Future Foods 2022: Thailand Edition
What we learned from a conversation with foodies, food experts, food providers, and of course — designers.
What does our food system look like in Thailand in the year 2022? This is the question we posed to a virtual gathering of the Bangkok chapter of Speculative Future, our second event in the year 2020, as we build towards our goal of creating a space for collaborative learning about all things futures thinking. 2022, we thought, is an imaginable future not so soon after this pandemic blows over (fingers crossed), yet not so far away that we might feel disconnected to the experiences of everyday kind of food.
We had a delicious virtual conversation on a Saturday afternoon, making use of a collaborative “whiteboard” via Miro, to facilitate the discussion. This was the first of what we hope to be many of our “Future Conversations” series, where we pick a topic and invite stakeholders and enthusiasts in our community to join a lightly-guided discussion based on a particular design field. For this call, we dipped our toes into strategic foresight and experimented with a light version of the methodology as co-creation-esque effort, on the topic of food.
From Big Changes to Individual Actions
A bird’s eye view of our “process” for the group discussion borrows the structure of strategic foresight:
- Exploration of possible changes in economic, social, technological, and political/regulatory changes in the year 2022 (inspired by How Futurists Cope With Uncertainty by Amy Webb).
- Reflection of how these changes would affect elements in the food system that we know today.
- Imagining our own day-in-the-life in 2022 (a one-day user journey), specifically with food as touch points.
To fully integrate considerations around the highly anomalous situation we find ourselves in (a.k.a. COVID-19), we started considering possible changes that affects all of us (№1) before narrowing down to the food system (№2) and eventually speculating on the individual behaviours (№3). This sequence of discussion was an experiment: we thought that laying the big-picture groundwork for scenario-making and allow debate on what people agreed or disagreed on (as opposed to observing specific, individual changes with each member and asking for wild speculations).
In fact, the most effective facilitating questions in my opinion was: anyone disagree? One person suggested that more people will cook at home because of the shelter-in-place, while another resisted the idea, citing people will do more of what they already do — either cook or eat out — when faced with more time, and more choices, in a positive feedback loop. We didn’t exactly erupt into food fights, but the question permitted possibilities — which is an important mindset.
Service Design of Meals, Food as Vehicle of Intimacy
As with everything in our lives right now, COVID-19 — or more specifically, our collective social distancing — is forcing us to rethink our everyday interactions. Thai people, as you may know, can talk about food all day; we think of activities as “between meals”, our common phrase for hanging out is to “eat rice”, and we often make a “Thai version” of every cuisine we import (seriously, try our stir-fried pasta dishes when you visit). It would be an understatement to say that we love food.
An anecdote that a steak restaurant owner shared about the social experience of steak stuck with me as a theme for the discussion. He said: You can have the same steak but the meaning of the meal will change depending on if you’re having it with a date or with your boss. While absolutely not a stellar insight to the average chef or designer, the story marked a very explicit point in our discussion from food as an object to food as a personal-social experience.
On the call, we got to dig deep into possible trends, our relationships with meals, and Thais’ cultural obsession with food. Here are several topics that stood out:
- Food becomes the default excuse for socializing. Sharing and cooking a meal is a social experience, but in the age of social distancing, we’ve become self-contained into units of family, roommates, or whoever you share your living quarters with. In the near future, we will enjoy “mixed-reality” hangouts where we cook/eat/drink with friends over teleconference, which will in turn prompt higher-end restaurants to create experiences at home (think: immersive AR experience in your dining room à la Teamlab’s Tsukihana Digital Art Room). We will see increased social activities between friends who live across continents and timezones (pandemics in the age of globalization is a great unifier). After shelter-in-place policy is lifted, it is possible that we’ll see a community kitchens and cooking hangouts (Thai-style BBQ!) as we collectively crave ways to re-connect via the Thai’s favourite medium of life.
