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Carlo Ratti: Inventing the future together at Expo Milano 2015

Innovation / -

Carlo Ratti, direttore del SENSEable City Lab del Massachusets Institute of Technology
©NicMarchesi_SCL

The Future Food District is a massive collective experiment, where technology helps us experiment with new ways of doing things, that might change our way of choosing and buying food. How? The consumers themselves will decide.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it”, attributed to the pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay, this statement informs the Future Food District which has been masterminded by the team overseen by Carlo Ratti, Director of the SENSEable City Lab in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
 
With one little proviso: inventing, yes, but in a “collaborative mode”. In contrast to the predictions, which usually end up being wrong, Ratti has created a vast collaborative workshop where, as a result of the choices they make, the shoppers themselves will indicate what they would like to find in the supermarkets of the future.
 
In developing this experiment, Ratti took his cue from Mr Palomar, the central figure of the novel of the same name by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino. Walking into a cheese shop in Paris, he felt as if he were in the Louvre museum, since every cheese on display seemed to tell a story of a different pasture, under a different sky. All these stories, which can enrich the eating experience, in the Supermarket of the Future, are there for the telling, all that’s needed is an arm-movement.
 
We are in the midst of a third Industrial Revolution. What major changes can we expect?
Innovative production models will allow us to achieve the Situationists’ dream: we could, as described by the Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys, known as Constant, become homo ludens, someone who can concentrate on being creative, and leave the manufacturing process to the machines. One example in the Supermarket of the Future, is the robot called YuMi (an amalgam of You and Me), which takes care of restocking the shelves.
 
Technical and administrative obstacles aside, what would your ideal city look like?
I do not believe that an ideal city exists, since it is subject to local conditions. At the present time, many experiments are taking place: Singapore is working on mobility, while Copenhagen is looking at sustainability, and Boston’s focus is on citizen participation.
 
If I wanted to imagine an ideal city, my response would be the same as that given by Georges Perec, a 20th-century French writer and journalist, when he was asked to name the best place to live in Paris. He replied that, in his ideal apartment, the kitchen would be facing Les Halles fruit and vegetable market, the living room would look out onto the Parc Montsouris, and so on. Maybe my ideal city would have the climate of Naples, the shape and contours of Prague, the fusion cooking typical of San Francisco, the energy of New York, and the night-life of Rio de Janeiro.
 
In this city, how would food be produced? Can urban vegetable gardens, and urban farming integrated into buildings, really produce enough to feed the city, or is this just a passing phase?
It would never be possible to satisfy a city’s food requirements within that city itself.
What we can do is bring production into the city as well, so people can experience the seasons and nature’s cyclical pattern. This would be not only educational, but would also provide a new “take” on living in the city.
 
You use a considerable amount of technology. What are you trying to optimize? Our time? Our happiness?
Technology in itself is of no interest to us. We are more interested in experience. And new technology can enhance our experience. Technology is not an end in itself, it is a means for helping us change and improve our relationship with what surrounds us, whether this be architecture or the food we eat.
 
Would a "Smart" or even a "Senseable" City be a happier place to live in?
Here too, I think that the role of designers and architects is that of creating new experiences, but the decision to engage, or otherwise, lies with the individual.
 
This is quite a totally different approach from that adopted in the 20th-century. Then, architects assumed they had to find the solution. Once found, people would automatically adopt it. These days, we, as designers, can put forward a number of options in a large-scale collective experiment. The decision as to which have a future will be taken in a collaborative fashion.
 

Stefano Marras. Street food in future will be high quality, organic and zero kilometer

Lifestyle / -

CF intervista Roberto Marras

This is the forecast offered by Stefano Marras, research fellow of the Department of Economics and Sociology at the University of Milan-Bicocca, who was commissioned by his University and by Expo Milano 2015 to carry out a research project in order to supply the Universal Exposition with high quality research information on this growing food trend.

In cooperation with an Expo Milano 2015 team, Stefano Marras began his research in 2011. For three and a half months he toured all the main Capitals of South America, stopping for roughly two weeks in each one, accompanied by experts from local Universities, or else on his own.
 
