Edible Speculations: Designing Everyday Oracles for Food Futures
Author: Markéta Dolejšová – Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic; Aalto University,
Cite as: Dolejšová, M. (2021). Edible Speculations: Designing Everyday Oracles for Food
Futures. Staying with Speculation: Natures, Futures, Politics, special issue of Global Discourse,
vol. 10, issue 3. Bristol University Press.
FINAL PUBLISHED ARTICLE: https://doi.org/10.1332/204378920X16069559218265
Digital food technologies carry promise for better food futures but they are often problematic in
their impacts on food systems and cultures. While proponents suggest that food-tech products
such as smart kitchenware or diet personalization services can support efficient food practices,
critics highlight various risks. This paper presents our findings from Edible Speculations, a long-
term design research project exploring the contested space of food-tech innovation through a
series of speculative design (SD) events situated in everyday public contexts. We illustrate the
opportunities and limits of eventful SD in supporting critical engagements with food-tech issues
through an Edible Speculations case study called the Parlour of Food Futures. Our discussion
of selected Parlour events can inform readers interested in food-tech themes as well as those
keen on experimenting with eventful approaches to SD research.
This work has been supported by the European Regional Development Fund-Project "Creativity
and Adaptability as Conditions of the Success of Europe in an Interrelated World" (No.
CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000734) and by the "CreaTures (Creative Practices for
Transformational Futures)" project, funded from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research
and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870759.
Human food practices are an essential part of everyday life that can be a source of gustatory
pleasures as well as good health. However, numerous public health and sustainability reports
published in recent years make it clear that the ways in which we produce and consume food
are harming the health of individuals as well as the Planet (e.g., Willet et al., 2019). Issues with
malnutrition and environmental unsustainability in food systems motivate a growing sector of
food-technology designers and entrepreneurs aiming to solve food problems through
technological innovation (CBInsights, 2018). Digital technologies such as AI-based kitchenware,
online diet personalization services, or various smart food apps carry a promise of better food
futures but they also raise some concerns (Dolejšová et al., 2019; Lupton, 2017; Norton et al.,
2017). What are the implications of food-technologies for social rituals and cultural traditions
that typically emerge around food? How are these technologies changing the creative
involvements we have with food as cooks and chefs? Is it safe to rely on recipes and diet
recommendations provided by algorithms? What are the privacy implications of sharing
personal data over online food services? How is food-tech innovation impacting the food job
The social impact of food-tech innovation is a relatively recent topic of interest for scholars.
Food Studies, as the flagship in the area of food-related research, has shown only a peripheral
interest in food-tech innovation issues (Lupton, 2017). A relevant discussion has been
developing in Human-Food Interaction (HFI), an emerging field gathering food-oriented authors
across disciplines that originated in Human-Computer Interaction (Altarriba Bertran et al., 2019).
A recent literature review of HFI scholarship (ibid) shows that authors in the field have, to a
large extent, embraced techno-centric perspectives oriented to the design of solutions. HFI
projects that propose to fix, speed up, ease, or otherwise make interactions with food more
efficient outweigh those reflecting on broader—and often challenging—social circumstances of
embedding technology into everyday-life contexts. Critical works addressing not only the
opportunities but also the potential risks of food-tech innovation are thus underrepresented in
existing HFI literature.
This gap in HFI, and the overall lack of critical scholarly reflection on the possible implications of
food-tech innovation for food practices and cultures, motivates the Edible Speculations project.
Initiated in 2011, the ongoing project involves a series of design research case studies
examining food-tech issues through speculative design (SD) events situated in various public
venues. SD and related approaches such as design fiction are recognised for enabling critical
thinking rather than problem-solving (Blythe et al., 2016; Dunne & Raby, 2013; Elsden et al.,
2017). This is typically facilitated through design exhibitions and expert workshops where design
and research professionals discuss contemporary socio-technical problems and collectively
imagine what “our” futures might look like. These approaches to SD have been criticized for
disseminating only to selected social groups, with critics asking: who is included in the
generalised “we” of SD futuring and who is left behind; why and for whose benefit? (Martins,
2014; Tonkinwise, 2016). In line with this critique, Edible Speculations experiments with the
format of co-creative SD events that are accessible to diverse publics. Using a variety of
speculative food design artefacts, the project creates experimental spaces for interested
stakeholders to come together and engage in critical as well as imaginative reflections on
existing food-tech issues.
In this paper, we discuss one selected Edible Speculations case study, the Parlour of Food
Futures, and a series of five Parlour events that were implemented at five public festivals
between 2017-19. At the events, participants engaged in one-on-one Tarot readings performed
over a bespoke deck of Food Tarot cards, and crafted food futures scenarios. Through empirical
observations and analysis of what participants made and said, we explored the potential of
eventful SD in supporting creative and reflective human-food-tech engagements. Our findings
can inform HFI and other food-oriented scholars, as well as broadly any authors interested in
eventful approaches to SD. Besides contributing to these design and research areas, Edible
Speculations events enable experiences that are meaningful also for the participating public, as
we unpack later in this text. Before discussing the Parlour study, we start with an overview of
food-tech innovation and related issues, followed by a brief introduction to the larger Edible
Speculations project and the eventful speculative food design approach that stands in its center.
