06.09.22
Sara Hendren + Lee Moreau | Audio

The Futures Archive S2E7: The Refrigerator


So what did you have for breakfast? Did any of it come from your refrigerator? On this episode of The Futures Archive Lee Moreau and Sara Hendren discuss designing for health and safety within the everyday context of refrigeration and the mysterious coldscape.

With additional insights from Jonathan Rees, Nicola Twilley, Vipul Saran, and Robyn Metcalfe.

Sara addressed the design of urgent social issues:
I think a lot of times designers go: Well, if it's urgent then I'm going to design straight toward the urgency. And I think you do an end run around human nature when you do that. If you don't go for wonder, joy, pleasure, community connection, good luck with your urgency mission.
Lee Moreau is President of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation consultancy based in Boston, and a Professor of Practice in Design at Northeastern University.

Sara Hendren Sara Hendren is an artist, design researcher, writer, and professor at Olin College of Engineering. She is the author of What Can A Body Do? How We Meet the Built World.

Jonathan Rees Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University Pueblo and the author of Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice Appliances and Enterprise in America.

Nicola Twilley is a prolific writer, co-host of the Gastropod podcast, and is currently working on a book about refrigeration.

Vipul Saran is the co-founder of Father Farms, a food technology company working on making shelf stable versions of traditionally frozen or refrigerated foods. 

Robyn Metcalfe is a writer, a lecturer in the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of Food Routes: Growing Bananas and Iceland and Other Tales From the Logistics of Eating.


Subscribe to The Futures Archive on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. And you can browse the show archive.

Kathleen Fu created the illustrations for each episode.

A big thanks to this season’s sponsor, Automattic.



Transcript

Lee Moreau
Welcome to The Futures Archive, a show about human centered design, where this season we'll take an object, look for the human at the center and keep asking questions. I'm Lee Moreau...

Sara Hendren
...and I'm Sara Hendren.

Lee Moreau
On each episode, we're going to start with an object with power. Today, that object is the refrigerator. We'll look at the history of that big object in our kitchen, from our perspective, as designers who've done work in human centered design, not just how it looks and feels, but also the relationship between that object and the people it was designed for,

Sara Hendren
And with other possibly colder and fresher humans too.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic. Later on we'll hear from Jazmin Alaniz from Automattic's Designer Experience Team.

Lee Moreau
Sara, it's so good to see you again today. Thanks for joining us once again.

Sara Hendren
Great to see you, too, Lee. I'm glad to be here.

Lee Moreau
So our producer Adina often asked us this question at the beginning of a conversation, you know, just as a sort of warm up, she'll say: Hey, so tell us what you had for breakfast, and the intention, I think, is just so that we talk about nothing but today, that's going to be really important. What did you have for breakfast?

Sara Hendren
I had my usual thing, which is some peanut butter on toast.

Lee Moreau
It's a classic.

Sara Hendren
Yeah, it's a classic. I don't keep my bread in the fridge. So both of those things are kind of less perishable. Yeah. I mean, once it gets really hot because we don't have air conditioning, so our house gets warmer, I'll do that. So it won't grow mold, but in the winter, I keep it on the counter. What about you? What did you have for breakfast?

Lee Moreau
This is a little bit atypical for me, but I had muesli with milk, so muesli packaged thing. You can put it on the shelf, but milk is fresh and it came right out of the fridge. Sara, many people might not think of the refrigerator as a health and safety object. It's a convenience object. It makes things more pleasurable because it's cold. It's just kind of something that's almost like a piece of furniture. Now it's so ubiquitous you don't even notice it anymore. But how can we frame that as a health and safety object? What is the lens that we would use in order to really look at our refrigerator and our kitchen as something connected to health and safety?

Sara Hendren
Yeah, you're right. I mean, we think of this as household appliances and you can think about the kind of high end trends of, you know, covering the front of your fridge. Theres a whole, you know, design world of the front door of your fridge to blend into the wall like all of that speaks of furniture and domestic space. But meanwhile, right, so food is is infrastructure. That's what's keeping us alive every day. And food is our sort of constant fuel. So everything that goes in and out of our bodies, much of it is shunted through that process of the refrigerator. And the refrigerator then therefore is doing a kind of protectionist kind of work for us. So, I mean, this is so much the invitation of design, Lee— don't you think? That is to say it's a power of attention to take a look at what has kind of gone to sleep in your mind's eye, because it's just around in all the households, for example, like a refrigerator. And to go, how can you get kind of, you know, surprised out of that, that some nebulous like how can you kind of say, wait, what is this odd thing doing for me? Like, for example, the size of refrigerators, so much is told there about how long the food is meant to be there, how fresh it's meant to be. What's your what are your habits for eating and for nutrition and for your of the local state of your neighborhood?