When you were researching in South America and Italy, you talked with many of the street food vendors we see in the documentary Esta es mi comida. Was it difficult to make contact with them?
I contacted them myself, or else through the universities. I stopped to chat with them, asked them if they’d be willing to be filmed during their day. Some of them even invited me to film them cooking their food in their homes in the morning, loading the food onto their trollies or barrows, and travelling to their stall or selling point. None of them objected, on the contrary. Maybe they were partly flattered to be filmed for Expo Milano 2015, and partly just polite.
 
Were some of their personal stories particularly striking?
Lots. In the documentary, everyone has a story to tell. All sincere, often moving. One woman earned enough from selling home-made bread to buy a new gas cooker. One man, specialized in Italian pasta with his own home-made sauces, whom I saw on the roadside, then he appeared on TV and became famous. Often the vendors have to deal with bans by local authorities, but if they become well-known they tend to be tacitly tolerated.
 
Another vendor was called Pelado, or Baldy, and sold a delicious sandwich with a meat filling: I got to know him because I took a photo of him in his rickety little stall, and he practically took three days to tell me the entire history of Argentina. Bear in mind that street food in South America is a major factor, important from a cultural, economic and even political viewpoint. Just think, about ten years ago the municipal government of Bogotà passed from the right wing to the left wing, the main factor being the votes of the street vendors, who are numerous enough to be politically important.
 
Many people steer clear of street food for hygienic reasons, because there are no controls. Are these legitimate worries?
I think you have to distinguish between the quality of the ingredients and the hygienic conditions of the food. As far as quality goes, it’s up to the vendor to sell fresh products, bought in local markets, maybe even organically grown. But on the sanitary and hygiene side, especially in developing countries, these worries may be legitimate. Most vendors prepare their food at home, but live in poor or extremely poor conditions, often in shantytowns with no drinking water, and this can be a risk factor.
 
Various studies have been conducted on samples of street food in South America, Asia and Africa, and found significant levels of microbiological contamination, but no studies have demonstrated that this contamination has caused illness. Remember, with street food, everything is visible, and many products are fried… and we all know that frying kills any bacteria. Plus, these people may be poor, but I’ve never seen such care taken over what they sell, and over cleaning their work surfaces: this is their only means of survival, so they have every incentive to keep their customers happy.
 
You say that these products are sustainable. Can you explain why?
You have to bear in mind three considerations: the small-scale of operations, that all vendors concentrate on just a few dishes, and the time-space flexibility inherent in the vans which can travel to wherever the markets are. This all means that the vendor has to calculate carefully and precisely the amount of food they need for the day, without waste or leftovers. It’s also advantageous from a hygienic viewpoint, because foods have necessarily to be fresh.
 
In developing countries, street vendors are generally people “excluded” from the formal market, while in the West, the crisis has produced new street food businessmen, including experienced professionals but also young people who have invented a job by investing in a truck. Why is this sector so attractive today?
The new food truck development started in the United States and has certain precise features. Firstly, they offer gourmet dishes, fusion cooking, made with organic foods, locally bought, and they use social media to publicize themselves, they have special logos, personalized and well-equipped trucks. In the US this phenomena was set off by the 2008-2009 crisis, and immediately produced spectacular results for many vendors. In the animated infograph I showed during Sunday’s encounter at Slow Food, there was the real story of Koghi bbq, who made 2 million dollars in his first year, has 137,000 Twitter followers, and has been voted among the ten best chefs in Los Angeles.
 
A success story which will certainly have inspired other vendors, but also a recent film, called “Chef. The perfect recipe”, which tells precisely that story: a well-known chef who loses his job because he insults a famous food critic, opens his own food truck and becomes a hit thanks to Twitter. In Italy, street food is less of a phenomenon.
 
Still, the various Festivals attracted between 500,000 and 750,000 customers in a year and a half, averaging 15 euros per customer. These Festivals generate significant turnover and profits. Currently there are 8,500 food and drink licenses, and an annual growth of 7% from 2009 to today. This is major growth, and there’s an exponential growth in press articles written about street food. I think that what has happened is this: at a certain point there was a street Gourmet Food trend which caught the eye of food journalists and bloggers, and this started the ball rolling. Remember, that of the 8,500 licenses today, only about 100 relate to Gourmet Food.
 