FOOD-TECH INNOVATION: SOLVING OR MAKING PROBLEMS?
The use of online digital technology for food-related purposes is not new. Already in the mid-
1990s, consumers privileged with Internet access could search websites and chat forums for
recipes and dietary advice. Since then, the variety of food technologies has increased
dramatically, catering to a full spectrum of people’s food needs and desires. Recently popular is
the category of smart kitchenware, such as the Wi-fi enabled oven June designed to support
convenient, remote-controlled cooking. The smart oven has a system of embedded sensors and
cameras that can recognize what food is inside and automatically adjust the ideal cooking time
and temperature. Users can provide additional commands via the Alexa voice assistant and
receive notifications about the cooking progress via the June smartphone app. Other than that,
they do not need to do much. Instead of getting their hands dirty, they can just sit back and relax
and wait till their dinner gets done. While potentially convenient, this hands-free remote-
controlled cooking strips the user—cook, chef—of their active, or even creative, involvement in
the food making process. With June, food practices become disembodied: human cooks are put
on autopilot, while technology becomes the driver of culinary decisions and actions.
Furthermore, as reported in the available user reviews, the algorithmic chef June does not
always get it right and might serve meals that are undercooked and potentially unsafe to eat
A rather different approach to data-driven optimisation of mundane food practices is embraced
within the recent trend of gene-based personalised nutrition. Companies like DNAFit provide
diet personalization services based on a low-cost analysis of a user’s genetic predisposition to
process particular food and nutrients. By following diet plans tailored to their DNA, users are
promised to become “masters of their health” (quoted from DNAFit website). Yet at the same
time, by sharing their personal genetic information with such commercial services, users are at
risk of privacy infringements. Their sensitive data could be misused by third parties, such as
pharmaceutical companies or healthcare insurers (Solberg, 2018). Instead of empowering users
in their relationship to their health as promised, these diet services limit the control that users
have over their personal data and, hence, their lives.
The practice of tracking consumers’ personal data stands in the centre of automated shopping
systems and “unmanned” grocery stores like Amazon Go or Bodega/Stockwell, where there is
almost no human staff. To enjoy the cashier-less shopping in the Amazon Go supermarkets,
customers need to use the Amazon Go app that tracks any item they take from store shelves
and place in a shopping bag. An appropriate sum for the purchased goods is then automatically
deducted from their Amazon account, leaving the Amazon empire with a track record of
customers personal purchases and preferences. Such data insights, retrieved from their
physical visit to a brick-and-mortar store, are the extra price that Amazon Go customers have to
pay for this Just Walk Out Shopping experience that is fast, efficient and stripped of any social
interaction. While it might be efficient for some, the sterile convenience of unmanned grocery
shopping is certainly not a good fit for all social and cultural contexts.
The removal of jovial chats and brief social encounters with their local grocers—for many people
a common part of their shopping experience (note that this text was originally written and
submitted in summer 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic)—was famously criticized with
regards to another automated shopping solution, the Bodega pantry. The ‘smart’ AI-based
pantry containing essential food and drugstore products was designed with the intention to
replace the traditional bodegas—mom and pop stores popular around the USA (Morabito,
2018). Shortly after its launch, the high-tech pantry got hit with a harsh criticism spread around
social media pointing out that Bodega diminishes social aspects of grocery shopping,
jeopardizes jobs of traditional bodega grocers and supports gentrification (facing this criticism,
the Bodega company changed its name to a somewhat less culturally offensive “Stockwell”).
These brief examples illustrate various opportunities and risks of integrating technology into
everyday food practices and show the ambivalent impact of food-tech innovation on food
cultures. Food-tech services designed to simplify food practices and solve problems “through a
click” typically offer a generic fix while ignoring the diverse social and cultural contexts where
these practices are situated. As a result, many of these techno-solutions are limited in their
functions, and not only fail to solve what they promised, but also create new problems on their
own. Technologies can reduce socio-culturally and sensorially rich food experiences into
utilitarian, standardized tasks performed by algorithms; erode the creative potential embedded
in material food practices; compromise consumer privacy; and bring other challenges to the
table. This is not to say that we should avoid any attempts to innovate food systems through
technology, but that any of such attempts need to be mindful of social food contexts and
carefully consider the diverse impacts that innovation may have on food cultures. HFI
scholarship, a prime venue to discuss food-tech innovation, has shown only a minor interest in
these issues and the ambivalent socio-economic role of technology innovation in food cultures
remains largely unexplored (Altarriba Bertran et al., 2019). The Edible Speculations project
enters this space and explores the opportunities and limits of food-tech innovation through the
critical lens of speculative design.
EDIBLE SPECULATIONS: APPROACH
The Edible Speculations project started with our interest in exploring the diverse—existing as
well as imagined—ways in which novel smart technologies impact our everyday lives. Turning
our focus to food, an everyday-life practice carrying diverse social, cultural and emotional
meanings and values, was a convenient way to follow this interest in a creative and tasteful
way. The ongoing project has so far involved six case studies that address a distinct scope of
Before we proceed with our discussion of the Parlour of Food Futures case
study, we outline the speculative design approach driving Edible Speculations.
