate promise of biodiversity at any scale is resilience. Embracing biodiversity as an ingredient for innovation builds a strong bridge between profitable businesses and climate resilient, healthy food systems. Forecast: Dynamic Personalization The premise that one healthy diet will work for everyone is becoming increasingly suspect. Even genetically identical twins respond differently to the same foods and research is revealing the role of the gut microbiome in these variations. With the proliferation of devices and services that will give people the ability to track their own microbiomes over time or at any given moment, the next decade will see a vast expansion of support for making food choices based on personalized, dynamic information. Signals: The Unified Microbiome Initiative aims to span epicenters of research on the microbiome and connect researchers across disciplines. Within a decade, researchers anticipate bridging the divide between correlative and causative insights. The American Gut Project and the Human Food Project combine a vast collection of citizen-donated microbial samples and compare these DNA-sequenced populations with samples taken from people living traditional farming or hunting-and-gathering lifestyles from Peru to Namibia. Cloud Intelligence: Toward Decentralized, Efficient Management of Food Systems Agriculture—and the global food system more broadly—is being reinvented with the help of low-cost, high-tech methods for connecting food, people, tools, and data together in networks across the Internet of Things. Whether enabling precision-based crop management or empowering home cooks to enlist their appliances in food preparation, cloud intelligence will create a food system that is more efficient, more productive, and more responsive to shifting social demands for food. Forecast: Optimized Efficiency In the next decade, our food markets, like our financial markets, will become dominated by automatic transactions, from negotiating large deals between vendors to automating home orders. As we build out the infrastructure to catalog and manage discrete parts of our food web, it will begin to form interoperable, self-managing systems-of-systems. This will not only reduce inefficiencies but also help automate transactions throughout the system—transforming our approaches to everything from production to home purchasing. Signals: Amazon’s Dash Replenishment Service is an application programming interface (API) that manufacturers can build into any appliance or hardware to identify when supplies are low and automatically reorder from Amazon. For instance, Brita is using these APIs to detect when its water filters are expired and then trigger an automatic reorder. Spread is a Japanese food company building an indoor vertical farm with robotic systems to plant, manage, and harvest 30,000 heads of lettuce daily. Spread’s “vegetable factory” will use 98 percent recycled water and no pesticides, reliably produce food in a controlled climate, and through automation deliver locally-grown produce more cheaply. Experimental Biodesign: Toward Reinventing Food Experiences and Food Systems Culinary artists and scientists have always experimented with the tools of their disciplines to develop new foods. Louis Pasteur’s fascination with fermentation is just one example of humans’ longstanding curiosity about the processes of cooking and preserving food. In recent years, the proliferation of research labs that combine the culinary arts with food science has expanded the scope and pace of food innovation. As synthetic biology evolves, new capacities at the intersection of culinary arts and food science are emerging. Forecast: Multidimensional Food Experiences Bio-based experimentation is expanding to include textures, packaging, or even multisensory stimulation. Food designers are using culturing methods to produce animal proteins derived from engineered yeast and creating foods with new textures, functions like elasticity, or the ability to express properties over time. Beyond food, the fashion and materials industries are designing living materials that could enable new functionality for food packaging. These early experiments point to a future in which we’ll harness living organisms for more dynamic food experiences. Signals: Clara Foods is one of several start-ups harnessing yeast to prototype cultured animal proteins. It aims to produce egg whites with a more dynamic set of properties than animal egg whites, such as a more complete protein profile or increased foam stability for meringues and other baked goods. Programmable Pasta comes packed flat and pops into form when submerged in water. This project from MIT’s Tangible Media Group would significantly would lower shipping costs by reducing the amount of wasted space in a pasta box. It also creates fun opportunities for more interactive edible experiences. Rewritable Narrative: Toward Open Food Stories Food narratives are the stories we tell around food—recounting its history and place within culture, and embodied in its preparation, presentation, and marketing. Narrative has always been an important part of the food experience, shaping its value; and story is clearly a critical tool in selling food products. Increasingly, food purveyors are seeing the experience and narrative of food as core to their offerings—and sometimes the only way to differentiate one food product from another. Forecast: New Mediums In a future where everything is media—with computing power and Internet connectivity embedded in everything from human bodies to vehicles to the surfaces of our kitchens—we will be able to write and rewrite stories on any surface. People have always used food arrangement and ambience to tell stories. But with the advent of augmented reality and other communications technology, we’ll be able to change the aesthetics of food and the environment with much less effort. When manipulating the sensory environment becomes as easy as downloading an app, we’ll see many more people rewriting the narratives of food in this way. Signals: Marriott Hotels’ VRoom Service is a virtual reality experience allowing users to travel around the world through a head-mounted display. The first destinations include an ice cream shop in Rwanda and a street market in Beijing. This kind of multisensory technology can make food narratives available to many more people. A study from Cornell University’s Department of Applied Economics reports children chose an apple with a sticker of the cartoon character Elmo on it over a cookie. This further reveals how food aesthetics can be used to nudge people toward particular choices and how new mediums for food narratives can encourage healthy choices or reinforce identities or ethics. Engaged Eaters: Toward Eater-Led Reinvention of The Food System Who is food innovation for, if not the eater? Providing food to satisfy a basic need of billions of people is the whole point of our global system of agricultural production, manufacturing, distribution, and shopping. Today, many eaters feel disconnected from how food is made, and efforts led by food companies and governments only incrementally changed ingredients or packaging. Eaters have lost trust in food companies and are once again going DIY to create a food system rooted in values of sustainability, health, sociality, and pleasure. Forecast: Participatory Production Eaters around the world are taking a more active role in producing and processing their food. This starts with kids who gain food literacy through edible education curricula, and learn to see themselves as more than just consumers. Traditional practices like small-scale farming and fermentation become easier and more precise thanks to sensors and automation technologies. As eaters produce foods they like, they’ll take new products to market, just as many of today’s successful craft beers started as home brewing projects. Signals: Acetaia San Giacomo, a traditional balsamic vinegar producer in Italy, worked with the local Fab Lab to produce a kit that people can use to make vinegar at home. Blending tradition with food innovation, the kit features a 3D-printed, Arduino-powered pH sensor and aerator plus starter bacteria from the acetaia’s barrels. Leaf, an automated at-home medicinal cannabis growing system, continuously monitors the growing environment and makes adjustments to optimize plant health. With its nutrient dosing system and custom LED growlight, Leaf could provide a model for similar systems to grow produce at home. About the author: Sarah Smith is a research director at Institute for the Future’s Food Futures Lab. Copyright Statement: Copyright © 2017 Institute for the Future (IFTF) for Global Action Platform. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.