The supermarket of the future: tech hero or human coach?
We are at the beginning of a food transition. How we look at and interact with food is changing completely. What does that mean for the supermarket of the future? That question is central to the Embassy of Food’s conference during Dutch Design Week 2022.
The Embassy of Food is investigating the supermarket of 2050. Do we still go to the supermarket en masse to do our shopping? Or do we order everything online, and does the supermarket have a completely different function? Three designers talk about their vision during the conference. There are endless conceivable future scenarios, and everyone looks at this with their own vision and from their own perspective. The Embassy of Food focuses on three themes: the supermarket as a living lab, the supermarket as a lifestyle coach and the supermarket as a superbeing.
From mussels to microalgae
Imagine: you are sitting by the sea in a restaurant and eating a delicious dish with crab and seafood such as mussels. That is a realistic picture at the moment, but it may be impossible in thirty years because the earth is warming and biodiversity is declining. Crabs and mussels may be extinct by then. Yet, if it is up to designer Malu Lücking, in 2050, you will still be able to enjoy animals that are currently threatened with extinction. You no longer eat meat or fish, but microalgae that taste the same.
In her project, Landless Food, she investigated microalgae as a food source. Seaweed is probably the most well-known type of algae, but there are many more types of edible (micro) algae. Lücking looked at the taste profiles and discovered that the profiles of some algae correspond to, for example, the taste of seafood and flowers. “Normally, algae is a liquid substance, but I have discovered a way to grow algae as a solid substance,” she explained. “This requires three elements: light, water and some nutrients. So you can produce it anywhere and on a large scale.”
“The world is changing. It can be scary not knowing where things are going. But I hope this project gives you hope,” the designer told the audience at the conference. These kinds of developments can turn agriculture completely upside down. Consumer acceptance is very important for projects such as Landless Food. If the supermarket is designed as a living lab in the future, you, as a consumer, could follow the developments of such projects. “Scientifically, it is already possible to grow microalgae,” Lücking said. Now studies and tests have to be done to demonstrate food safety. “After that, it is basically ready to be eaten. But then we must ensure that society also accepts the product.”
Much-needed bacteria instead of coffee to go
Designer Merle Bergers also focuses on the smallest creatures on the earth, not microalgae but microbiota. The combination of bacteria and viruses in our body is also known as the microbiota. The microbiota influence, for example, your intestinal flora and other parts of your physical and mental health. Bergers has developed an installation in which you can pick up a dose of the required microbiota in the supermarket at the same speed as ordering a coffee to go. The machine sees which microbiota you need based on your DNA, for example, a fingerprint. These are spread over your body by means of a mist. “Of course, this is not a substitute for healthy food; it is in addition to it,” Bergers said about her installation.
We could come across such installations in the future where the supermarket is a lifestyle coach. Albert Heijn, one of the Embassy of Food’s partners, is investigating how they can help consumers with a healthy lifestyle. “We see that consumers are becoming increasingly interested in health,” explained Anita Scholte at Reimer, VP of Quality, Product Safety & Sustainability at Albert Heijn. In this case, the consumer also has to be open to changes.
Bizarre products with AI
Design studio Nonhuman Nonsense has developed a new supermarket concept to start a discussion about the supermarket of the future in relation to technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). In AI-BERT’s The Fresh Place, AI is in charge. The designers used the GPT-3 algorithms (for text) and DALL-e (for image). As a consumer, you have a conversation with the algorithms, after which you are presented with a personalised product. This takes into account your personal preferences and global developments, for example, in the field of climate change. For the time being, it mainly produces bizarre products such as rat milk ice cream and nuclear fudge balls.
An open mind
The main goal of this high-profile project: make people think. How could AI actually fit into a supermarket? Maybe AI will help us make healthier choices in the future. It could be good support for diabetic patients, for example. Although there are also objections to using such algorithms in the supermarket. Because an AI is always subjective, even if an algorithm has no consciousness. It is fed with certain information and data, data selected by people. How does that affect our confidence in the supermarket?
There seem to be endless possibilities when it comes to the future of the supermarket. An important message from this conference: be open to new insights and listen to each other. We determine the future of food together.