The use of speculative design (SD) in the Edible Speculations project supports our goal to
explore, reflect on and problematize existing food-tech solutions. As an approach to design
research and practice, SD is fundamentally anti-solutionist, building on the recognition that a
search for technological solutions can close down problems. Instead of reifying pragmatic
solutions, SD enables “problem setting”, which entails the development of conditions for
problems to be discussed and understood from multiple viewpoints (Schön, 1984). The problem
setting process is commonly facilitated through design artefacts that are provocative,
interrogative and “slightly strange”—falling out of the common logic of things and supporting
imaginations of the “not-quite-yet” realities (Dunne & Raby, 2013). Although SD supports future
imaginaries, it does not intend to predict the future but rather to speculate on how things could
be, in order to critique and discuss possibilities.
While the use of speculation as a design research approach was proposed already in the late
90s (e.g., Gaver & Dunne, 1999; Gaver, 2002), SD came into a wider recognition upon the
publication of Anthony Dunne and Fionna Raby’s Speculative Everything (2013). Dunne &
Raby’s book outlined SD as an exhibitable practice to be presented in art and design galleries,
in the form of finished, fine-art looking artefacts. While recognizing its merit in articulating SD to
a broader design audience, the exhibitable approach outlined by Dunne & Raby soon became a
subject of critique. This critique—often articulated by SD practitioners themselves—points out
that SD exhibitions are detached from everyday-life realities, and, instead of considering
concerns of wider public, cater to privileged (intellectual and wealthy) social groups (e.g.,
Martins, 2014; Tonkinwise, 2016). Furthermore, the finished form of exhibitable SD artefacts
provides a limited option for the audience to intervene with their own active inputs and
interpretations (Disalvo, 2016). These critiques and debates concerned with the need to make
SD socially accessible, responsible and responsive, led to an increased interest in eventful,
participatory forms of SD.
These SD approaches have been articulated through diverse formats, including public co-
design workshops (Baumann et al, 2017; Blythe et al., 2016), performative enactments (Elsden
These are: the HotKarot & OpenSauce (www.hotkarot.cz), the StreetSauce (www.streetsauce.cz), the
Fermentation GutHub (http://foodguthub.github.io), the BYOP[oop] (www.pooperleaks.tumblr.com), the
Extreme Biopolitical Bistro (www.extremebistro.tumblr.com) and, finally, the Parlour of Food Futures
(https://foodtarot.tech), which we discuss here.
et al., 2017), labs in the wild (Wilde, Underwood & Pohlner, 2014), and speculative interventions
into everyday-life realms (DiSalvo, 2016). Authors in this area often draw on the methods and
techniques from participatory and co-design (Baumann et al., 2017; Blythe et al., 2016; Wilde,
Underwood & Pohlner, 2014), design anthropology (DiSalvo, 2016) and performative arts
(Elsden et al., 2017). Such speculations—presented as events rather than installation
artefacts—extend the possibilities of SD to support critical and creative public engagement.
Using SD to support a “designerly version of public engagement”, as the sociologist Mike
Michael suggests, offers an alternative to the “orthodox” public engagement methods commonly
used by social scientists (2012, p. 540). Edible Speculations leverages these SD capabilities to
create experimental spaces for participants to engage in critical, imaginative reflections on food-
tech issues. The long-term project has been developed and refined through our own speculative
practice but it bears resemblance to and is loosely inspired by the eventful SD approaches listed
above. Edible Speculations makes use of the performativity of design enactments; the
everydayness of speculative interventions and labs in the wild; as well as the hands-on
character of SD workshops.
Speculative Food Design
Design research projects that use SD methods and techniques are sporadic in the existing food-
oriented scholarship, both in and beyond HFI (Altarriba Bertran et al., 2019; Dolejšová, 2018).
The existing body of speculative food design works comprises mostly art gallery artefacts and
installations that are presented as art/design showcases rather than research inquiries. Recent
years have seen a variety of curated exhibitions addressing possible food futures through
spectacular SD objects. Marije Vogelzang’s Future Food House (2013) presented, among
others, Martí Guixé’s installation Tonic Death Diet fantasizing about a Matrix-like food future
where people live in virtual realities and nurture their physical bodies through magic food pills.
The Meat the Future exhibition (2013) curated by the Next Nature Network showcased a variety
of speculative lab-grown meat products such as the diegetic Knitted Steak prototype made of
cultured muscle tissue threads, or the Celebrity Cubes that are cultured from stem cells of pop-
culture celebrities. More recently, exhibitions such as the Future Food and the Edible Futures
(both 2019) presented a range of food futurist visions, such as the diegetic Human Hyena
foodware enabling users to digest rotten food.
