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Futuristic supermarket vs privacy

6th June 2016

Speaking at this year’s Media Architecture Biennale in Sydney, architect and engineer Carlo Ratti discussed how information is the key component to his Future Food District, a thematic pavilion built for last year’s Expo Milano showing the Italian’s vision for the supermarket of the future.

The Future Food District was a collaboration with COOP Italy that showcased robotic arms distributing fruit, vertical hydroponics systems that cultivated algae and insects, and sensor-equipped mirrors, displaying information customers pointed to in future supermarkets. For Ratti, the goal is to look at how technology can help consumers have a more informed shopping experience, which is he envisaged digitally-augmented mirrors telling customers how much CO2 was produced in the making products, the chemical treatments involved, how far it had travelled to reach the supermarket shelf as well as dietary information.

But according to Ratti, who teaches at the Senseable City Lab at MIT in Boston, privacy concerns associated with smart technologies are not relevant to his work in this area. “We’re about giving information about products to people, but not vice-versa in terms of providing information about the people to the supermarket,” he says.

However, visitors at the Future Food District in Milan would have perhaps noted the sensors detecting when people lingered over particular food items and the app that categorized consumers into six different types and used location-based marketing technologies to display products to consumers liking as they browsed through the store.

By utilising the internet of things, supermarkets will be able to take the personalised data collection they are already engaged in through loyalty programs to another level. Ratti concedes that the data collection possible as part of the Future Food District do present ethical concerns, although he stresses they are not unique to digital placemaking – pointing to data we leave behind on social media and many other platforms already.

The question is, are shoppers aware or concerned of the trade-off they are making to make their shopping experience better and informed and more streamlined – and will they get to opt out in the future?