Future food: Big data, better stories, and the importance of how eight-year-olds think

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food, Consumer protection

Big data will affect food production, distribution and processing - and also how business leaders make decisions, Walsh said.
Big data will affect food production, distribution and processing - and also how business leaders make decisions, Walsh said.
“If you can understand how an eight-year-old thinks, you are a long way toward understanding a transformative change in consumer behaviour,” says futurist Mike Walsh, who gave the keynote address at IFT in Chicago last week.

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 was a major turning point in the use of everyday technology, leading many people to stop using other devices, such as satnav, digital cameras and even their landline telephones, as all these functions were now covered by their mobile phone. However, Walsh argued that use of the iPhone – and later the iPad – to entertain children may be its most lasting legacy, as kids learned to interact with technology in new ways.

“There is a close parallel between new technology and changes in human behaviour,”​ he said. “…You literally rewired their brains.”

As a result, Walsh claims that eight-year-olds may be better placed to imagine the future of food than those who have been working in the industry for years. 

“If your kids started working in your business tomorrow, what is one decision they would make completely differently to you?”​ he asked.

Better stories overcome consumer fears

There was an incredible crossover between the tech money flowing out of Silicon Valley and food innovations like Beyond Meat, an extruded mix of soy and pea powders, carrot fibre and gluten-free flour that aims to simulate the taste and texture of chicken, Walsh added. Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and New York Times food writer Mark Bittman have both singled it out as indistinguishable from meat.

But it is not just the technology that makes Beyond Meat so successful; the brand also tells a compelling story.

“It’s only through telling better stories that you overcome the fear of consumers. Beyond Meat is telling a very good story, but an even bigger story about saving the world,” ​Walsh said.

He claims this storytelling could be better applied to other technologies about which consumers are sceptical, like advances in precision engineered livestock and insect protein.

“Will insect protein really catch on? A lot of that is in your hands. It’s the way you position it. It’s the way you market it,”​ he said.

“The greater transparency you can provide to the consumer, the better. That’s not just about whether your food is organic or where it comes from, but it also helps consumers relate to your brands.”

Big Data & Big Food

Meanwhile, Walsh predicts that the advent of Big Data will have a major impact on Big Food, linking the entire food chain in the same way the digital revolution has linked information on a global level. Flexible, low-cost sensors in food packaging will allow better traceability and food safety checks, and an unprecedented amount of new data on food distribution and consumer behaviour will enter the food system in the coming years.

The era of big data will impact not just the production, distribution and processing of food, but also how our business leaders make decisions,” ​he said.

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