While undoubtedly thought-provoking, these speculative food design exhibitions showcase
finished authorial artifacts that are available for mere spectatorship and enable only limited
options for audiences to actively participate and reflect on the food issues at hand. These
exhibitable food speculations can be subjected to the same critique as exhibitable SD in
general: to borrow from Carl DiSalvo, they are at risk of serving as mere “reductively
spectacular commentaries”, leaving us “hungry for more critical engagement" (2012a, p. 116-
117). Incidentally, one of the first SD projects that sparked a wave of criticism against
exhibitable SD was food-oriented: the Republic of Salivation (2011) by designers Burton Nitta
offered a dystopian vision of future food scarcity, where citizens receive limited portions of
foodstuff rationed accordingly to the emotional and physical demands of their jobs. While the
Republic of Salivation aimed to spark a debate about food insecurity issues, it was met with
criticism highlighting the overt spectacularity of the project, which presented a shocking vision of
future food scarcity. This scarcity however, is a daily reality for many people already today
(Thackara, 2014). The project was condemned for being a decontextualized, reductionist
commentary on food cultures that is detached from the real-world problems that it speculates
To our knowledge, there exists only a handful of speculative food design projects aiming to
engage their audiences in a participatory manner, enabling them to contribute their personal
food experiences and insights. Notable example in this niche field is the long-term work of the
Center for Genomic Gastronomy (CGG), consisting of public workshops, experimental tastings,
field trips and other participatory events addressing issues in food and biotechnological
advancement. CGG’s De-Extinction Deli (2013) is a fantastic food stall inviting visitors to
discuss the speculative possibility of reviving, and possibly consuming, extinct species such as
the woolly mammoth. Stall visitors are offered the opportunity to taste diegetic samples of
extinct foods, engage in a public poll, and write pre-addressed postcards that can be mailed to
leading researchers in the field of de-extinction. This speculative design in the form of a
provocative food stall treated visitors as more than mere spectators and encouraged them to
contribute their creative and reflective inputs.
Following on from our earlier discussion of SD, we propose that these participatory, eventful
approaches to speculative food design carry a promising yet largely unexplored potential for
public engagement. The Edible Speculations project leverages this potential and extends the
niche space of eventful speculative food design through its series of six case studies. The case
studies are organised as design research events that are situated in various everyday-life
contexts to engage food experiences and reflections of diverse publics, mostly casual
passersby. Considering that most people eat and make food, and as such are implicated in food
system issues as well as in the shared food futures to come, gathering food insights from a
diverse pool of individuals is not only practical and sensible but also ethical. In what follows, we
discuss our findings from the Parlour of Food Futures case study.
PARLOUR OF FOOD FUTURES: EDIBLE SPECULATIONS CASE STUDY
The Parlour of Food Futures is a speculative oracle that explores possible food-tech futures
through the 15th century game of Tarot. These explorations are performed over a bespoke Food
Tarot card deck that presents 22 food-tech tribes imagining how food and eating practices might
look in the near future (figure 1). Although primarily future-oriented, each tribe refers to some
existing or emerging food-tech trend: for instance, Datavores refer to quantified diets, Turing
Foodies to the use of AI in the kitchen, Genomic Fatalists to DNA-based diet personalisation.
During the one-on-one readings performed in the Parlour, participants are prompted to discuss
food-tech issues shown on their selected cards, share their food experiences and craft future
Figure 1: Food Tarot cards.
The Parlour project is inspired by the Tarot technique that has been traditionally used in card
games as well as for divinatory purposes and future speculations. With Tarot, we aim to enable
playful human-food interactions and support the notion of food futures as uncertain but also
always connected to the past and reflecting how we engage with food in the present. The Food
Tarot cards are inspired by the Tarot de Marseille deck (Major Arcana) that includes 22 cards
with various philosophical and astronomical motives embodied by elements such as The
Empress or The Magician. Each of these elements has a specific symbolic meaning, which we
kept and translated into our Food Tarot version. For instance, the Tarot card of The Emperor
that symbolises the urge to rule and control was matched with the card of Datavores—a tribe of
Quantified Self dieters controlling their bodies through self-tracking of their metabolic processes
(figure 2). The card of The Magician—signifying the potential for transformation—is matched
with the diet tribe of Food Gadgeteers who experiment with 3D food printing to transform
ordinary food items into more spectacular forms. The card of the Empress—representing the
dominion over growing things—became a food-tech tribe of Gut Gardeners who experiment
with DIY biohacking to grow their own food. To arrive at the 22 Food Tarot tribes, we conducted
a literature review of existing and emerging food-tech trends (details in Dolejšová, 2018).
Drawing on the review, we selected 22 trends and matched those with the original Marseille
Figure 2: Datavores and The Emperor.
Parlour Events and Participants
The Parlour of Food Futures was initiated in 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona (USA) as part of a larger
project called Parlour of Futures (http://futureparlor.tumblr.com/). The initial Parlour was created
for the annual Emerge: A Festival of Futures by a group of designers, philosophers,
technologists and Tarot readers. Since the first Emerge event, the Food Parlour has been
performed as a standalone project by the author of this text and various guest collaborators.
Here, we focus on five selected Parlour events organised between 2017-19 at the following
occasions: the initial Emerge festival in Phoenix (25. - 26. 02. 2017); the Maker Faire Singapore
(22. - 23. 07. 2017); the VVitchVVaVVe festival in Melbourne, Australia (8. 12. 2018); the
Biotopia EAT festival in Munich, Germany (26. 05. 2019); and the Cross Festival in Prague,
Czech Republic (26. 07. 2019). All hosting festivals were free of charge and open to the public.
