the Internet of Food

Carlo Ratti on the mass distribution of comestibles

September 2015
Mr Palomar should be the inspiration for tomorrow’s supermarkets, lending products a voice, allowing them to share their stories, and ultimately, stimulating more informed consumption patterns. Each product, in fact, has a story to tell. Today, information reaches the consumer in a fragmented and partial way. In the future, however, products should be able to ‘speak’ for themselves. Information will be contained in simple, smart labels, such as an RFID tag, and then seamlessly transmitted to users. Think about it as an Internet of Food: you will be able to find out everything about an apple – the tree from which it was collected and the journey it made; the carbon dioxide it produced, and the chemicals that were used on it...
Such traceability will also allow new relationships between producers and consumers. Tomorrow, the growth of urban agriculture and the increasing possibilities for sharing brought about by the Internet could transform our supermarkets into free exchange areas open to everyone. Consider it as being a kind of an Airbnb product: a place where new digital tools recreate the relationship between producers and consumers, something that was lost in the mass food chain of the 20th century. Already now, thanks to the Internet, each of us can get in touch with a small-scale organic farmer cultivating a few hectares of land in the mountains.
Of course, the above are just visions. In order to translate them into reality, we need ‘design’. Not industrial design, but design in its broader, fuller meaning. Herbert Simon said: “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are. Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.” In this definition of design, we can possibly detect a new relationship with tomorrow’s world. Not a continuous search for pre-visions, but an occasion to experiment and accelerate the transformation of the present — and to build a shared, common future.
At the centre of the World Expo this year, an innovative pavilion designed by Carlo Ratti Associati explores how digital technology can change our interaction with food and with our fellow human beings. The Future Food District (FFD) is a 7000-square-metre thematic pavilion, and was unveiled at the opening of Expo Milano 2015: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. Positioned at the heart of the exhibition grounds, the pavilion informs us of the origins and characteristics of the food we eat, and promotes more informed consumption habits. It is effectively a supermarket, where people can interact with, and buy products. Its interior resembles a sloping
[caption id="attachment_9442" align="alignnone" width="983"]Carlo Ratti Photo: Lars Kruger Carlo Ratti
Photo: Lars Kruger[/caption]
An architect and engineer by training, Carlo Ratti practices in Italy and teaches at MIT, where he directs the SENSEable City Lab. This year, he designed an innovative, 7000-square-metre thematic pavilion that explores how digital technology can change our interaction with food and with our fellow human beings. The Future Food District (FFD), as it is called, was unveiled at the opening of Expo Milano 2015: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. Positioned at the heart of the exhibition grounds, it provides information on the origins and characteristics of the food we eat, and promotes more informed consumption habits – it’s effectively a supermarket where people can interact with the products. The interior resembles a warehouse, with over 1500 products displayed on large, interactive tables, while the exterior features the world’s largest plotter. Made of mechanical arms that move along two axes, the plotter draws on the façade using spray paint of different colours, transforming it into a dynamic data visualisation display fed by visitor-generated content.