Q&A WITH 2015 JBF FOOD CONFERENCE SPEAKER MIKE LEE OF THE FUTURE MARKET AT STUDIO INDUSTRIESJBF Editors
October 09, 2015
Mike Lee is the founder and CEO of Studio Industries, a food design and innovation agency, and is also the founder of the Future Market, a conceptual grocery store that illustrates what the world, our food, and our retail experiences could look like in the year 2065. Lee, who will be presenting at our 2015 JBF Food Conference, chatted with us about the trajectory of retail, the potential of alternative packaging, creating space for future ambitious food developers, and more.
James Beard Foundation: What is the Future Market?
Mike Lee: The Future Market is a conceptual grocery store that will exist both online and in a physical format. The products on the shelves are concepts that help imagine what the world will look like in fifty years. We wanted to create a place for more ambitious thinking in the world of food, similar to the auto industry’s practice of making concept cars. The Future Market will function as a home for the ideas that are maybe not quite commercially or technologically feasible today, but pose really interesting questions or ideas about drastically redesigning the food system. There’s not really space for aggressive innovation in food, relative to what other industries are doing. It moves a bit more slowly and conservatively. We want to inspire people to think bigger and think broader.
JBF: So it’s change for the future embodied in the grocery store?
ML: The grocery store is really just a communication tool, using the idea of the market as the medium. Some of what we talk about is directly related to things that are going to change in retail, but it’s more of a metaphor for where is food going to be in fifty years. Fifty years is a long enough time period to really suggest deeper systemic change. If you look just five years out, the food system is going to be more or less the same. We want to cut to the chase and say, “Here’s a really aggressive step. How can that inspire people to think about how they innovate today a little more broadly?”
JBF: So what are some of the products you think we’re going to see in the marketplace of the future?
ML: The first prototype product that we released was the CropCrisp. The CropCrisp is essentially a cracker that comes in four flavors, and you can only buy each flavor once per year. Instead of coming from a monoculture farming system, it’s based on crop rotation. So instead of buying a product that tries to make nature bend to its needs, you make the product bend to nature’s needs sustainably, naturally, and flavorfully. The point is to emphasize the philosophy of how it’s designed. The farming system the product is based on doesn’t exist today, but we intentionally designed it to look very mass market, because we think that’s where the mass market will be in the future. The CropCrisp is the first in a product line we’re designing around a properly run sustainable farm.
JBF: How does climate change impact these future products?
ML: One of the big themes that we have is food packaging waste. We’re literally drowning in the plastic and paper we’re creating from the center of the grocery store. One of the products we want to focus on is bioplastic, which is derived from shrimp shell protein. There are some scientists at Harvard who are working on this to make it cheap, using this protein to make food-safe, water-proof, transportation-safe plastic that holds your food. It is completely biodegradable and is nutritive to the soil as it biodegrades. This could be a very real thing as we start to run out of fossil fuels over the years. Sometimes these innovations are born out of dystopian stories, and others are more optimistic, like redesigning the farming system to work a lot better for everyone. It’s that mix we’re trying to hit at the Future Market.
JBF: What is the Future Chronicle, and how does it relate to the Future Market?
ML: The Future Chronicle was inspired by publications like the Onion, which is sometimes fantastical and sometimes really silly, but underneath has a substantial satirical message. We publish this thing weekly online now, but it’s also a brainstorming tool. We take things we see in the news, and extrapolate out to years down the road. Taking some little thing that happened today, what could the domino effect be fifty years from now? We think that people naturally have this tendency to not always grasp the long-term effects of small, short-term things. If you don’t recycle a soda can today, you’re not thinking about that can fifty years from now. The Future Chronicle is our chance to help people reexamine those small actions that are taking place today and think about what the potential for positive or negative results are in the future.
JBF: What projects are you working on that you’re really excited about?
ML: We’re building all sorts of pieces of the Future Market. One is building all the products related to CropCrisps, a whole product line that we call the Rotation Shelf. We’re building the produce section of the Future Market, working with a very well known produce distributor. We’re also working on the digital version of the Future Market. Right now the site is informational, but you can sort of think of the digital version as something with the structure of Fresh Direct, but the products are thought pieces on the future of food. We’re also working on identifying a physical space for a pop-up or permanent future market next year.
My wife, Danielle Gould, and I are also working on Alpha Food Labs, a working space for food entrepreneurs. It might also be a permanent home for the Future Market. One of the ideas around Alpha Food Labs, besides clinics and space for food entrepreneurs, is to having a retail presence as well. That way we can show off a lot of these fantastical ideas from the Future Market, and it can also be an area where young food brands can have a testing platform and a way to get feedback from real live customers. We can showcase the kind of innovation that we think is going to change the food system in a very different environment than traditional retail system, which is often risk averse. Some of the most ambitious ideas out there aren’t a great fit for Whole Foods yet, because Whole Foods isn’t necessarily in the business of testing ambitious products. But it’s something we can do at our space.
JBF: What are you most looking forward to at the Food Conference?
ML: This conference has such a diverse set of perspectives. I like the variety of the content. I like to see what happens when differing viewpoints and different parts of the food industry come together and realize that they may have some more things in common than they realize. That’s always good to see.
For more information about the 2015 JBF Food Conference, visit jbffoodconference.org or follow #JBFCONF2015 on Twitter.
Stay tuned for a special 2015 JBF Food Conference–themed issue of the Future Chronicle, based on content presented by the speakers and panels.