At all five occasions, the Parlour oracle was attended by participants of various ages,
professional backgrounds and personal interests. The number of participants ranged from 53 at
the crowded Maker Faire to one single participant who sat down for a 2-hour long Food Tarot
session at the sparsely populated Cross festival.
Following our aim to engage a casual audience of lay food practitioners, we did not set any
specific requirements on participants’ skills and expertise. Although there were no criteria for
participant selection, we paid careful attention to choosing an appropriate venue for each of the
Parlour events. Each of the five hosting festivals was thematically relevant to the scope and
focus of the Parlour project: Biotopia EAT was explicitly focused on emerging food trends;
Maker Faire revolved around emerging tech innovations, including innovations in the food-tech
sector. The main theme of the Emerge festival was “Frankenstein” and biotechnological futures,
where food-tech plays an important part. Finally, the VVitchVVaVVe and the Cross Festival
looked into the possible futures of humanity, while focusing on techno-shamanistic practices
and post-digital aesthetics. The Parlour was a good fit there as well.
At each event, Parlour activities involved participants in one-on-one Food Tarot card readings,
followed by crafting of food futures scenarios. The readings were largely similar to card readings
performed in a traditional Tarot parlour: visitors (participants) sat down, shuffled the deck and
picked a card, and the reading began. The reader then initiated a conversation about the
selected card and the possible future that it represents, asking questions about participants’
experiences, ideas and opinions. Based on the responses, the reader kept selecting 2-4
additional cards from the deck that were either aligning or contrasting to what had been said.
Eventually, we thus ended up with a larger card collage—or a prophecy—representing a
possible food future co-created together with the participant. The reading conversations usually
took between 10-30 minutes, depending on the participant's willingness to engage.
When the reading was finished, each participant was asked to select one card from the final mix
that felt “the most important” and craft a short what-if scenario imagining that she or he is a
member of the selected food-tech tribe. We wanted to support the notion of food-tech issues as
personal affairs and frame the idea of possible food futures as personal food futures that should
concern each one of us. The scenarios could have multiple forms, including a written text, a
drawing, or a crafted artefact (we provided basic tools such as sheets of coloured paper, pens
and color pencils, post-its, duct tape, glue and scissors).
During the five events, we collected notes from 145 Food Tarot readings, and the same number
of scenarios. We took hand-written notes rather than recording the dialogues—this less
obtrusive method of note-taking proved to be more suitable for the public and casual context of
the events. The notes and scenarios were analysed manually, using an inductive, qualitative
analysis approach (Miles et al., 1994). Parlour events were always introduced as research
events. Participants were able to provide oral informed consent, ask further questions about the
project and withdraw from the interaction at any time.
Participant Interactions & Reflections
During the card readings, participants often shared salient observations from the social context
of their local foodscapes. At the Emerge festival in Phoenix, many participants mentioned local
food security issues and the frequent presence of food deserts (i.e., areas with limited access to
affordable and nutritious food). In response to the Gastro Masochists card—referring to dieters
deliberately restricting their food consumption with the help of calorie trackers and smart
utensils—one participant mentioned that such “masochism” is often involuntary for people living
in the Phoenix food deserts. He pointed out the global food security paradox, where wealthy
consumers often need to avoid “an overload of ubiquitous food options and dietary information”.
Less privileged people, on the contrary, suffer from hunger—both for food and food knowledge.
This remark directed our reading dialogue towards the issue of unequal socio-economic access
to food technologies: food-tech products are often accessible only to consumers with
purchasing power and, hence, extend the socio-economic inequalities that already constrain
food systems (more on such inequalities can be found in Norton et al., 2017). Provoked by the
SD card, our reading conversation unfolded into a critical reflection on existing food system
At the Maker Faire, a local food sustainability advocate opened a discussion on Singaporean
food policy issues. Reacting to the Urban Foragers card—a food tribe making and using online
crowdsourced maps of free-growing edible plants, as a form of sustainable food practice—she
highlighted that although Singapore suffers from substantial food sustainability problems, local
authorities restrict foraging in a majority of public (i.e., state-owned) areas. She also mentioned
that although foraging is in the “grey zone” there, other sustainable food practices are available
to citizens, such as app-assisted food sharing. We thus added two additional cards on the Tarot
table, the P2P Farmers and the Food Altruists—tribes using online forums and apps to share
their surplus produce and leftover food. In her future scenario, the participant proposed a
speculative "Compost in a Pocket (CiP)": a wearable device to help users overcome the local
foraging restrictions. Using the Pocket and a connected smartphone app, CiP volunteers would
walk around the city and collect people’s food waste. The Pocket would process this legally
“foraged” food waste into compost for the volunteers to deliver to local small-scale farms that
can use it as a fertiliser (figure 3). Her scenario presented an optimistic vision of a food future
where technology extends, rather than replaces, existing food practices and is designed with a
consideration of the specific local social conditions.