Lee Moreau
You want to kind of shock people into actually looking more closely at what they're putting into their body, what they're surrounding themselves with, and how they access those things.

Sara Hendren
Yeah, and I do this because I think a lot about disability in design, but also health and design. And we, it's never, never, never just an issue of pure functional mechanisms, you know, I mean, ultimately, those decisions you make, yes, they have a kind of traceable biological process, what you eat, what you you know, how you sweat, what you eliminate, all that stuff. But it's also a set of cultural decisions about what you've always been fed for breakfast, sweet or savory, about all your associations with memory and food. All that stuff comes to bear. So what that means is that the objects in our lives also tell us something important. And if we look at them with some new eyes, we might sort of get some good churn in our habits and we might to see other people's bodies, you know, in a different way than than the ones that we've just taken for granted, the habits we've taken for granted.

Lee Moreau
So we're going to be talking a lot about refrigerators. We've already started engaging that topic. And as we enter that conversation, we'll hear from some historians and designers who've tried to help us make sense of the refrigerator. Although I have to say, the more we thought about it and heard about it, the more complicated it's gotten.

Sara Hendren
It's true. I mean, once you start to think about not just the box that's in your kitchen right now, but the enormous chain, and we'll hear about it today, you start to think, what are we doing with this obsession with cold? It's really, really interesting.

Jonathan Rees
The nomenclature is very complicated because before there was an electric household refrigerator, a refrigerator is what we would probably call an icebox, and that is literally ice in a box that keeps things cold.

Lee Moreau
Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University Pueblo. He's the author of many books about refrigeration, including Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice Appliances and Enterprise in America.

Jonathan Rees
The turning point for household refrigerators in America is actually World War Two. It changes the kitchen in a lot of ways when refrigerators are there. For instance, you have access really to leftovers for the first time. It gives you access to frozen foods. You can store more things longer. You can go to the grocers or the market less. If you have a place to put perishables in your home.

Lee Moreau
And this all sounds wonderful, right? Last time we spoke, we were talking about the AED as this classic sort of artifact of our world of health and safety. But that's it's one that's kind of iconic but not super commonplace. But the refrigerator we have most people have it in their home, at least one, if not more. It's one of our health and safety objects at the same time.

Sara Hendren
Yeah, I mean, you can see it in a kind of cultural comparative context that that really brings out our ideas about health and safety. I mean, there are plenty of cultures in Europe, for example, where eggs would not be necessarily refrigerated automatically. We do that. The United States, I think partly because of the preponderance of factory farming. Right. And the same is true of like cheese. Like you can see these I remember in French class in high school seeing these commercials from France where the cheese, you know, is thought of as beautiful and ripening in an extended way on your counter. And I grew up with this very, you know, kind of like urgent notion that you get home from the grocery store and you put that right in the icebox because it would be a threat. My grandmother always did call it an ice box throughout her whole life. She was born in 1920. So you think about how like what does that mean? We're thinking about pathogens and where they might arise for us in our everyday foods and whether they constitute a threat or not. Whether bacteria and mold— what's our threshold for thinking about the natural ripening and or corroding processes that are happening with the stuff that we eat. And when is it a good thing and when is it not a good thing? Yeast and all that fermentation, it's all in the mix there. So the refrigerator is this kind of like fortress and shield against those kind of processes. And we could have a whole cultural conversation about again, when and how those those are good measures of protection and when those are kind of like overkill and indeed robbing, you know, things like tomatoes you don't want to put into the refrigerator because it just zaps them. It stuns the the flavor out of them. So, yeah. How about you, Lee? Where does your health and safety mind go?

Lee Moreau
Well, you just said the word fresh in the context of the refrigerator. And there's this kind of association, that freshness and the refrigerator go together when in fact, the refrigerator just is a kind of delayed freshness, like it's not or it's not fresh at all. But somehow we've kind of connected things that are cold with things that are fresh, and that that connection, I think, is very unnatural given all the cases you just mentioned.

Sara Hendren
It's true, and I've noticed a number of kind of ancillary objects that have come along to kind of assist the refrigerator in doing freshness. So I'm thinking, for example, of those those little plastic, they're shaped like an apple and they release they emit some kind of rot deterring-

Lee Moreau
Gas.

