Parasecoli is doing what futurists call “amplifying weak signals” — looking at points of data in the present and extrapolating to their logical conclusions. That’s the same approach used by Mike Lee of the Future Market, a project that explores how we’ll produce and shop for food in the future. Lee, who works in food product design, observed that the automobile industry spends big to produce wildly futuristic concept cars and wondered why the food industry wasn’t investing in the same way. The Future Market’s upcoming pop-up concept store, which will be on display at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, focuses on the future of biodiversity and sustainability in the grocery industry.
Lee thinks digital grocery shopping is likely to experience massive growth in the coming years but that the picture changes further down the line. “That’s more of a 10-to-15-year thing,” Lee says. Already, British grocer Ocado has come close to achieving a fully autonomous grocery warehouse; at a new fulfillment center in Andover, England, a fleet of robots that look like a cross between postal boxes and Pixar’s Wall-E glide across a metal grid, retrieving items from thousands of bins located below them to package into orders for delivery. Ocado plans to license its technology to grocers around the world, removing the human labor that powers a costly grocery delivery service like Instacart.
“One possible future is that we don’t shop for food anymore, but food shops for us.”
Another near-term innovation that will cut down on labor as well as shopping friction: No more waiting in line to pay. At nine Amazon Go stores spread between Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago, Prime members can already grab their groceries without stopping to check out before they leave. “The number one thing I took away from visiting Amazon Go was not how futuristic it was, but how much sense it made,” Lee says. “It felt really obvious.”
Like Parasecoli, Lee believes physical grocery stores will persist in a variety of sizes, shapes, and formats. People still like to touch, see, and smell certain items, like fresh produce and fish, and we still visit grocery stores to source prepared items, like rotisserie chickens and heat-and-eat sides, just in time for dinner. Grocers have a strong incentive to make their stores appealing: Customers spend more when they shop in a store than online. “In a world where you can get anything at a push of a button, grocers will need to be more creative.” Lee says. In China, internet giant Alibaba has begun to expand offline with its Hema brand of superstores, where visitors can pick out live seafood and have it cooked in front of them at an interactive food court. At the Whole Foods I visited with Parasecoli, we saw employees stationed in front of glowing Wood Stone ovens, where grab-and-go items like pizza and sandwiches could be warmed to order.
On-site food production isn’t a new idea, but in the next half-century, that could extend from preparing meals to fashioning the ingredients themselves. Lab-grown meat is moving closer to becoming a commercial reality; Lee says a grocery store might have meat bioreactors in the basement and hydroponic growing facilities on the roof that generate fruits and vegetables for the store while capturing rainwater and offsetting the store’s carbon emissions. A system like that would be environmentally efficient while appealing to consumers’ interest in traceability and freshness.
But the aspect of our food future that most interests Lee — and Max Elder— is the emergence of a food system where, as Elder puts it, “consumers become more than just a mouth at the end of a supply chain.” As each of us cast off more and more information about our needs and habits — from biometric data produced by wearable and ingestible sensors to our online footprint to smart refrigerators that know which staples are running low — food producers and sellers will be able to figure out what you want and need before you know it yourself.
At the same time, new production technology, from 3D printing to hydroponic growing to cell-cultured meat, will make it easier to create food products personalized to the individual consumer. Plug all of that together and you end up with a hand-in-glove food system: an ever-tightening feedback loop between the sellers of food and consumers. The steak I buy for dinner could be grown exactly to my calorie needs and preferred protein-to-fat ratio, plus extra iron to nip that slight anemia in the bud — and made just in time, based on my eating patterns.
If products can respond to the needs of consumers, so can the shopping experience. Already, IBM has applied to patent a coffee-delivery drone that can be summoned by biometric data indicating fatigue. A Swedish startup is at work on something it calls Moby Mart: an autonomous, mobile mini-mart that someday might move around the city in response to levels of need. Elder finds these models particularly intriguing. “One possible future is that we don’t shop for food anymore, but food shops for us.”