However, this optimism was not frequent during the Tarot readings, and many scenarios
involved skeptical or even dystopian views of food futures. Reflecting on the Genomic Fatalists
card, a participant at the Cross festival, highlighted that there is a growing volume of sensitive
personal data that people share over online diet personalisation services. As a user of the FitBit
tracker and the DNAFit genetic testing service herself, she mentioned that she feels somewhat
uncomfortable sharing her biological data with commercial service providers. Her scenario
included a drawing of herself walking on a street full of food shops—bakeries, ice cream
parlours, cheese and wine boutiques—staring sadly into the shopping windows, unable to buy
anything (figure 4). As she explained, her credit card (in the scenario world) is connected to her
personal genetic data profile, which is managed by her health insurance company. Aiming to
keep its clients fit and as profitable assets, the insurance company does not allow her to
purchase unhealthy food or alcohol. This dystopian scenario illustrated participant’s concerns
with the potential role of novel food and diet personalisation technologies as surveillance tools
restricting people’s personal preferences and choices.
Figure 3: Compost in a Pocket scenario.
Figure 4: Genomic Fatalists and future food-tech surveillance.
The food ideas and envisionments shared in the Parlour were, to some extent, determined by
the distinct thematic framing of the five hosting festivals. This can be demonstrated by the
different ways in which participants reacted to the Food Gadgeteers card—a tribe using smart
kitchenware such as Wi-fi enabled ovens or 3D food printers. At Emerge, a young mother of two
kids highlighted the simulacral character of cooking with such smart food technologies: while
having the illusion of preparing their food by themselves, users rely on algorithmic commands
prescribed by smart machines. In her scenario, she envisioned a Food Gadgeteers future where
people stop eating food altogether and become “Food Replicants”. As she mentioned: "food
practices will be effective but joyless. We will become a tasteless society of Food Replicants". At
VVitchVVaVVe, the Food Gadgeteers card provoked an idea of rogue smart kitchenware that
would use negative stimuli to change users’ unhealthy food behaviour. For instance, a smart
coffee machine that would release mild electric shocks to a user who wants to make more than
one cup of coffee a day. These critical scenarios embodied participants’ fears about a future
where human-food relationships become fully automated and eaters get deprived of their control
over food practices.
In contrast to this techno-scepticism, Parlour participants at Maker Faire—a festival celebrating
technological innovation and tinkering—were often positive about human-food automation and
highlighted the opportunities that novel food technologies afford to users. Many Maker Faire
visitors had a personal experience with the latest smart food gadgets. One participant even
thought that we are actually selling 3D food printers at the Parlour stall. This faux pas made us
realise how important it is to maintain the “slight strangeness” of speculative designs (Dunne &
Raby, 2013) and tailor them carefully to specific local social contexts. The nuances of balancing
slightly strange speculations were also felt around our Ethical Cannibals card—future dieters
preferring to “eat themselves” as an ethical alternative to consuming animal protein. The card
provoked both enthusiastic and puzzled reactions. For some participants, the idea of
cannibalism as a positive ethical act was inspiring: a university student at Emerge imagined
that, as a future Ethical Cannibal, he would consume specially modified probiotics to “hack” his
gut flora to be able to grow edible mushrooms on his skin. Aside from feeding himself, he would
offer this mushroom harvest to his friends and potential dates in a bar, which he named a
Human-Food Exchange Club (figure 5). As he summarised: "rather than buying a
depersonalised drink for my acquaintances, I’d offer my very own mushrooms”.
In his scenario, Ethical Cannibalism was not only a form of sustainable personalized nutrition
but also a way to socialise with others. This speculation was not meant as a mere joke, but
rather as a critical reflection of ethical issues related to the emerging trend of in-vitro meat
grown in labs. One of the frequently discussed problems with lab-grown meat, as a supposedly
cruel-free way of meat production, is that the trend foregrounds the idea that eating meat is not
only fine, but also desirable and necessary. Critics suggest that promoting a plant-based diet is
far more innovative than spending resources on costly in-vitro meat cultivation (see e.g.,
Schaefer & Savulescu, 2014). In reflection, the Parlour participant explained that although his
mushrooms would be grown on a human body and, hence, have the nutritional qualities of
animal protein, the final product would look like a plant. Thereby, he would conveniently avoid
promoting the idea of eating meat, and instead attract people’s attention to plant-based
Figure 5: Ethical Cannibals and Human-Food Exchange Club scenario.
Similar imaginative response to Ethical Cannibals was presented at VVitchVVavve, by a
participant who suggested the idea of “social breastfeeding”. Instead of breastfeeding only her
baby, the participant mentioned that she could imagine sharing the nourishing protein in her milk
with a broader circle of her friends and family.
Unlike these two examples, many participants considered the Ethical Cannibals card as rather
far-fetched and absurd, which limited their ability to relate to the idea and produce an interesting
reflection. At the Biotopia festival, we collected several Ethical Cannibals scenarios that were
overly simplistic: there were for instance the Broccoli Fingers—a scenario imagining growing
broccoli seeds in the dirt behind one’s fingernails, or the Herb Hairs, proposing to turn one’s
head into a herb garden (figure 6). While these scenarios were seemingly similar to the Human-
Food Exchange Club, their authors did not provide any critical framing for their ideas: how,
where and why would Broccoli Fingers and Herb Hairs work? For whom? No matter how cute or
amusing these creations were, they did not help us to shed light on any of the food-tech issues
related to the Ethical Cannibals card.
