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

British duo Dunne & Raby explain how they use design to start a conversation about the future of food.


Last week, I asked a question: What kinds of different futures could we create by redesigning food, and how should we direct food design research to make sure that we end up with the version of the future we actually want? Many people responded: some with suggestions, some with criticisms, and others with questions of their own, and although the original forum is now closed, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

To add some more fuel to the debate, I also asked a range of experts and eaters to tell me, from their perspective, what food design is and can do. Among them was Anthony Dunne, of British duo Dunne & Raby, whose recent project Foragers uses design to open up a new perspective on the pressing question of how we will feed a world of 9 billion people by 2050.

For a refreshingly different take on what it means to design food, take a look at Dunne & Raby's video, above, and our conversation, below.

GOOD: How did you come up with Foragers?

Tony Dunnd: We made Foragers last year in response to a brief about the future of farming put out by Design Indaba in South Africa. At the time, there was a lot of discussion in the U.K. media about the fact that there actually isn’t enough land to grow enough food, using current production techniques, to meet the needs of the population forecast for 2050, and that government and big business were planning to work together to discuss how this might be addressed. We thought, well, that's not going to lead to anything very imaginative or probably even to anything that’s in the best interest of citizens. So we started to wonder what other ways there might be of opening this discussion up.

At the time, we were already quite interested in synthetic biology and DIY bio-hackers. Then, in the process of researching alternatives to farming, we came across foragers—people who gather food rather than cultivating it. Slowly, all these things started to come together and we imagined this group of people who would reject industrial and governmental approaches to food shortages and instead would use DIY synthetic biological processes combined with the spirit of foraging to redesign themselves to different degrees, so that they could digest non-human foods like grass and cellulose and so on.

Once we defined this group of people that hybridized existing trends, and we knew what the technology would be, we started to explore what would be the most compelling way to visualize it, so that it would be an interesting thing to think about and speculate upon. We wanted to get people thinking and talking about whether it's actually worth looking at how we might modify ourselves to increase the range of foods that we can digest, or whether we should limit our focus to different ways of using land or designing plants to produce more food.

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.

But once we had done some basic research into the general plausibility of the ideas, we wanted to shift into a more imaginative space so that we could focus on communicating the idea rather than being constrained by calculating every last detail about the particular quantity of bacteria would you need to break down a particular quantity of each material over a particular length of time in order to produce a particular amount of energy. Our brief was to come up with something that would feed into a debate, and we wanted to keep that debate on the level of ideas rather than fact checking.

We always like to talk with scientists to check the edges of reality. We like to know what's possible, what might be possible but isn’t yet, and even what's impossible but imaginable. Thus far, we haven't worked closely with scientists trying to apply their research or even in collaboration with them, although that's something we might do in the future.

But we are very conscious of the difference between designing a prototype and designing a provocation. In fact, we try to build into the aesthetics of our designs clues that they're not real. Everything's quite abstracted and simplified, so, for example, you can tell that there are straps and you must wear it on your back, but there are no buckles or fiddly little things. We are interested in aiming our designs at people's imaginations, beliefs, and values and playing with that level of interaction, rather than trying to have an idea that we believe is right, building a prototype to prove that it works, and then trying to find funding to distribute it throughout society. In that latter scenario, the objects that we’d make would have to exist within and thus conform to our current worldview, and we're more interested in trying to challenge those beliefs and values. That’s why our ideas are designed in a way that signals that they're aimed more at the imagination, like playful thought experiments.

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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