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DEEPER VISIONS OF FOOD FUTURES: HOW TO ESCAPE THE TRAP OF TECHNO-CENTRISM

Updated: 3 days ago

By Quinault Childs



With the explosion in accessibility of generative AI, one thing we’ve noticed at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) is that the barrier to entry for creating visual forecasts of provocative futures — a forecasting technique including what we call “artifacts from the future” — has almost disappeared. Until quite recently, it was the case that creating a provocative vision of a thing that might exist in some imagined future required not only a deep exploration of possibilities of change, but also some artistic chops to envision it in a way that conveyed to others what it looks like, feels like, tastes like, to live in a future where things are radically different. 


These visions of the future — if compelling — are important. They provide touchpoints for collective futures, emotional clarity around ideas for the future, and inspire action by holding up an almost-tangible thing to strive for (or avoid). They also provide shorthand for future concepts. It’s a lot easier, for example, to talk about Gotta Eat ‘em All than it is to discuss the hypothetical AR-driven personal interface for gamified decision-making based on gut microbiome health. It often sparks more fruitful discussions, too. Good artifacts can serve as a rallying point for imagining and building more nuanced futures.


THE PROBLEM WITH TECHNO-CENTRIST — AND UNINSPIRING — FORECASTS

Futurists pondering possible developments of food systems have used artifacts from the future for decades. However, historically, many depictions of future food systems fell into a trap of techno-centrism.


Arthur Radebaugh, “Closer than We Think” (1961).
Arthur Radebaugh, “Closer than We Think” (1961)

Around the mid-twentieth century, a sense of rapid technological progress and excitement about the future kicked off an era of imagination, which included a number of food-minded future visions. These space-age artifacts from the future generally showed scaled-up, nuclear-powered, bigger-better-faster versions of the food system that already existed super-charged by technology. The representative images strove for a world where, for example, we’re still producing monocultures of corn, but now the cobs are giant! And gamma rays are involved somehow! To a degree, this is what happened: agricultural intensification and crop / livestock breeding led to a world of bigger, faster production.


Fred McNabb (1955).

Another artifact, Super Chef, shows a future where the industrial food system has been shrunk down to fit into the home. It’s capable of cranking out any food that the white, suburban, stay-at-home American mother can think of — but faster! 








These types of visions of the future failed in two critical ways: one, they were predicting a future that was simply more of the same, just scaled up, and two, they didn’t touch on cultural and social change whatsoever. Instead, they focused pretty much entirely on technological “progress.”


This techno-centric bias persists today. When you think of the future of food, it’s easy to look at what technologies are hot in the present moment and ask yourself, “What if these combine with the system that already exists?” This promotes a sort of convergent thinking that invariably leads people to come up with a forecast about drones delivering personalized meal kits from vertical farms — a mishmash of whatever tech is in vogue as futuristic at the moment. In fact, typing in “A future food system” to DALL-E results in pretty much just that:


While this type of image is shiny and easy to create, the ease with which anyone can create such images runs the risk of flooding our collective imagination with these convergent, uninspiring, techno-centric imaginations of the future. 


So, how do you, as a food-minded futurist, break away from the trap of techno-centrism?


ARTIFACTS FROM DEEPER ENVISIONING

One way is to not base your imagination purely on the most surface-level changes. Technology certainly has a big impact on everything else, but it exists in the quickest, most visible realm of change. Just over ten years ago, robot delivery services were science fiction, and now you can see them crawling around Los Angeles, unperturbed by anything in their way. Creating an artifact from the future about more, bigger, faster, food delivery bots isn’t particularly inspiring; it simply extends the current trends to their plausible maximum.


Borrowing from other futures practices and tools can help jump out of this. For example:


Examining Our Social Layers with the CLA Tool — Using Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis (CLA), we can identify increasingly “deep” layers of change on which to base artifacts from the future. The process involves describing everything from the surface-level of a given topic — the litany — to the deepest collective consciousness — the myths and metaphors


Many food artifacts and imaginations have to do with the issues that live and evolve at the litany level: we need more food, so we imagine giant cobs of corn. We think food should be delivered to us from the grocery store, so we imagine drones and robots that bring it to us. By intentionally going further into the CLA process, we can avoid these flashy-but-shallow imaginings and end up with more compelling (and more useful) artifacts. Ask yourself, what are the systems that uphold our current food culture and market? These might include a global supply chain, fast food, and an extraction mindset. What are the worldviews that uphold it? Perhaps individualism, food as power, or consumerism and convenience culture. 


Finally, what are the myths and metaphors? The idea of the bucolic, pastoral farm as an ideal (in the U.S., at least), or the concept of the “melting pot” of cultures (resulting in things like the sushirrito or kimchi tacos). Then, imagine a future in which some of these elements have disappeared, morphed, or evolved — that’s more fertile ground for your artifact from the future. For example, IFTF’s Incentivized Receipt artifact was not based on technological changes so much as societal shifts around expectations of a more transparent food system. 


Tapping into Social Interactions with Futures Simulations — Another way to ensure that your images of food futures include social and culture change is to create a simulation of a future, and then see how people react in that simulation. That’s essentially what Jane McGonigal has done in the most recent social simulation on the Urgent Optimists community platform. 


In it, the “Ministry for the Food Future” is a detailed forecast of a future where an organization similar to the United Nations has developed a program to unite and empower “food citizens,” or those people who seek to build a more resilient food system in the face of climate impacts. The social simulation puts hundreds of real-world, present-day participants into the forecast by asking them to make decisions or take a personal stand in “moments of choice,” to write journal entries from their own futures, and to interact with each other as if they were already living in this future. As the simulation unfolds, we start to see some of the many possible ways that people might actually act — those social and cultural changes that can be so hard to capture in an artifact from the future. While technological developments do play a role in the futures experienced through the social simulations, they don’t eclipse the social interactions. By bringing real, unpredictable, emotional, chaotic humans into the process, we can start to get ideas for artifacts from a more human, messy future.


AVOID STALE VISIONS

It’s certainly easier to create visions of the future of food based on flashy new technologies — and to be fair, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. After all, emerging technologies do alter the landscape of food. But without intentionally including explorations of future change in the harder-to-predict aspects of the future, such as human interaction (and reaction), aesthetics, art, cultural values, social mores and taboos, worldviews, and myths, those visions will quickly become stale.


 

Quinault Childs is the Research Director of the Food Futures Lab at IFTF. He focuses on exploring the intersection of food systems, society, and climate change, describing possible futures where all of those things look very different than they do today. His work with the Food Futures Lab is a mix of projecting current-day data into the future, gathering insights from food systems leaders, and developing experiential, imaginative “edible futures” of food. Before IFTF, Quin was involved in launching startups in the food space, including a circular food waste company and the first zero-waste grocery store in Texas. He has a M.S. in Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Studies and a B.S. in Human Factors Engineering, both from Tufts University in Massachusetts.


To learn more about how IFTF Foresight Essentials is uniquely customizable for businesses, government agencies, and social impact organizations, visit iftf.org/foresightessentials or subscribe to the IFTF Foresight Essentials newsletter.





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