rendering courtesy Milan Expo 2015
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The supermarket of the future might look something like this one at Milan Expo 2015
rendering courtesy Milan Expo 2015

Tech Meets Tradition at World’s Food Fair

Friday, the World Expo (a.k.a. World’s Fair) opens in Milan, focused entirely on food. And with technology venture capitalists recently pumping billions of dollars into food startups, the 2,500-square-meter Future Food Pavilion, one of scores of attractions, is a gee-whiz experience with innovations unimaginable just a couple of years ago.

At the Future Food Pavilion’s fully functional grocery store, shoppers learn about each item simply by gesturing at it. Thanks to movement sensors, a banana’s country of origin, carbon footprint, route to Italy, and flavor profile are available to anyone who cares. (And, of course, to the surrounding people who may not.) With counterfeit food, mislabeled and fraudulent seafood, and increased food allergens, the consolidation of this sometimes-overwhelming information can be invaluable. And a little like having the farmer or producer right there are the store with you.

Integrating sensors is the brainchild of architect and designer Carlo Ratti, who is also director of a project at MIT to integrate sensors into city environments. Ratti says, “Every product has a story to tell, and we think information can promote more conscious consumption.” The Pavilion consolidates reams of food data, condensing it into digestible bullet points so shoppers can make purchasing decisions. With no hand-held devices necessary to make it work, the process feels organic.

The Future Food Pavilion isn’t just an intellectual dive into what we can do with technology. Supermarkets, essentially unchanged for decades while the eating public has morphed around them, know they are in desperate need of makeovers. With online grocery delivery and fast-casual dining booming, markets are struggling to get shoppers into brick-and-mortar stores for high-profit impulse buys.

So the data produced from this market (even if it’s from a skewed sample of food-loving Expo-goers) could impact how stores eventually reinvent themselves. Creator Carlo Ratti belives supermarkets “might develop networks of local producers and host them” at the store, more like a farmers’ market. Will someone pay a euro more for an apple that has less environmental impact? Or choose a more expensive fruit based on local origin? Will their choices, displayed on a screen for all to see, shame them into doing the right (more expensive, and more profitable for the supermarket) thing?

What happens when Nonna meets data? The Italian group Home Food’s elite collection of home cooks called the Cesarine (translated: “Empress of the Kitchen”) is on board. The Cesarine will be on hand at the pavilion using technology to discuss centuries of Italian heritage and tradition, fulfilling Ratti’s vision of a marketplace where people interact with food deeply, just differently.

In addition to the supermarket, Future Food features a kitchen where visitors can try out new food technologies, including 3-D food printers. This area highlights the Internet of Things, how our electronics can work with each other to improve the food world. The supermarket tells your smartphone what you bought, your phone tells your smart refrigerator so it has a full electronic inventory of your groceries, your refrigerator sends you an email with a dinner recipe based on what is in your refrigerator and what is about to go bad, thereby reducing food waste. The technology is dizzying, but it’s here.

Milan’s World Expo has made a point to be about ideas—how to sustainably feed 9 billion by 2050—rather than just a product showcase. Then again, few vacationers would flock to an Expo that focused just on global food shortages without some joy injected into it. And food is so easily translated into joy. Doesn’t the good-food movement’s message have to reach the non-foodie eater to make a true difference?

With representatives from almost 150 countries gathered in one place at one time, Expo is an opportunity for serious discussion. Expo protestors claim that the event is too corporate (there is, after all, a McDonald’s Pavilion), and demand that it be used to benefit all people of the world. While wealthy, developed-world shoppers gaze up at information screens to make environmentally sound choices, societies must also consider those whose only option is gazing down at the price bar. Or have no access to fresh food or technology at all.