Food stories, at the (digital) supermarket

Carlo Ratti, a designer and professor at MIT, thinks that “Every product has a precise story to tell”. How can this idea become a tangible experience?

(Image: Daniele Ratti)


It has been a few years now since design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati has started working on a series of projects that involves data, food and consumers. The idea is to narrate all “stories” that lay behind each good we can buy at the supermarket. Firstly an experimental concept, tested during Expo 2015 in Milan under the name of Future Food District, it has become a reality in December 2016, when the Supermarket of the future, run by Coop Italia - Italy's largest supermarket chain - opened in Northern Milan's Bicocca neighborhood.

The Supermarket of the Future  |  Picture by: Daniele Iodice

I reached Professor Ratti and asked few questions:


What is the idea behind the Future Food District?


Our inspiration was the idea that each product we buy can tell us a story. I always liked an episode of Italian writer Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, who steps into a Parisian fromagerie and suddenly has the impression of walking inside an encyclopedia: “This shop is a museum: Mr. Palomar, visiting it, feels as he does in the Louvre, behind every displayed object the presence of the civilization that has given it form and takes form from it.”

The Supermarket of the Future  Picture by: Michele Versaci

The Supermarket of the Future  Picture by: Inres

The Supermarket of the Future  | Picture by: Michele Versaci

At the Future Food District, and then at Coop Italia’s Supermarket of the Future, we leveraged digital technologies to tell stories about products. As a shopper puts her hand close to a product, extra information about the food appears on a suspended digital mirror above. Through these "augmented labels”, each product can communicate its nutritional properties, its origin, the presence of allergens, waste disposal instructions, correlated products and promotions and other data. Basically, any type of digital information that we can now find online, but that generally is not available when we shop in store.






What were the main challenges to create a hi-tech supermarket?


I think that the key challenge has been achieving ‘seamlessness’ – how to insert technology in a way that makes it accessible to all, regardless of their age or education. Also, we did not want to necessarily impose people a new way to shop, but to encourage them to choose it. If you want, at the Supermarket of the Future you can still buy an apple in one second. But if you have five more seconds you can find out more about it. And if you have 15 seconds, you might even see the video of the orchard where it was grown. In other teams, we wanted our project to be “backward compatible” – you can shop like today or in new ways…






How the use of data can change the food supply chain?


I believe that online shopping – and in Web in general - is making us addicted to data. As a result, we need to find new ways to bring data in the physical world. If every product has a precise story to tell, as we were saying before, the truth is that today this information reaches the consumer only in a fragmented way. But in the future, we will be able to discover everything there is to know about the apple we are looking at: the tree it grew on, the CO2 it produced, the chemical treatments it received, and its journey to the supermarket shelf. Ultimately, we want to use technology to get a better understanding of the production chain, and to reinstate a closer, more personal relationship with the products we buy and eat. Shoppers interacting with a fully transparent supply chain can hopefully come to a better awareness in consumption, for instance choosing more sustainable food.

The Supermarket of the Future  Video by: MyBossWas




Do you think that the use of data in the management of the supply chain can help small vendors in selling to large corporations and access new markets?


I would go beyond that to say that the use of data and the increased transparency of the supply chain can both foster more conscious consumption and allow new transactions between users and sellers. In fact, in the tradition of Italian cooperatives, some areas of the Future Food District were dedicated to small producers, who can use the supermarket as a free trade area. A transposition of peer-to‐peer dynamics to the food sector…






How do you envision waste management in the supermarket of the future?


Our idea is that data can play a pivotal role to improve waste management, too. A few years ago, we ran a project with the MIT Senseable City Lab in the city of Seattle. We added digital tags to daily pieces of trash and then followed trash as it moved through the city's sanitation system. It is data not about the supply chain – as we were discussing before – but about what we could call the “removal chain”…





May 2017