Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design
Meat Up used speculative design to investigate the sociocultural issues surrounding cultured meat, or meat that is grown from stem cells in a lab. It is important to begin this dialogue and ask questions now, while we can still shape the technology’s development, so that any foreseen, unintended repercussions can be designed out. To study these potential implications, we constructed eleven speculative prototypes that imagine today’s rituals and traditions in a world where cultured meat is widely available. These prototypes were showcased at a participatory event where they provoked a critical discussion about the potential sociocultural impacts of cultured meat.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
The science and technology of food is advancing rapidly. In fact, the first cultured meat hamburger was tasted this past August and gained considerable media attention. Some believe that cultured meat could be a solution for the animal welfare and environmental concerns surrounding conventional meat production or that it could help feed a growing world population. Skeptics feel it is unnatural “Frankenmeat” whose health-related side effects have not been studied, and therefore it should not be ingested. As disparate as these viewpoints are, no one has outlined the potential sociocultural implications of cultured meat. If it continues to develop, how might this technology impact our rituals and traditions? With Meat Up, we sought to explore this side of cultured meat and begin the dialogue about its potential sociocultural issues.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
Being current graduate students of human-centered design, our imperative is to investigate new technologies from a user-perspective, typically through social science methods of ethnography and observation. However, our typical methods are nearly impossible in this case because cultured meat is inaccessible. Part of the objective of Meat Up was to test how human-centered design might benefit from speculative design, especially when a technology is out of reach.
We believe the first step of the design process is about finding the right questions to ask. In other words, before solving the sociocultural issues of cultured meat, we need to know what they are. Our intent with Meat Up was to layout a broad landscape of potential issues and encourage participants to critique and build upon them. We needed our prototypes to prompt discussion, without being prescriptive. They also needed to encapsulate and reference the issues which might have the greatest effect on our daily lives and traditions.
In order to prompt a critical discussion, we first needed to establish our own primer on the technology. Our investigation began with secondary research to better understand what cultured meat is, its history, how it is made and who has a stake in its development. This research introduced us to the claimed societal benefits and controversies that are currently noted in the literature. Our study then shifted to surveying historical analogues of other “unnatural” foods, such as margarine, artificial sweeteners and baby carrots, analyzing precedents of other contentious food products.
Next, we turned to the experts to supplement our foundational knowledge. Speaking with a local leading chef and food innovator helped us frame the vast health and technological possibilities of the future of food. We also consulted Josh Schonwald, a food journalist who tasted the first cultured meat hamburger, about his experience and views on cultured meat.
After creating this base understanding, we speculated on possible futures featuring cultured meat. Our discussions caused us to wonder what effects this technology could have on social and cultural factors at large. It became clear that in order to broaden our critical discussion we needed to invite other types of experts and stakeholders to build upon our speculations.
To do this, we crafted a hybrid method which combined principles from both participatory design and speculative design. Although participatory design is successful at generating dialogue, it falls short at helping participants envision future-state realities. Hence, we integrated speculative design for its ability to represent possible futures. This combination of participatory design and speculative design gave means for building a group dialogue around speculative futures.
The execution of this method included eleven speculative prototypes and one participatory event. The prototypes were created to embed a variety of sociocultural speculations, from a range of viewpoints, including: consumers, producers, retailers and marketers. At the event, we hosted participants with expertise as diverse as food innovation, nutrition, agriculture, marketing and food criticism.
The event showcased the speculative prototypes in a gallery-style format which allowed participants to browse and contemplate. The pieces provided a shared understanding among the participants of what the future of cultured meat could be, without prescribing what it would be. Provocative in form and content, the prototypes challenged many participants to confront issues they had not yet considered. The evening culminated with a critical group discussion in which the guests built upon their initial exploration of the prototypes and collaboratively speculated which issues and questions must be addressed if this technology advances.
As technology becomes more advanced and the world grows more complex, it is ideal to consider the positive and negative impacts of new innovations before their full-fledged introduction. Proactively asking the right questions can allow us to guide innovations toward truly optimal outcomes while they are still in development. How can innovators, designers, policy makers and others understand the key issues surrounding technologies before they become widely available? Meat Up used speculative and participatory design to explore the potential consequences of a developing innovation so that we may be better informed while shaping the future. This combined approach is a valuable tool to use when considering cultured meat, as well as other emerging technologies.