What will the street food of the future be like? How do you imagine it?
The fashion for high quality street food is bound to raise the level of ordinary street food. It will become increasingly organic, high quality and zero kilometers. Gradually the average palate will become more demanding and even the hot dog stalls outside discos will have to adapt to more refined tastes. Rather like what happened with pistachio flavored ice cream in Italy: in the 1980s it was insipid, unnatural and fluorescent green… if an ice cream vendor sold something like that today, they’d be out of business in a month.
 
In which country did you find the most extravagant versions of street food?
In South America they all seemed pretty extravagant, but especially in Bolivia, where I was fascinated by the story of the anticuchos, skewers of beef heart and potatoes, really small potatoes from the Andes, cooked on grills with really high flames and sold by typical Indian women with hats and colored scarves. The history of this recipe stretches back to the Incas, who used to eat this dish, but also during the period of Spanish colonialization, when the white men ate it with better cuts of meat, but the slaves continued to use the traditional ingredients. In Italy I was interested to eat Florentine lampredotto for the first time, the bread with spleen they sell in Palermo, and the intestine wrapped on skewers and then grilled.
 
And the most delicious?
The acarajè in Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, a kind of giant falafel made of crushed cowpeas fried in palm oil and filled with shrimp and jellied vegetable sauce.
 
The most ecological?
All the street food I tasted was made with local ingredients.
 
In Expo Milano 2015, have you been particularly impressed by any of the street food stalls?
I had some really excellent cheese panini in the Dutch Pavilion.
 

From Land Mines to Raspberries in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Economy / -

Mettete dei lamponi nei vostri cannoni. In Bosnia-Erzegovina imm
@ Naturfoto Conal/Corbis

In the canton of Bihać, where war has left deep wounds, the economy is trying to start anew with a national park and agriculture. Thanks to a partnership with Italy, the tradition and cultivation of forest fruits has been revived.

The setting is idyllic. The pure water of the river is camouflaged by forests; among the blue-green reflections, there are unexpected fields of raspberries and unexpected precipices. We are in the first national park established by the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the canton of Bihać, created not just to protect the environment, but most importantly, to fuel a passion for hiking, kayaking, rafting and fishing. The park also looks after the needs of vacationers in search of quiet relaxation and a contact with nature, at one of the many hot springs, where the history of ancient legends accompanies spa therapies.
 
The fate of many families depends on the park and tourism, because here, since the end of the war, the economy has not yet been picked up. There is almost no industry in the region and very little public investment or private capital. There is also an agricultural crisis and the countryside is gradually depopulating: and cultivating the land is a living nightmare of dodging mines. There are few adult men left to work the farms; most have been overwhelmed by the past events or have fled in search of fortune. Only women, children and the elderly remain, yet their agriculture could be the starting point for development. There is an opportunity for environmentally-friendly agriculture, in harmony with the park, its landscape and its spirit. It is a type of agriculture that produces healthy, quality food, with strong added value at the time of sale.
 
Two Italian NGOs, the Milanese group ICEI and IPSIA, have therefore developed a cooperative project that is focused on both the promotion of tourism and the organic cultivation of raspberries. They are working to revive the tradition of local berries. Indeed, cultivating these shrubs, in ideal conditions to grow and mature in this area, requires no expensive machinery or great physical effort, lending itself to a workforce of women and elderly people. In addition, it is suitable for small plots of family ownership, ensuring high yields per hectare.
 
About 130 families have been granted a credit in materials - tens of thousands of seedlings of raspberries, hoes, fertilizer, etc. These much-needed supplies were not paid for in cash but rather through the sale of a small portion of the first crops. Experts at the University of Bihać and the Agricultural Institute have helped farmers start up for free. It has proved to be a winning choice, which grants them the freedom to farm even for those without money. And so, all along the green hills outlined by the River Una can be seen that much awaited constellation of small red dots.
 
 

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