What are the different kinds of innovation that affect food?
In the next few weeks, we will be exploring a new area of work in our Futures theme: food and innovation. From Ferran Adria to the microwave, from edible insects to GM crops, the importance of food for our health and the environment makes it fertile ground for many kinds of innovation.
The food we eat at home is generally slow to change. Watching the recent BBC series 'Back in Time for Dinner', the kitchen became recognisable as early as the sixties, when fitted kitchens and refrigeration became widespread. Many of today's meals would be recognisable to diners a couple of centuries ago: the Sunday roast, a beef stew, pie and mash. Even curry was a popular dish in Britain during the eighteenth century. However, the way food arrives in our kitchens, and the way it is processed and packaged would be unrecognisable. Air-freighted fruit, nitrogen atmospheres, steam-heating, vacuum seals, canning, additives and preservatives are all types of process innovation. In some cases, these industrial techniques have been adopted by high-end restaurant kitchens like The Fat Duck and El Bulli to create novel dishes, for example vacuum packaging for sous-vide cooking or the use of thickening gels for spherification .
At the other end of the restaurant scene, pop-ups and food trucks are making it cheaper and easier for food entrepreneurs to try out a restaurant idea, before committing to a property and a lease. Organisations like Kitchenette help support small business innovation so those with new food ideas can develop and test them, before becoming a fully-fledged enterprise. Social media and online shopping have also made it easier for food to be sold by mail order. Food subscription boxes, and small producer marketplaces like Yumbles help small traders to reach a wide and growing audience of food lovers who will order direct from suppliers. Does this reduce the power of big retailers? Or make it easier to get started and scale-up?
Web and mobile software innovation have also created opportunities for individuals to track and record what and where they are eating. Whether it's the ubiquitous 'what I had for breakfast' tweet, a beautiful Instagram account of food photography, or a food and calories diary on apps like MyFitnessPal, we can all keep detailed records of our food consumption, and browse those of others. Can these create a real opportunity for improving our health, or are they just making us all more hungry?
Finally, software has contributed to information innovation, where it is possible to track ingredients through a supply chain down to the minute of delivery, where codes can help us identify the farm that grew the apples, or the fishery that sent the mackerel to our shelves . Consumers are increasingly interested in the traceability and sustainability of their food, but relatively little of this information makes it through in a usable form at present - this was the subject of a recent open data challenge we ran with the Open Data Institute. Faster sharing of information can also make food trends spread faster and more globally. How does the media and social media influence our demand for new foods and dishes? How do suppliers and retailers anticipate these trends?
In the course of a series of blog posts, I will explore some of these areas of innovation, as we scope our new project. In scoping this new piece of work, we are looking for an area that we can have lasting impact upon, and that is important for the UK; a topic undergoing rapid change where there is an opportunity to bring together diverse communities to solve problems; and a space that isn't already overcrowded with other contributors. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas about where Nesta could best play a role in food and innovation.