RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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93 Troubling Platforms: Disruption, mediation and transformation in digital food geographies (1): Sustainability and transitions
Affiliation Food Geographies Working Group
Digital Geographies Research Group
Convenor(s) Jeremy Brice (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)
Tanja Schneider (University of St Gallen, Switzerland)
Sebastian Prost (Newcastle University, UK)
Chair(s) Tanja Schneider (University of St Gallen, Switzerland)
Timetable Wednesday 28 August 2019, Session 3 (14:40 - 16:20)
Room Sherfield/SALC Building, Room 5
Session abstract Food is increasingly caught up in complex economies and ecologies of digital platforms, from online takeaway delivery services and surplus food redistribution apps to diet trackers, social media networks and traceability tools. Elaborate assemblages of software, interfaces and devices mediate the circulation of both foodstuffs themselves and the knowledges, affects and values which accompany them – creating and coordinating novel networks of interaction and exchange which are rapidly (if unevenly) reconfiguring spatialities and temporalities of food provisioning, politics and consumption.

This session will build links between digital geographies and food geographies by bringing together papers examining how digital platforms become embedded within, trouble, disrupt and transform geographies of food. Through exploring the troubles and possibilities of encounters between food and digital platforms – from monopoly power, surveillance and insecure labour within platform capitalism to digitally mediated food activism, redistribution and relocalization – we aim to interrogate the pervasive but often mundane ways in which digital technologies format contemporary economic, cultural and political processes. In so doing, we hope both to trace through following food how the conventions, constraints and accumulation strategies of digital platforms participate in ordering everyday life and to understand how this encounter is transforming food’s cultures, materialities and geographies.
Linked Sessions Troubling Platforms: Disruption, mediation and transformation in digital food geographies (2): Emerging practices and cultures
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
When digital market devices come home for dinner: Disrupting and reconfiguring food consumption
Christian Fuentes (Lund University, Sweden)
Emma Samsioe (Lund University, Sweden)
Digital entities such as websites, web shops, social media, QR codes, smartphones, smart watches are increasingly intertwined with everyday life. In the area of food consumption, digitalization has given way to a number of digital food platforms such as food box scheme, food sharing apps, and online food stores. These digital platforms are often presented as sustainable alternatives leading to the increased sales of ecological products (online stores), diminishing food waste (food sharing apps), or promoting healthy vegetarian lifestyles (food box schemes). But are they? And if so in what ways?

In this paper we want to explore if, how, and under what conditions digital food platforms are able to “disrupt” and reconfigure household’s food consumption and promote sustainability. Drawing on an ethnographic study of Årstiderna - a food box scheme company which presents itself as promoting sustainable, healthy vegetarian food - and combining insights and concepts from practice theory and STS, we set out to explore what happens as these digital market devices enter the home.

Preliminary findings show that this digital food platform disrupts and reconfigures household’s food practices, taking over some of the tasks of food planning and food shopping, thereby decompressing time and creating pockets of time that can be used for cooking and eating. However, this “work transfer” comes at a price, as what is cooked, how and how it is enjoyed is now configured by the market device. The study suggest that the agency of these new digital devices is an issue of concern that warrants scholarly attention.
‘Digitally-enabled food transition’ through city-scale participatory research? Potentials, pitfalls and processes
Charlie Spring (University of Salford, UK)
Nick Taylor Buck (University of Sheffield, UK)
Beth Perry (University of Sheffield, UK)
This paper reports findings from an action research project which has convened teams of food system actors in Greater Manchester and Sheffield to coproduce digital resources for enhancing collaboration within each city. Recognising both the multi-scalar and contested nature of food systems, we ask what can be learned from co-designing digital platforms to support collaborative urban food networks? What visions of the digital do food activists, policy-makers and practitioners hold? What forms of knowledge does such coproduction require (and generate)? Whose interests and visions are intermediated through digital platforms?

We thus theorise “digitally-enabled food transitions” at the intersections of urban studies and food studies. Given the capacity of digital technologies to trouble the spatial and communicative boundaries, as well as the challenges of coordinating diverse food practices, we ask whether such troubling might transcend, or perhaps re-inscribe, distinctions between spaces, sectors and institutions. The ‘connective potential’ of platforms, as noted in the session call, brings both opportunities and challenges. Politically, some hope that the digital may help to flatten vertically-segmented food geographies, while others fear that it may strengthen existing inequalities and invisibilities. Further, what is the relationship between food’s materiality, social infrastructures of food transition, and digital mediations of various kinds? Are digital food platforms substitutive, additive and/or transformative of existing foodscapes and relationalities? Importantly, can we see new forms of ‘re-intermediation’ where marginalised interests or voices can be included and which address uneven, exclusionary and hierarchical potentials within both mainstream and ‘alternative’ food systems?
Who uses food apps and why? An exploration of their disruptive potential
Mark Wilson (University of East Anglia, UK)
The digital medium has enabled disruptive business models to develop in various domains such as transport, energy, and communication. In contrast, digital food geographies have, until recently, been dominated by incumbents such as supermarkets, thus perpetuating a food system characterised by lengthy supply chains, conventional farming methods, and numerous environmental consequences. At the periphery of this digital landscape, a cluster of food apps has emerged which enable consumers to reduce food waste, change their diet, or engage in local food networks. These innovations overtly challenge mainstream food practices and/or supply chains, and facilitate a dialogue between producers, consumers and other stakeholders around what a sustainable food system might look like.

This research, conducted as part of the ERC-funded ‘Social Influence and disruptive Low Carbon Innovations’ project, explores the consumer appeal of food apps and digital platforms. The paper presents the results of a survey which investigated people’s perceptions of food apps in the UK. The results provide a unique insight into the value propositions and functionality that different food apps offer consumers. Environmental benefits are frequently cited as a motivation for using the apps, but convenience, accessibility, and trust in the supply chain are also significant attributes which appeal. In demonstrating how digital technology intersects with sustainable food practices, these findings will be of benefit to consumers, food producers, researchers and policy makers.
The Sustainability of Digitally-Mediated Food Choices: Case Study of a German Recipe Website
Gesa Biermann (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany)
Agri-food production currently accounts for more than 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is thus a key driver of human-induced environmental impact (e.g. Tilman and Clark, 2014). Dietary choices, next to production methods, are a key factor in reducing the environmental impact of the food system (Bajželj et al., 2014). Taking into account both human health and environmental aspects, a more sustainable diet needs to focus on reducing the use of animal products, especially meat (Garnett, 2014).

While sustainable consumer behavior and, particularly, food consumption have received increasing attention in research in recent years, using digital tools to guide sustainable food choices has remained largely unexplored (Norton et al., 2017). The present study therefore examines if and how health and environmental-friendliness tie into digitally mediated cooking and eating practices.

Following a mixed-methods approach, we used in-depth qualitative interviews to develop a quantitative online survey that was administered on a nationwide basis in Germany in early 2019. The survey focuses on the use of the most popular German recipe website as a case study. Overall, the survey data reveals new and interesting insights into digitally-mediated food practices that reflect both opportunities and barriers in the transition towards more sustainable diets.