Sara Hendren
Gas, right. That you put in your crisper drawer. So that's a whole way of like actually mitigating against the action of the fridge, which is creating condensation and therefore is the enemy of freshness in vegetables. And some of this, I think Lee, honestly, is about the bigger is better, you know, kind of default in American culture. Like when I lived in the Netherlands, we lived in a big apartment clearly designed for our whole family, and it had one little tiny half scale fridge. And I think the idea was, because our grocery store was, you know, a couple of blocks away, that you'd be making more frequent trips. So all of this is connected, right? That like is the big box, your friend, if your storing food for more than a week, maybe, maybe not. And then you get this kind of addition of other designs that are meant to actually counteract its work.

Lee Moreau
And then you start to get into this flow of, well, since you have the capacity to freeze something or to chill something, obviously you'll do it, right.

Sara Hendren
Right.

Lee Moreau
And so you put things in the refrigerator, even though they don't necessarily have to go in there. But we have the capacity. So we have the power to do that. And we feel like we need to exercise that power increasingly and expand it even.

Sara Hendren
And then maybe send it to the very back of the top of your shelf to die, right, actually.

Lee Moreau
I think the interesting thing about the refrigerator is that unlike many of the objects that we look at on the show, which do change over time because of design and engineering and they kind of evolve, the refrigerator really hasn't changed very much— it's a fridge is a fridge. It's a fridge. It's always been like that. It's basically a box that's cold, but there's so much more interesting stuff that goes beyond these magical boxes of cold air that we have in our homes.

Sara Hendren
Yeah, that's right. And I mean, this is one of those many instances if we think of our homes as infrastructure, right, all the pipes that are connecting us to our city, everything from your sink and your your toilet and your dishwasher. But also, if you could just in your mind's eye, kind of zoom out from like take an aerial view of your neighborhood and think of all the little dots of refrigeration in people's homes. It just goes really expansive from there. I mean, the system's level of what it takes to get from the big bank of fridges at your grocery store into your home, that's just one node in a whole elaborate set of systems that depend on cold.

Jonathan Rees
You have to change everything in the system to get it at home. So if you have a perishable food in your refrigerator, that food has to be kept cold all the way from its point of production to its point of consumption. Otherwise it'll spoil. Or even if it doesn't spoil, the taste will likely change at some point if it goes for a long time without being refrigerated. So the household refrigerator is just the end of that cold chain.

Lee Moreau
I feel like I've seen this so many times in different projects where as you're doing design and I think if you're doing it well, you're confronted not just with the thing itself that you're asked to design, but the broader system. So whether that's in food distribution, I mean, I've been to a lot of different walk in freezers at all different scales of restaurants, and you just see the enormity. I mean, these are like in some cases like almost apartment sized refrigerators that are in some restaurants, gigantic spaces to, on the other end of the spectrum, you know, pharmaceutical distribution. I'm thinking of in the medical industry and in health care and in food service and food service distribution. These are two massive industries that really do rely on refrigeration throughout their whole ecosystem. We're going to hear a lot more on the cold chain. It's much bigger than I had ever really thought about, I think bigger than we've ever imagined.

Nicola Twilley
I first started thinking that this artificial cryosphere, this coldscape that our food lives in might be an interesting place to explore in about 2009, 2010. And the reason was at the time, there was just a lot of talk about farm to table. That was the sort of catch phrase of the time.

Lee Moreau
Nicola Twilley is a writer, the co-host of the Gastropod podcast, and is currently working on a book about refrigeration.

Nicola Twilley
And I started thinking about what lay in between. You know, farm and table are obviously connected by something, and that something turns out to be a gigantic sort of discontinuous winter. That doesn't get a lot of mention when people are talking about farms and tables.

Lee Moreau
And this notion of discontinuous winter is not something you really think about when you think about design, but that's what we're doing here. You work in a- in a world where you're teaching design in an engineering school. Talk about bringing that level of complexity to a design challenge.

