The BBC is showing a fascinating series tracking the Brits relationship with their food over the last six decades. Being from the UK and worse, from Scotland and the land of the deep-fried Mars Bar, you get used to being the butt of many European jokes about our food. Fair enough if we were still living in the midst of the 1950s austerity when Britain joined the E.C.B. but I would argue that most British cities outside London offer more quality and choice than most European capitals do (no offence, but have you tried eating out in Berlin if you aren’t vegan?) What the series did reveal is that our relationship with food is constantly changing and perhaps this is where the Brits differ. And today, we want to know where our food comes; we want to know its provenance. And technology is set to play a huge role.
I came across a fascinating example of this outside the UK as I prepare for a trip to Denmark next week to present the preliminary results from my new Center for the Future of Work study focused on smart products. I will be presenting to a bunch of Danish designers at this event so I am a little apprehensive (Denmark is world famous for its design). But if you want to see how smart technologies are getting infused into, and around, our food so we can appreciate its quality and provenance, then look to Copenhagen. It also reveals to me at least how the accelerated rise of technology in our everyday lives is starting to become counter-weighted in some newly rediscovered artisan crafts and how you find a mix of the two together.
A new social enterprise started in Copenhagen harnesses the power of bees to transform lives. And once it starts harnessing SMAC technologies it will fuse the fascinating insights about its honey to provide a new way at looking at the city. Bybi is a honey cooperative with its HQ located in a homeless shelter in Copenhagen. It offers urban dwellers insight into the world of making things and producing food. They’ve figured out an interesting model to engage the local and business community into the process of making and extracting honey. Businesses in the city such as Carlsberg pay the project to host Bybi’s hives on their roofs or in their gardens, and Bybi maintains the hives and harvests the honey. What I like is the co-operative has started to build a fascinating honey map of Copenhagen which demonstrates the city’s green credentials. From the town-hall to the airport, depending on where the honey is made gives the honey different tastes and appearances. Honey harvested from the roof of the town hall for example has a pinkish tinge due to the raspberry bushes nearby, while honey from Varby is rich, dark, and almost black with a strong taste that’s popular with Denmark’s immigrant community. From the bees and the honey, you start to see the city in a very different way.
From the food that we buy to the things that we use, they are all starting to “tell” us about themselves. This is a major finding from my work on smart products as more companies start to give physical products virtual identities; starting to build code halos around products. Like the medicine bottle or the food stuff that tells us how and when to consume it. Is it still fresh? Still safe to put into our mouths? How many calories does it hold? What wine should it be paired with? All this could be contained in the data field that surrounds a product and represents new ways of driving a better customer experience around a simple product like honey. What does this mean for the future of our work in Europe? Not much initially, but to me it signals something profound. You might be surprized to learn that there is a strong rise in in beekeeping and other artisanal crafts and my read is it’s a response to our digitized world where every “ping” sends us scuttling for our devices in a semi-constant state of tension. Bees and caring for them are starting to become fashionable and represent a slower, laid-back approach to life or at least our spare time.
As a keen brewer, struggling allotment owner and now the owner of a large garden, I am now considering installing a couple of hives to kick off Davis Honey. Why? Because the more you get to know bees the more fascinated you become by them. A good friend of mine’s father is the “Don” of bees (no kidding) and after heading to the pub for a couple of pints, I was a goner. Their behaviour is fascinating—you’ve got to pity the poor (always male) worker drone bee that gets ruthlessly shoved out of the hive and left to die in the cold outside the hive if he begins to fail in his duty. Bees also pollinate one third of our food supply and their role is vital and yet they are in decline. In one year alone is 2012, about 30% of US bees disappeared and no one know why? Perhaps using technologies to understand these pollinators like Copenhagen does can tell us why.
PS. Did you know New York City banned its citizens from keeping tigers, snakes and, err, bees? Thankfully the bee ban was overturned in 2010 and urban beekeeping is having a hipster led revival…