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Conference insights from Vancouver and Boston to Paris and Beijing.

Food, the City, and Innovation

“For the next 20 years, experimentation in food will be equivalent to the kinds of experimentation we’ve seen with the Internet over the last 20 years.” Keynote speaker Dr. David Edwards, founder and director of Le Laboratoire in Paris, France, served up this prediction to a room of farmers, historians, architects, entrepreneurs, and community organizers at the Food, the City, and Innovation Conference held in Austin, Texas.

David Edward’s presentation offered a radical vision of a future with breathable foods and edible packaging, which effectively set the tone for a two-day roundtable discussion aimed at expanding perceptions of what constitutes food and community in the digital age. After inviting members of the audience to take a collective “whif” from his breathable food samples called AeroShot Energy (imagine lipstick-sized inhalers), Dr. Edwards concluded his keynote by emphasizing the importance of designing for food experience which he believes will serve as a path to innovative solutions for solving our complex global food system. The notion that our food system will undergo changes comparable to what we’ve seen in the last couple decades of the Internet is an inspiring, if not terrifying provocation and the uneasiness of the conference participants (who were well-caffeinated thanks to the energy inhalers) was palpable as the panel discussions began.

The conference was organized around three sessions that shifted the scale and perspective of conversation from the conception of food, to the role of cities, and finally to the practice of innovation. Panel speakers were incredibly diverse with sometimes-contradictory messages, which proved to be a vivid demonstration of the complexity surrounding food. At one point, moderator John Doggett likened the dilemma of discussing food systems to the experience of reaching for a noodle in a bowl of spaghetti… there are tangles and knots throughout and you can’t separate the parts to examine just one. From the six panels, problems emerged that were both large and small including the challenges of accommodating food stamps at farmers’ markets, inconsistencies around branding local products, and misconceptions of genetically modified foods.

While philosophical differences surfaced throughout the two-day conference, the most charged moments occurred when diverse practitioners found overlaps in their food agendas and then articulated the opportunities they see for collaboration and knowledge exchange. Campus Executive Chef for The University of Texas at Austin, Robert Mayberry, shared his strategy for taking a large food operation that provides 12,000+ meals a day and scaling it to individuals by focusing on campus gardens and targeted nutrition education. This conversation was contrasted by presentations from three of Austin’s largest organic farmers and cooperatives (Greenling, Farmhouse Delivery, and Johnson’s Backyard Garden) whose operations began small but then required agile adjustments in order to accommodate growing demand from the Austin community. Problems of space, scale, service, and quality were echoed throughout the conference and demonstrated the interconnected landscape onto which most food issues can be drawn. Professor Benjamin Cohen went as far as to offer a visual model of this landscape, titled “A Culture Ecology of Local Food.” 

I joined the conference’s second session, focused on cities, to share a set of design concepts aimed at elevating the farmers’ market to become a more resilient practice in future urban settings. Food has a social and mobile presence in cities, as evidenced by the growing popularity of transient food trucks and interactive food applications. Customers are increasingly comfortable with searching, ranking, documenting, and sharing food online, yet farmers’ markets remain largely detached from the digital world of food networking.

As the city continues to grow in population, density, and digital sophistication, how might the farmers’ market evolve to serve this social shift and its corresponding purchasing behaviors?  To this end, I explained three design provocations that encourage reconsideration of traditional models of local exchange.  These ideas point to a future where social networks are leveraged to create a more responsive and resilient urban food system, including crowd-sourced ownership of farmland, micro-markets for small-scale surplus, and strategies for aligning supply and demand.

At the close of Food, the City, and Innovation, it was clear that technology was expected to play a large role in the future of our global food system. Whether Dr. David Edward’s prediction of widespread experimentation comparable to the Internet explosion will come true, still remains to be seen.

Images: Jennifer Dunnam, Benjamin Cohen, PhD (Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Engineering Studies, Lafayette College)

Jennifer Dunnam is an interaction designer at frog's Austin Studio.