Future of Food Innovation, an Interview with Greg Shewmaker

Greg Shewmaker is founding partner of Food+Future coLAB and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Target. Food + Future coLAB, based in Boston, is a collaboration between Target, MIT Media Lab and design firm IDEO. The coLab’s goals are to explore new technologies and create new ventures to tackle major food-related challenges.

Before joining Target, Greg was director of accelerated products and technology at Tesco, the UK-based multinational retailer, and founded The Blue Planet Group and 3c marketlabs.

Thyme Fries: How did the Food+Future coLAB collaboration start and what led you to the opportunity? What is each entity’s (Target, MIT’s Media Lab, IDEO) specific role and what do you hope to achieve through the work?

Greg Shewmaker: Food+Future began last year as an experiment around the hypothesis that we know less about or food today than at any other time in history. The vision was to empower people to understand their food and to gain greater control over their food choices. I had tried tackling this as an entrepreneur on my own for many years, but felt the challenges were too big to attack with pinpricks. Beginning with my residency as an entrepreneur at Target, I began assembling what I call individual super powers — of both organizations and individuals alike. We began with the idea that as our collective understanding of food expanded, so to would our ability to help others expand their knowledge as consumers. Target had a range of super powers, but we needed more if we were going to accomplish our mission. Through a series of conversations, MIT agreed to come along, bringing their unparalleled exploration into both science and technology. IDEO soon followed with their design thinking and culture-building super power. Others will be added as our work continues to expand.

Thyme Fries: What process does the lab use to find new future of food innovations? Was mapping social media conversations about food one of the primary starting points? What did you learn? What is the criteria you use to determine whether an idea is worth pursuing or, for Target, whether a prototype is worth funding?

Greg Shewmaker: We take a community-based approach to innovation, again leveraging those individual super powers. Whether you are a farmer, scientist, chef, nutritionist, corporate employee, stay-at-home parent, grad student or 5thgrader, when you are at Food+Future you have an equal voice, access to the same tools and resources and a chance to bring what you are really good at and passionate about. Ideas come into F+F through a lens of three specific questions related to understanding food:

  1. How might we create radical transparency in the history of our food?
  2. How might we make use of underused resources and communities to redistribute our food supply?
  3. How might we create social machines to help people navigate a sea of complex food choices in the most personal ways?

As ideas or opportunities arise, we organize design and prototyping events around them to see where interest, feasibility and impact intersect. The ideas that gather momentum are given more resources and attention to move faster and farther through our process.

On the social media front, we’re working with MIT Media Lab’s Lab for Social Machines to map global conversations around food. We’re looking at public data, the entire Twitter sphere, select Target sales data and the largest food ingredient/recipe databases to learn more about what is important to people related to their food.

Thyme Fries: As an example, how did you get the vertical farming initiative from idea to prototype to announcing rollout in select Target stores? What are the biggest challenges to making this a reality?

Greg Shewmaker: We’re excited about the potential of vertical farms in Target stores and in other places throughout the food system, but are still early in the development process. I’ll have more information to share early next year.

Thyme Fries: Why is transparency in the food chain such an important pursuit for you and for Target? How is the Food+Future coLAB improving food transparency through “Good and Gather”, augmented reality, the spectrometer, and other initiatives and technology?

Greg Shewmaker: People deserve to know what they’re eating. At Food+Future, we don’t believe in preaching when it comes to food. We believe in giving people access to common information available to everyone and the space to make their own decisions.

Thyme Fries: How are you tackling food access? What are the early insights you are working with?

Greg Shewmaker: Turning the question of “How might we make use of underused resources and communities to redistribute our food supply?” has opened our eyes to so many inspiring stories of innovation. This has led us to collaborate with some of the smallest producers and the largest technology creators to do exciting things in helping improve access to better food. We will share more details in the new year.

Thyme Fries: What other major initiatives are you working on?

Greg Shewmaker: We have several projects that are underway, including two big ones:

  • Illuminate, which is the food fingerprint database we’re building around food (and has been referred to as a food scanner). It is an initiative that we think will provide ultimately transparency into food. We’re building the data set now for a few specific food categories and think this has tremendous potential to democratize food choices.
  • Poly, which is an exciting initiative aimed at getting kids in the classroom involved in growing their own food while also learning about the science and history behind it.

Thyme Fries: What have been the biggest lessons so far for you and/or the team since launching this effort?

Greg Shewmaker: The number one thing we have learned so far is that there are no universal truths in food. Food truths are personal.

The second thing that has been confirmed for us is that no one company or approach can begin to solve for the problems we face in our food systems. But, by simply creating the space for a community of passionate people to work together on their own terms and in their own ways (with access to organizational super powers when the time is right) has led to incredible and meaningful progress being made, across a number of fronts, in a matter of several months.

Finally, we’ve learned that most of the answers already exist in the world when it comes to fixing our food systems. We simply need to activate and amplify them in ways that reach the most people possible in the shortest amount of time.

Originally published at www.thymefries.com on November 15, 2016.