Figure 6: Broccoli Fingers and Herb Hairs scenarios.
At all five events, some participants kept fooling around rather than engaging in any reflective
way. Their scenarios and reading contributions were often merely fun commentaries. One such
scenario, crafted by a Maker Faire attendee, proposed that Nutri Explorers—a tribe exploring
alternative nutrient sources such as insects and lab-grown food replacements—will “hate to eat
insects with heavy poops”. Why poops? Why heavy? What insects? The participant’s cheeky
response: “because everybody hates poops” was numbing. In cases like this, the Food Tarot
deck functioned as a merely spectacular and fun tool rather than a speculative design tool
prompting critical thinking. We will address these nuances, together with the other findings from
the Parlour fieldwork, in the following discussion.
DISCUSSION: EVENTFUL FOOD SPECULATIONS
Our aim with the Edible Speculation project is to explore the opportunities and limitations of
eventful SD as an approach to HFI research, and its potential in provoking people’s creative,
reflective engagements with food-technology issues. We outlined our findings from the Parlour
of Food Futures case study that engaged diverse participants from the public in conversations
about their food-tech experiences and concerns, followed by having them create imaginative
proposals for possible food futures. These engagements were prompted by the Food Tarot
deck, a SD artefact designed to provoke critical thinking about diverse social contexts of new
food technologies. Such food contexts can be quite complex and challenging topics to engage
with. The deck presents them in a playful way, to make the debate on food-tech practices and
futures accessible for many people. During the Parlour events, issues related to food-tech
innovation become a casual topic within reach of lay food practitioners. While certainly not
accessible to all (not everyone has the option to visit festivals to engage in food design
speculations), the Parlour engagements reached beyond the realm of professional designers,
researchers and technologists.
The personal food-tech reflections shared by participants were both techno-optimistic and
sceptical; provocative and practical; whimsical and serious. They touched upon broader social
and political circumstances of food-tech innovation, as well as on specific local or personal
contexts of food-tech practices. The breadth of these ideas illustrates a variety of perspectives
on how to approach contemporary food-tech issues. Critically, the participation at Parlour events
was motivated by the element of speculation—the provocative character of the Parlour oracle
and the card deck artefact. Many participants mentioned that they would not be willing to
contribute to more traditional food research formats, such as surveys and focus groups. The
practice-led Parlour research project, along with its designerly approach to public engagement
(Michael, 2012) centred around eventful SD, thus yielded an opportunity to glean insights from
people who would likely not share them otherwise. Considering the everydayness of food and
its diversity across social food contexts, such insights from diverse food practitioners can
provide important contributions to research inquiries into food-tech issues and possible futures.
In the case of the Parlour, participants' contributions helped us to expand the ways in which
we—as food design and research professionals—think about and reflect on the food-tech
sector. The unfolding series of Parlour events enables us to collect food knowledge in various
social settings and reflect in an iterative process of reflection-in-action (Schön, 1984):
emerging insights are used to move forward with the research, but also to revisit previous
considerations. In other words, each card reading and scenario session within the design
research series generates some new insights into human-food-tech relationships that inform the
events to come as well as our overall reporting of the Parlour project (c.f., Dolejšová, 2018a).
Our first-hand perspective and involvement in-situ as researchers co-performing the speculation
together with participants, is crucial in this regard. It is the direct creative engagement with
participants and their responses to our initial speculative provocations (cards) that constitutes
the Parlour as a knowledge-generating HFI project.
These engagements are meaningful not only for us from a design research perspective, but also
for the participants themselves. Many people mentioned that they enjoyed staying in the
Parlour: they were often keen on chatting with us and finding out more details about the project
and upcoming events, as well as the possibility of getting a copy of the Food Tarot deck. Quite
often we heard that the card readings revealed some new food-tech knowledge to participants
and helped them understand how specific food-tech tools and practices work. One participant
even mentioned that visiting the Parlour and engaging with the Food Tarot deck felt like being in
an experimental “live food Wikipedia”. Such feedback suggests that the events provided a
playful occasion for mutual knowledge exchange and learning. That the at-the-moment Parlour
experiences were in some way rewarding for the participants is vital, as they are the main form
of remuneration for participants’ contributions to the project.
However, it is important to note that not all interactions in the Parlour were meaningful from the
design research point of view. On several occasions, participants stayed preoccupied with the
whimsical character of the cards and unable to provide any reflective feedback. The Broccoli
Fingers, Herb Hairs, and Insect Poop scenarios provide illustrative examples. This failure to
elicit a meaningful response from participants may have been due to a variety of reasons.
Besides a host of personal factors, such as participants’ momentary mood or the limited time
they had available for the interaction, the Food Tarot cards might have felt too far-fetched or
perhaps too whimsical to some people, making the proposed speculations unrelatable to them.
