About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Creating a digital twin of Glasgow’s food environment

The biggest influences on our diet are all around us - the shops and food outlets in our neighbourhoods, the advertising we see and the information we are presented with everywhere we go.

Our food environments shape our opportunity to be healthy and in many of our neighbourhoods there’s a drought of healthy options.

Which is why we worked with InGAME, the research and development centre for Scotland’s video game industry, and games studio Konglomerate Games to explore the potential of building virtual food environments.

The idea behind the virtual food environment lab project was to utilise a new approach to create a visually engaging tool that could enable deeper, better informed conversations with key stakeholders, spark creative imagination and inspire new solutions to improve our food environments.

In Scotland, 67% of adults are overweight or live with obesity. This is the highest figure anywhere in the UK although rates are similarly high across the nations. Obesity is now the leading cause of death in Scotland, linked to 23% of deaths, and costs the NHS across the UK an estimated £54bn every year.

It's clear that we need to act to reduce obesity and that means making our food environments healthier.

Food environments are complex systems influencing our food choices through advertising and where and how we see products in shops and restaurants. Food that is high in fat, salt and sugar is often given prominence and we are further encouraged to purchase via discounts and offers.

The availability, accessibility and affordability of food is also a major influence. The restaurants, takeaways, shops, cafes and pubs that are nearby, the time we have available and the money in our pockets all have a significant impact on our diets.

There is no silver bullet for reducing obesity and it will need investment in layers of preventative measures, from how our food is made to how it is sold and the information we have about it. It will require support and commitment from politicians, industry and the public and that means a shift in how we understand and talk about the external and commercial influences on our diets - our food environments.

With this project – a follow-on from the Virtual Healthy Neighbourhood Challenge – we wanted to explore the potential of AI, big data, digital twins and game design to help policy makers gain a better understanding of our food environments, their influence on us and the impact of possible solutions.

Konglomerate Games created a ‘digital twin’ of Glasgow based on data drawn from real people, places and food environments, harnessing the power of game engine technology to recreate the city.

Called Playbox Glasgow, the tool uses population and obesity data to model population BMI and simulate the link between policy interventions, calorie consumption and BMI.

Playbox Glasgow allows users to create a policy ‘experiment’ to restrict the promotion and advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar and hypothesise on how the policy will affect BMI over different time horizons. The policy is then ‘introduced’ in the city and the impact is calculated using the tools data, AI and modelling systems. The results are communicated using engaging data visualisation methods and include the impact on different demographics and neighbourhoods within the city.

Computer game technology including digital twins, simulations, AI and modelling have enormous potential to help communicate about food environments and with credible data in place could be used as places of radical experimentation, allowing users to investigate the possible impact and interaction of different policies.

As a visually engaging demonstration of the impact of policies on BMI and calories consumed at a neighbourhood level, the Playbox is an effective illustration of how video game technology can also create an interactive experience that engages users with real-world data.

The project shows how games technology can be a powerful communications tool. Creative approaches like this could be used to shift us towards a better understanding of how our diet is shaped by our food environment and inspire policymakers to make the changes needed to improve them.


Frances Bain

Frances Bain

Frances Bain

Mission Manager (Scotland), healthy life mission

Frances is Nesta’s mission manager for Scotland working on the healthy life mission and based with the Scotland team in Edinburgh.

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