From our series on San Francisco living. This story was also published in Frisco Quarterly, 2029.
Meet Marcus, a cultural concierge at The Fairbanks Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Marcus moved here three years ago from Detroit, after soaking up the early-20s Motor City Renaissance. A foodie who’s drawn to the mix of high- and slow-tech, he fell fast for the foggy way of life.
In the entranceway to Marcus’s home, stands a large aquarium populated by a shimmering cloud of fish. “Whitebait,” I’m told — edible fish he harvests annually. Right now it looks more like an art installation than a sustainable, tasty meal.
Plopping down at his kitchen table, a strong, herbal aroma dominates the room, thanks to a crop of sweet tomatoes, basil, and bell peppers rooted in water-filled tubes on the main wall. I’ve seen these installations before in magazines, and always thought they looked a bit naff. Here, I have to admit, they lift the room.
But the most striking feature has to be a wall covered in what at first glance appears to be a textured fabric in shades of grey and brown. This, Marcus proudly tells me, is his latest “home growth installation,” a roughly 2-feet wide by 5-feet tall field of mushrooms and other fungi. This is a prototype, as he hopes to launch a food-tech company based on “hyper-customizable mushroom farms.” Every five days, Marcus harvests half of the field, filling two delivery sacks, which are then picked up at his door for the civic food distribution network.
San Franciscans have a famously obsessive interest in where things come from. Reality lies not too far from that classic Saturday Night Live skit where an SF couple brags about the ecological performance of the tree used to make their table, “We don’t mean to brag, but our oak was really exceptional.” Price seems to be no object in the pursuit of hyperlocal eggs, wool shorn from Sierra sheep, and produce reaped from hand-scale farms in the North Bay.
Today, the foodscape is a source of pride for the city. Gone are the days where Central Valley farmers could flood-irrigate their fields using aquifers, growing abundant produce for the nation. In 2019 San Francisco set its first goal to harvest 10 percent of its food within city limits. The goal was met and surpassed in the same year. Perched between valleys of grapes, silicon, and salad gems, San Francisco was well positioned to pioneer widescale urban farming.
Back in Marcus’s apartment, we head out to grab a Sunset-district-grown veggie brunch. Marcus is eager to get moving to beat the lines for this new food cart serving “a daily menu of Cal-Mex algae-based dishes.” As our shuttle arrives, he grabs a bag of tomatoes he’s picked and drops them in a collection pod in the building’s lobby.
As we ride out to the Sunset, he regales me with appetizing details about the smoked algae breakfast wraps I’m about to eat. I learn that as the California Delta grew drier and warmer in the late 2010s, it experienced a damaging raft of algal blooms. Food tech startups, like Delta Nutrition, smelled an opportunity, tailoring the algae to match the genomic health needs of the quantified digestion crowd. Just a few short years later, I’m about to eat the best algaerito the Delta can offer.
“It’s really going to change the way we sustain ourselves,” Marcus says. As our shuttle pulls up, he’s animatedly waving his hands, telling me about the “living, growing furniture” he wants to install in his apartment next.
We beat the queues, and when I take my first bite, I nod at him approvingly, pleasantly surprised by the dense, earthy taste with its citrus-salt finish. But my mind is already jumping ahead, wondering if algal bloom will be replacing my smoked ham.
Editor’s note: At IDEO, we are often asked what is the future of _____. Coming up with an answer can be daunting — the rate of change is so fast, the systems vast and complex. As Alex Steffen wrote, “We can’t predict the future or dictate its shape, but we can cultivate the capacities to respond to the demands the unforeseen future will make on us.” To that end, a group of us meet every Friday at IDEO San Francisco to explore these capacities. We call it Adventuring. First, we imagine the possible shape of life in San Francisco in 10–15 years. Next, we try to intuit what needs, concerns, and desires we might have — building empathy for our future selves. The sessions led teams down many roads (See: Future of Automobility). In the coming weeks, we will be sharing some other speculative fictions. We look forward to hearing from you.