- Food delivery systems will become more transparent — and affordable. As our country goes on lockdown and curfew and as people transitioned to working from home, food delivery businesses bloomed. To many customers, especially those living alone, it is unaffordable in the long-run — not least because of additional fees that took advantage of restaurants and never benefited the delivery drivers, which composed a big percentage of the final bill. As to-go food becomes the norm, we’ll see a more transparent relationship between the customer and the delivery services (which encompasses the entire ecosystem of delivery drivers and the restaurants, too). A new standard of expectations, if you will. We’ll put emphasis on functional aspects like timeliness, quality of the food, clarity of price and sources across the supply chain (think: Everlane’s radical transparency), as well as the emotive aspects such as the UX and physical branding of the delivered products. As the scale of deliveries grow, the service will be able to optimize paths and orders and — poof! black box machine learning magic! — we should have a more affordable system overall. In fact, what’s stopping new data-driven mobile food trucks from going around to where they’re needed most? This is a pretty version of the future where we can empower the street food wagons that we see across Bangkok today as much as the small restaurants who are losing their in-person customers. In short, we’ll emerge from COVID-19 with a more sensitive nose for high-quality and trustworthy food businesses.
- Story-driven, custom-crafted experiences will bloom too. At a time when chefs find themselves without a constant roll of orders to churn out, can we help repurpose their skillsets towards creating one-of-a-kind meals? What better way to differentiate the experience of a meal than by infusing it with unique stories; a heartful meal tailored to a big mulit-generational family with a twist on grandma’s recipe, a birthday celebration infused with the partygoer’s favourite ingredients, or a personal prix-fixe to pair with your collection of science fiction. Farm-to-table had been simmering in the background while Chef’s Table became all the rage in Bangkok as of late: we think it’s ripe time for Chefs-to-Home, where we outsource the cooking as service to the ambience and stories of your abode. We might also get to know our chefs better as they are welcomed as house guests, turning meals into an intimate convocation of maker and consumers.
- Healthy options will become (more) top-of-mind. It is really hard to eat healthy foods when salads — the staple of healthy foods — is on the menu next to basil stir-fry, green curry, pad thai, kua gling, fried chicken wings, larb, kaeng hunglae, lod chong. However, in our state of quarantine, more of our daily conversations revolves around how we will feed ourselves (as opposed to choosing the default dish on your lunch rush) which prompts discussions about what, exactly, we are nourishing ourselves with not just the dishes but at the ingredients level. Raw vegetables and tomatoes aren’t the bread and butter of Thai cuisine, but we do have an experimental spirit in trying new things: would we make tomato jellies or vegetable ice creams? We think so. These new forms of food will defeat the purpose of a healthy diet, but perhaps we’ll be more cognizant of the not-so-healthy building blocks of our daily foods. In other words, we might consider eating less sugar while we’re eating the frozen creamy sugar infused with cilantro.
At the end of the call, I reflected on how we barely talked about the form factors of food as innovation (the topic came up briefly, as a pill that serves a full meal, as a liquid form for people with trouble chewing, or as desserts to trick us into healthier eating habits). I personally and proudly made a comment based on time spent both in Bangkok and Silicon Valley that we’ll never produce a meal replacement like Soylent, not even a basil stir-fry flavour.
I say this not because I don’t believe in our capabilities to innovate on the form factor — I just don’t believe that our culture readily permits this kind of thinking because food for us is rich with experience. Perhaps it’s a personal bias confirmed by a small-focus-group-esque experience. Or perhaps, we all agreed that food goes beyond basic nutrition and collectively embraced new possibilities for food as vital relationships-rebuilding vehicles for the future in 2022.
This reflection is based on Futures Conversation, an informal virtual discussion hosted by Speculative Futures Bangkok.
Edit: I stand by my comment on Soylent, a day later as I’m typing this edit. Although I do wonder — what would the outcome of our discussions be if we had focused on tangible aspects of food itself, like ingredients or form factor. This gave us a few ideas. Stay tuned!