This is not an unusual problem in SD projects that need to carefully balance the “slight
strangeness” of their provocations. Failing to keep this balance might result in what Francisco
Laranjo (2015) calls “criticool” speculative designs that function as a mere spectacle rather than
prompts for critical thinking. In exhibitable SD, this is often determined by aesthetic aspects of a
SD artifact and its immediate appeal to the spectators. SD events at which designers interact
with participants in-situ provide a better possibility to assist participants in their engagements
with an artifact and help clarify its intended purpose. While this option to shepherd the
interactions and steer them towards a meaningful exchange is an advantage of eventful SD,
designers need to be careful with how and how much they intervene. During the Parlour
readings, we wanted to keep our presence as neutral as possible and avoid being didactic, or
influencing participants with our own food-tech interpretations. A challenge for us, and for other
SD authors as well, is to keep our design provocations relatable and comprehensible without
being too explanatory and suggestive.
The Parlour events performed in uncurated public settings present an especially challenging
case in this regard, since it is virtually impossible for us to know who will show up at the Food
Tarot table. People of any age, with various levels of food/design/technology experience can sit
down for a reading, which creates an opportunity for collecting very diverse and potentially
interesting insights as well as the risk of encountering misunderstanding and ending up
facilitating un-critical food drawing sessions. We do not have any good way to solve this:
stopping participants from drawing broccoli fingers and asking them to please be more reflective
does not make any sense. Even seemingly silly scenarios, such as the Human-Food Exchange
Club, can end up being meaningful and inspiring food-tech reflections. In the spontaneous,
everyday Parlour setting, any response is potentially interesting: our job is to ask good follow-up
questions about the scenarios content and help participants articulate a compelling future food
narrative. When the answers are simplistic, such as in the poop case, and participants do not
wish to go more in depth with their future envisionments, then we are left with just that.
This may be seen as a limitation of eventful speculations implemented in everyday public
venues: the benefit of engaging diverse food perspectives and enabling spontaneous
participation comes with some uncertainty and unpredictability attached. While acknowledging
this limitation, we consider this a worthwhile trade-off and we value the food insights generated
through the spontaneous Parlour engagements. Besides the five public events discussed here,
we have used our Food Tarot deck in more curated contexts of workshops at academic HFI/HCI
conferences (e.g., FoodCHI’17, CHI’18, OzCHI’18, DIS’19, DIS’20). These venues provided a
more formal setting, where selectively enrolled participants with expected expertise in food-tech
themes engaged in carefully structured design activities. The discussion and scenarios
provoked by the cards were typically quite focused, and there was less space for confusion or
disengagement as compared to the public Parlour events. Still, this does not mean that such
workshop reflections were “better” than those elicited in the everyday and more unpredictable
public contexts. In fact, some of the most inspiring responses that we have gathered so far
come from the public Parlour sessions (the Human-Food Exchange Club scenario, for instance,
inspired our short speculative fiction story published in a food studies journal: see Hey &
Dolejšová, 2018). To us, it thus seems that speculating in the everyday—naturally messy and
contingent—world creates some risks but also opportunities to gain surprising and valuable
insights into our design research themes. Collecting critical reflections in the everyday
wilderness opens the opportunity to find out something new, unexpected and beyond our limited
horizons as (food) design and research experts.
For now, Parlour of Food Futures remains an exploratory work that focuses on in-the-moment
experiences in the oracle, without the ambition of facilitating long-term engagements and action.
While this limited reach—caused largely by our limited time options—is not ideal, interested
Parlour participants who get inspired by the cards can take it from there and follow on their own.
After all, the card deck is available for anyone to use under a CC license. We do wish to
acknowledge, however, that in light of current climate emergencies and public health crises,
food practices urgently need to change and continuous long-term work supporting such
changes is needed. Projects like the Parlour that help people reflect on food issues and imagine
food futures are just a small, humble contribution to such efforts. A transformation of food
systems, whether through technological innovation or other means, certainly requires more than
a Food Tarot oracle. Still, if we cannot imagine how possible futures could look and what a
positive change should entail, we have nothing to start with.
In this paper, we proposed that eventful SD can serve as a potent approach to critical HFI,
enabling researchers to engage with diverse audiences and collect food insights. While drawing
on our first-hand experience of design researchers as Tarot readers working with participants in
the Parlour of Food Futures oracle, we outlined several opportunities and limitations of SD
events in provoking critical food engagements in everyday settings. The Parlour events created
a compelling opportunity for participants to engage in playful and imaginative, but also critical
and reflective explorations of food-tech issues. Although the Parlour interactions were not
flawless, the insights gathered through the card readings and scenarios helped us to expand
our own understanding of diverse roles that technological innovation can play in food cultures.
Other HFI and food researchers may find the eventful SD approach useful as well, and leverage
it to learn more about diverse food-tech concerns and experiences. While our SD work focuses
on food contexts, we suggest that the eventful approach to SD that is central to Edible
Speculations can be used also elsewhere, in other areas where insights from diverse public
stakeholders would have a value. We thus hope that our work will inspire not only food-oriented
scholars but broadly any design researchers and practitioners interested in incorporating
eventful SD approaches into their work.
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