Future Foragers: Dunne & Raby Redesign Human Digestion to Redefine "Food" Future Foragers: Dunne & Raby Redesign Human Digestion to Redefine "Food"

Future Foragers: Dunne & Raby Redesign Human Digestion to Redefine "Food"

by Nicola Twilley

December 25, 2010

GOOD: How plausible is the science behind your idea?

Dunne: At the very beginning, Fiona [Raby, Dunne's partner] talked to some scientists to get a sense of what might be possible one day using synthetic biology, how far away different technologies might be, and what kind of animal digestive systems could potentially be adapted and re-engineered.

GOOD: To me, there's an enormous usefulness in this kind of challenge to existing norms. And yet I imagine that what you do is often perceived as having little direct economic value or return. I’m interested in whether the fact that so much future food R&D is done using corporate investment and is directed at relatively short-term goals leads to a lack of longer-term, more speculative thinking? Or is there no lack of funding for the kind of work you do?

Dunne: [laughs] I wish there was no lack!

Fiona and I come from an architectural and an industrial design background respectively, rather than an art one, and we feel there always has to be some kind of usefulness to our work. The realm in which we see it being useful is in creating discussions and opening up new perspectives on ongoing debates.

That causes us lots of problems. People are comfortable funding artistic collaborations with scientists that result in clear cultural outcomes or even critical commentary. There are also well-established funding models for innovation—applying technologies and coming up with new products. But when it comes to designing ways to look at the impact of different technologies or ideas on everyday life, it's very hard to identify where the best source of funding would be.

So far, for us, it's come from one-off commissions, usually related to festivals or exhibitions and things like that. Although through the Royal College of Art, where I teach, we're beginning to work with large companies like Intel, applying this sort of thinking in a more limited way to technology-related issues, such as exploring the future of money, for example, if it becomes completely digitized.

GOOD: Your work is not confined to food—it deals with lots of different issues and ideas, from state surveillance to ubiquitous euthanasia. Would you be interested in working with food again?

Dunne: We'd love to work in the food space again—it's absolutely fascinating. Funnily enough, my college thesis project, more than twenty years ago, was to do with redesigning chocolate from an interaction point of view. The whole form of the chocolate—how it collapsed in your mouth and how you held it and so on—was designed so that it would respond to introverted personality types and extroverted personality types. It was all about designing food so that the way you would eat it would correspond to your nature.

Ever since then, I've always been curious about food and the role that design can play in it, but very few opportunities have come up to do more work like that.

The glimpses that gave me into designing sweets—chocolate bars and things like that—on a mass industrial scale was absolutely fascinating, because so much goes into the sensation of it. Very little goes into the nutritional value of the food, and that's an issue, but the actual experience of eating industrially produced sweets can be very well designed. I think it would be lovely to take that expertise and apply it to more nutritional food sources, to make them more enjoyable to eat or look at or interact with in any way. I think there's a lot of scope to bring the two together.

GOOD: That reminds me of an interesting recent example in the U.S., in which a major advertising firm rebranded baby carrots and redesigned their packaging to compete with Doritos, but the actual baby carrots are still those weird slimy cylinders carved out of a bigger, older, not-so-sweet carrot. It seems to me that if you're going to put baby carrots up against Doritos, you need to do a little more than make the bag look fun.

Dunne: [laughs] There's lots of scope, clearly. But at the moment, when I think of food and design, I think of mass-produced, industrialized food, made with really poor quality ingredients. I am very curious about whether the large-scale industrial production of food can actually produce high quality, high nutritional value, tasty, aesthetically interesting stuff to eat, or not. Fiona and I would love to investigate that, and see whether we can imagine something that’s altogether outside the way things are today.  

Don't miss earlier food and design conversations with Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, and Derek Yach, PepsiCo's Senior Vice President of Global Health and Agriculture Policy.

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Future Foragers: Dunne & Raby Redesign Human Digestion to Redefine "Food"