December 1, 2013
This course explored the relationship between people, emerging digital technologies (such as new media, urban screens, mobile and wireless technology and ubiquitous computing) and cities and urban public spaces. The interactions between these three aspects have created opportunities for designers, both artistic and commercial, to develop a wide range of networks, applications and services. This course draws on theories from communications, science and technology studies, urban informatics and interaction design in order to investigate topics such as the history of communications technology, the social construction of technology, the role values in design, collaboration and innovation networks and spaces, peer-to-peer and open source economies, and distributed labor. In order to design for networked cities, it is necessary to consider issues such as privacy and surveillance; mapping and cybercity archaeologies; inequality and digital inclusion; citizenship and the role of the public; and sustainability.
Students investigated the sociotechnical systems around urban food networks in Chicago and prototype designs for new products, services and systems. Students were encouraged to pursue topics related to urban food networks such as ethnic foods, food allergies, genetically modified foods, emotional eating, food as knowledge, food waste and food deserts.
Students created a document as a resource to be used by teams investigating the cultural impact of synthetic meat, also known as cultured meat, lab grown meat, and in vitro meat. It can also be used as a reference for those looking to explore the intersection of speculative design and participatory design. The team generated the guide through the use of both methods. The speculative probes created allowed participants to gain a shared understanding of cultured meat and then consider possible outcomes of this new technology. Included are an introduction to cultured meat, the discoveries made, and a description of the process taken to gain these insights.
Currently, cultured meat is being grown on a very small scale, but with improved technology and interest, it could be scaled up considerably and potentially feed large populations.
What is cultured meat?
Cultured meat is created by taking stem cells from a farm animal and growing them using a protein serum. After the muscle tissue is grown, it is exercised to create a traditional meat texture. The process takes approximately nine weeks in total.
There are many reasons why cultured meat has been developed. These include increased demand for meat due to population increase and higher demand in developing countries, animal welfare concerns, the desire to create a healthier meat, and environmental impact concerns.
Cultured meat and speculative design
Cultured meat is an example of a potentially significant emerging technology. Like other emerging technologies, it is unclear how significant of an impact it will have. Before cultured meat may become accessible to the public, it is useful to gain an understanding of the surrounding issues and cultural implications.
Our team focused specifically on the desirability component of cultured meat and aimed to discover how people might react to this new offering, what forms it may take, and what might be appealing and unappealing about it. We considered the processes of making, buying, and preparing it to think about how people might interact with and eventually consume it. To explore these topics, we developed a series of speculative prototypes intended to provoke and encourage discussion. The project culminated in an evening event called MeatUp, where we showcased our prototypes to a selected group of professionals, including farmers, innovators, nutritionists and foodies, and captured their reactions and impressions.
The role of researching emerging technologies
Before pouring money and resources into an emerging technology, it is valuable to understand the issues. Prediction of cultural implications and public reaction to a new product is almost impossible, especially when gauging a new technology that is not yet easily accessible for testing and prototyping. In the development of any new technology, there is a point at which it is still unclear what its role in society might be. As designers, we have a chance to shape this role. The process that we followed yielded valuable results and can be utilized to research other emerging technologies.
Proposed User Experience
Five key issues emerged from the research, which the team believes are essential starting points for future investigations in cultured meat.
Food is either emotional or functional
In addition to the obvious nutritional benefits it provides, participants had strong emotional connections with their food. One guest lamented that cultured meat “made her sad.” However, another participant with extreme dietary restrictions felt divorced from the emotional component of food. His interest in eating was purely to fuel his body and he was excited by the possibility of a meal customized exactly for his nutritional needs. The value of meat as functional versus emotional is a significant area to study.
When a function-based diet is imposed, emotion is stripped away. Some drivers of a function-based diet include health concerns, dietary restrictions and scarcity of options. On the other hand, the drivers of an emotion-based diet include association and context.
Cultured meat could be highlighted for its functional benefits, or emotions and narratives may need to be infused into the product.
Cultured meat decouples meat and death
Thus far, death and meat have been inseparable. Meat is assumed to be from a formerly living animal. Because cultured meat comes from a new method of growth, it does not fit into this paradigm. The implications of this are unclear. For example, one of the cultural probes used in the investigation created controversy by questioning whether or not meat needs to be associated with animals that actually exist.
Tension between the visible and the obscured
There is tension between the information we are comfortable being reminded of and the information we prefer to be obscured. People like the abstract idea that meat comes from an animal, but do not like seeing how it gets to our tables. They are generally disgusted by the thought of meat coming from a lab, but are also willing to accept ignorance of current meat production.
Legacy versus the new
People inherently understand new concepts based on existing reference points. It is difficult to imagine a new meat product without comparing it to the farmed meat we have today. In fact, the first cultured meat tasted was both shaped like and compared to a hamburger. According to Josh Schonwald: “It was okay. It was not bad. It was somewhere between a Boca burger and a turkey burger.”
Cultured meat could continue the legacy of farmed meat, which might open up new opportunities for certain groups, like vegetarians who have given up meat but miss it. Or it could become an entirely new product, disassociated from its legacy and perhaps even the idea of “meat” all together. If cultured meat becomes its own new concept, it will be free from the mental models of existing products.
Market entry: premium or discounted?
Acceptance of a new product requires the benefits to drastically outweigh the perceived losses of the old.
Cultured meat could be introduced to the edges of the meat marketplace. These points could be the aspirational or accessible extremes, while the middle of this spectrum is flooded with existing products. The accessible marketplace can be described as low price and utilitarian, with the potential to feed many. The aspirational side is high end and more expensive, for foodies and culinary experimenters.