reThink Food
The Culinary Institute of America MIT Media Lab


    A FOOD REVOLUTION

    We are in the midst of a major revolution in food—one powered by information technology and simultaneously shaped by our conflicted attitudes towards technology in general. Driven by consumers in concert with innovative food industry leaders, visionary chefs, growers, entrepreneurs, scholars, scientists, behavioral economists, and designers—this accelerating movement of ideas aims to create a business landscape in which healthy, sustainable, higher quality, and more engaging food experiences can thrive.

    Earlier food revolutions changed the course of human history, beginning with the first agricultural revolution, followed by the industrialization of food, and then the Green Revolution. Today’s explosion of information technology, with its attendant impacts of massive high-speed computation and mobile connectivity, has unleashed a global conversation about needs, values, and aspirations around food and food systems.

    Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it was grown and prepared, and how good—or bad—it is for them. As a result, a critical imperative of this current revolution is that companies must embrace fundamentally new approaches to transparency—an imperative that itself is accelerating the pace of change.

    At the same time and quite apart from addressing critical issues, consumers are embracing innovation in food and food experiences as never before. Millennials are outpacing older generations in driving an unprecedented embrace of culinary adventure. From experimentation with far-flung global flavors to the embrace of new product, restaurant, hospitality, and retail concepts that completely upend old models and categories, consumers have indicated their willingness—indeed, eagerness—to re-think food as never before.

    AT THE CENTER OF THE ACTION: INNOVATORS

    At the center of this new food revolution is the innovator: individual entrepreneurs, hackers, chefs, farmers, early-stage companies, and innovative larger companies who are disrupting current business practices and re-inventing our agriculture, food systems, cooking, and food experiences. They typically leverage new information tools as soon as they are invented or developed, giving them faster access to market trends and opportunities.

    Thanks to this fertile landscape, innovators all along the supply chain can quickly and inexpensively engage their immediate customers directly in conversation, test and promote business models and products, and offer the level of transparency that a 21st-century customer demands. They can also build rich, collaborative networks with peers, valued experts, and suppliers that span the entire supply chain—across town or across the globe.

    Innovators have always been risk takers. In today’s ever accelerating markets, there is often little time for a new company or product to get traction before consumers and investors decide to move on to the next big idea. Correctly reading shifts in food cultures and behaviors, designing brilliant but nimble business models and strategies, and developing deep, value-based connections with consumers are essential traits of successful innovators today.

    THE FUTURE OF FOOD: TECHNOLOGY

    The first food revolution—the agricultural revolution—allowed for the support of larger populations, leading to more complex societies and eventually the development of cities. Ten thousand years later, we now have cities topping 40 million people, and an expectation of 2.5 billion more people in the next 30 years. We need to figure out how and with what methods and technologies we will feed them all, in a challenging global landscape of water and nutrient scarcity, environmental contamination, and changing climates.

    Over the last half-century, we’ve had a hot and cold love affair with technology. We can’t wait for the latest version of today’s cars, smart phones, music, air travel, shopping, and more, which bring ever-higher levels of tech-enhanced performance. Yet, when broadly applied to food, the post-World War II technological/industrial model, while delivering on its promise to create a cheap and abundant food supply, has come with substantial collateral costs.

    Outside of the food sector, successive generations of technology have disrupted most major industries. Food is next. In addition to seismic shifts in consumer sentiment, the seeds of disruption for the food sector extend beyond information technology to include a range of scientific discoveries and technical innovations in fields as diverse as agriculture and food production, neuroscience, medicine and health, engineering, and climate research.

    One of the great opportunities for today’s innovators and entrepreneurs is to collaborate in leading a new dialogue—and creating a new paradigm—around the food and technology interface. This is a view of the future that envisions handmade, authentic local food experiences co-existing with next-generation, large-scale food production and preparation.

    It’s a framework for collaboration that asks: what has worked in previous models that can be preserved, and how can we re-imagine—rather than merely reject—what has failed or fallen short? It’s a future that sees chefs, farmers, and growers, and change agents within the packaged food and volume foodservice industries partnering with scientists, engineers, behavioral specialists, food systems thinkers, designers, and yes, even robots.

    THE FUTURE OF FOOD: BEHAVIORAL INSIGHT AND DESIGN

    Critical to this view of opportunities around food, technology, and innovation is a new, richer understanding of consumer behavior, combined with a greater-than-ever potential to elevate food experiences and change our perceptions of choice.

    Market research, consumer insight analysis, and expert trend-tracking are all essential elements to understanding our customers and identifying potential windows for innovation. The rise of big data sets is an additive game changer, as it enables us to understand and leverage consumers’ purchasing behavior with previously unimagined precision.

    A steady stream of new knowledge from neuroscience helps us better understand sensory perception and the creation of habits, biases, and a willingness to experiment. Behavioral economics is giving us powerful new tools to shape preferences and create new value strategies around food and food choices. And leaders in design are helping us develop transformative food experiences and new approaches to solving pressing food-related issues and challenges.

    What’s at stake in the behavioral and design arena is not merely achieving consumer acceptance and the change of purchasing patterns, but the promise of discovering new frontiers of consumer delight, passion, and engagement that can revolutionize what we think is possible.

    Download a PDF of the conference overview here.