Unique names for blockchain assured food products

The blockchain is a theme that is frequently discussed online, to the point where you could say that it is somewhat over scrutinized; just search the term on Medium. For that reason, this article will only outline the essentials in order to illustrate a project concept I recently worked on.

The term “blockchain” refers to any growing list of records that are linked using cryptography. It’s called a chain because each record, or block, contains information about the identity of the previous block. As everything is connected, this means that by design, a blockchain is resistant to the modification of data. Therefore, its two major advantages are that it is both secure and decentralised.

Despite public confusion and occasional skepticism of the blockchain, several industries are already successfully using it. The most notable are cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, but it is also used in other contexts, such as to assure of the provenance of diamonds and in the facilitation of smart contracts.

Another application is in the food supply chain, which is one domain that the company Ambrosus is addressing. Their overall aim is to use the technology to reduce industry costs such as those due to product spoilage or recall. In order to do this, they are developing a system that will collect data about a product as it moves along the supply chain using sensors. This will be recorded using blockchain and will give details about a product’s producer, location and quality at different stages. Each product would have an individual profile that stores details about its journey along the supply chain.

As part of the MAS in Design Research for Digital Innovation at EPFL+ECAL Lab, we collaborated with Ambrosus on a semester project which aimed to generate ideas about how design could influence this work. After spending some time researching the subject and discussing the challenges faced by Ambrosus with them, I came up with the following objectives.

I wanted to find a way to physically attach the blockchain data to a product in a way that was systematic, but that didn’t use a barcode, QR code or series of numbers. I also wanted to meaningfully communicate the individuality of products to consumers and give value to them being blockchain assured. My idea was then to create unique names for each product.

I was inspired by other systems that opt for words over numbers. For example, the London Underground network uses names to describe the lines, compared to the metro in Paris or New York which use numbers. Indeed, with some further digging, I discovered that words have been found to be easier to remember and less prone to error when communicating than alternatives. I was also motivated to see that this can work on a larger scale with the project what3words, a mapping system that has assigned individual three-word names to 3x3 metre squared spaces around the globe. These examples show that naming can be a format that is scalable, efficient and human.

My naming system for food products would work in a similar way where each product would have 3 names. The first and second name would be selected at random from a database of names from around the world. The third name would be shared by all products with the same barcode, acting as a kind of family name. Other rules would apply to make the system efficient and feasible. For example, all names would have to use the same alphabet, there would a restriction on the number of characters in the name, and two very similar names would not be put together.

Concept mock-ups

The rest of the system is be flexible depending on the market or technology available. The unique name could be printed on the product like a barcode or best before date, included in the packaging itself or even lasered onto the product. This could then be entered on a website, sent by SMS, or scanned by the consumer. The information given back to them could relate to dietary, ethical or health standard requirements, or anything relating to the data collected about the product. In short, the naming system allows multiple directions to be taken, but in itself is a unique, scalable and meaningful code for every product.

In order to demonstrate the concept, I made a short and playful animation with an otter as the main character.

Research Assistant in Design at EPFL+ECAL Lab

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