This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2015.
"This is how the supermarket of the future will look," Luca Setti, Future Food District Coop Manager, tells me as I walk into the large, rectangular-shaped building in Milan, Italy.
It's rainy and I am an hour late for my appointment. "It's in the middle of Expo's main road, when you find the Spanish pavilion—and you can't miss it—you're there," I am told every time I stop and ask for directions. But it's no easy task. Milan's World Fair (Expo 2015) extends over 1.1 million square meters of exhibition area. This edition's theme is "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life," and all around me are schoolchildren and elderly groups rushing from one side to the other in excitement, from the Sudanese pavilion built as a large seemingly concrete desert house to the giant LCD-screen-endowed mill at the entrance of Thailand's pavilion.
Coop, Italy's largest supermarket chain, decided to build a prototype of a future supermarket for their installation at the food-themed World's Fair. To implement the idea, it hired Accenture—a US-based management consulting and technology services—and Carlo Ratti Studio with the help of the MIT Senseable City Lab, run by Ratti himself.
I ask Ratti via e-mail if he had something in mind he wanted to emulate when his studio was commissioned the work by Coop. He did, and the inspiration came from literature. As the professor himself explains: "An image that I always liked is that of Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino, immersed in a Parisian fromagerie, which has the impression of being in a museum or in an encyclopedia," he says. "This shop is a museum: Mr. Palomar, visiting it, feels as he does in the Louvre, behind every displayed object the presence of the civilization that has given it form, and takes form from it."
The inspiration might be odd, but the result is surprising, and incredibly beautiful. Getting groceries was never really about the shopping experience for me—it was simply an instrumental act of survival: in, food, out. But not this time. If I had the money, I would spend hours inside Coop and buy everything it has to offer, from the wine to the oranges packaged right in front of you by robots with mechanical hands.
If usually a supermarket is organized by three main sections (fresh, super fresh, and dry foods), Coop's instead follows the natural production chains. As I walk in, I find the fresh fruit and vegetable section organized in the first production chain. It starts from tomatoes and reaches canned tomato sauces; it goes from grapes to bottled wine.
There are also no shelves in the supermarket of the future, and there is a good reason for it. Buying food should be a moment of exchange and interactions, not the hasty choir it represents for most people. As Ratti explains to me, "We are interested above all in human interactions; interactions between people and products and between people and people."
So when purchasing bananas in the Coop supermarket, not only will customers be able to see the person in front of them buying canned pineapple, but who knows—they might even start a conversation.
This interaction among customers is facilitated by Coop's decision to substitute the normal supermarket shelves with long, low wooden tables. "It's just like entering a local market," Alfredo Richelmi, Accenture Senior Manager, says happily with a smile and adding that "people need to be able to see each other, and this is one of the reasons we decided to build tables that are these low."
The logistics at the basis of such an environment are no easy task. "Those over there," Setti explains, "are elevators installed to help with the stocking process. They allow tables to shelf less items, and look friendlier."
On top of the booths are what Richelmi—with a smile and a bit of pride—calls "the sails," a series of black screens placed one next to the other, hovering on top of the entire production chain. As I move towards the booths, the sails light up. When I pick up a tomato, a set of data pops up on the screen in front of me telling me where the tomato was grown, as well as its nutritional properties (vitamins, minerals, etc.) and even its carbon footprint.
The night before my visit, I had radicchio for dinner. Eager to know more about my meal, I look around for the purple and white chicory. I find it, pick it up, and discover that it contains vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, C, E, K, J, and even P, and that its associated carbon emissions are also very low. This information is shown through the bright green silhouette of a foot on a percentage scale. Eco-friendly vitamins—a bargain.
"You see those?" Accenture retail lead Alberto Pozzi asks me, pointing towards three small red dots coming out from the bottom right of the screen. "It's the Kinect gesture recognition technology. To create the interactive tables and the vertical shelves, we simply used a mature gaming technology and applied it to a different objective."
The supermarket of the future seems primarily conceived to be a health-freak's paradise. Customers have the option of downloading an app, typing in their preferred diet (vegetarian, low-carb, you name it), and having an algorithm suggest the best products the supermarket has to offer that meets their preferences. If you're curious to know what everyone else in the supermarket is buying, customers can check out the infographics that aggregate all of the supermarket's data on a large wall right on top of the check-out section, with a ranking of the most-bought items. When I am there—Thursday, around noon—beer is the second item on the list. The charts, infographics, and maps projected on the supermarket's wall make Vanilla Sky technology pale in comparison, yet it seems quite a useless feature; one that seems built only with the purpose to impress.
Just behind where I am standing and looking at the screen is a cold storage unit containing meat and fish packaging, prototypes of what packaging in 2020 and in 2050 could look like. "The idea," Setti tells me, "is to create a packaging facility able to allow food to last much longer than it does now for the benefit of both the client—think about how much food is thrown away because it has gone bad—and for the environment. Less waste, less emissions, less packaging."
I ask Pozzi if it's the future supermarket for the rich, or for everyone. "Just look at the prices," he answers. And it's true, they are the prices of a normal supermarket. What is expensive is the supermarket itself: around 15 million euros, I am told after a bit of resistance.
At the moment, there is no set plan to make the prototype into an actual supermarket. As Ratti elegantly sums up at the end of our e-mail exchange: "It is an experiment from which we could all learn important lessons, some of which may later be transferred to the real world. Alan Kay used to say, 'The best way to predict the future is to invent it.' If that is true, then it is essential that we all contribute to this endeavour: building a future that belongs to all of us."