Sara Hendren
Yeah. I mean, it's this is what's so crucial in, in teaching human centered design among young designers and engineers like we do at Olin College. I mean, I think a lot of times a surface level understanding of human centered design is: Oh, go and ask people for what they want, you know, as though you could take a survey and conduct an interview and then go obediently to your studio and produce the thing that has being asked for. And of course, it's much more complicated than that. What you're looking for in the kind of interview human centered, observational kind of research is how do people behave in ways that are conscious and unconscious? What do they say and what do they not say? What do they say, and then what do they do that seems to contradict that? What are their kind of big aspirations and values? And also, yes, what are their challenges? So what that means is you have to be looking at a person. Yes. In their context, in that anthropological way. But you have to also construct in this is like an ideation process in studio that person and their interaction in the world that's kind of surrounded by a whole constellation of other factors that are making that interaction possible or impossible. So in this case, it's like if you were trying to design a better tablescape at a restaurant, you were trying to design a service for seating among the host, you're trying to design something around a wine cellar or something you would still have to be thinking about— there is no arrival at that table without these systems that Nicola is talking about. That something had to bring that there. And if those systems are inflexible, if they are subject to glitches, if they're suddenly expanding in cost, all of that is going to affect what happens then at the place that you're nominally designing for. So you have to be in that process and sometimes we call it mind mapping or whatever. There are all these representations that designers do along the way to try to go: Let's represent all the elements. Some of them are visible, some of them are invisible. And what Nicola's saying is that, like, cold is sensible. I mean, it is this frozen sensory feeling that we can conjure up, but as a system, it's not really tangible to us. It's-it's invisible to our mind's eye.

Lee Moreau
Yeah.

Sara Hendren
But I also think about the broad system of cold that actually wouldn't touch, for example, the highly precious needs of the avocado at restaurant scale.

Lee Moreau
Right.

Sara Hendren
You know, like there is I read a whole New Yorker profile of a man whose entire job is to run avocados to restaurants. Right. Because an avocado is like. Not quite. They're not quite. They're not quite. They're perfect. Perfect. Done, right?

Lee Moreau
Yes. Too late. Yeah.

Sara Hendren
Somebody got really smart in New York City and said people are going to pay top dollar for the best avocado. I'm going to do nothing but this right. Carefully calibrating which one's go to who on Tuesday in Queens. Which ones go on Wednesday to the Bronx. I mean it's just fascinating to me. But all of that means, right, not thinking in terms of the object itself, but thinking in terms of flows and systems. And that's where we'd say, you know, in design, opportunities arise not just to do more. I mean, I think this is this is the thing. Like the discontinuous winter has been one instrument and tool, but it might not be the only one.

Lee Moreau
Mm hmm. You've just taken us back to time, which means you made a parallel between the avocado and someone's kidney being flown on on a helicopter. And. And that's a really important connection that we actually don't think about, but it's literally the same thing.

Sara Hendren
That's right. And people don't- designers, think too little about design in time and time as a design tool. You know that actually temporal structures are also not only, you know, possible for us, but probably required and too often are ignored. And I think, again, perhaps especially in the United States, where, you know, the frontier mentality is kind of like you need a bigger server. How about a server farm? You know, it's like just this kind of like the notion of extended scale in terms of physical space and infrastructure. We might think of time as, you know, our secret weapon and trying to reconsider the just the elegance and the efficiency and to say nothing of sustainability, of our services.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic, which is building a new web and a new workplace all around the world.

Jazmin Alaniz
I'm Jazmin Alaniz. I'm from Buenos Aires, Argentina currently working from Zagreb, Croatia. And I work as a design recruiter at Automattic.

Lee Moreau
Jazmin finds new voices to join Automattic.

Nicola Twilley
That's kind of my role. Hiring, looking for great talent. When I look for designers to join Automatic, I'm looking for designers that want to join a big design organization that are interested in working, in collaboration with other designers from all over the world, that are interested in working autonomously and remotely as well, and that want to make an impact with their work. I think what's special about Automattic's designers is that they are always willing to help and to bring new ideas. I think they are super creative people and always want to push the boundaries. And the great thing is that at Automattic, there is really a place to raise your hand and provide new ideas, bring new ideas to the table. So if you're looking for that, Automattic, it's a great place to join.

Lee Moreau
Designing a better web. Join us at automatic icon slash design. That's auto-M-A-double T-I-C dot com slash design.

Lee Moreau
So let's go back and hear a little bit more about the fridge from Nicola.

Nicola Twilley
The story of refrigeration sort of ends up kind of sending icy fingers outwards to touch everything else. There's the refrigerated shipping containers. There's the refrigerated trucks, reefer trucks, they call them, amazingly enough. Then you come to supermarket refrigeration, the chilled cabinets in supermarkets, and finally, you know, to people's homes and the refrigerator that you have there.

Lee Moreau
So the closest I get to this kind of world, when you start to take this notion of refrigeration and cold stuff and you push it out as far away from its origin of coldness, like in through this chain was a project where we were asked to think about the restocking of the aircraft and the provisioning of aircrafts for Southwest Airlines between flights. So they had basically a few minutes to restock all the-the beverages and that at that time it was peanuts, but now it's pretzels. The only thing that's actually cold in that exchange is the ice that you get put in your cup with, your Coca-Cola or whatever beverage you have. And watching the process for getting that ice up through an airport, onto a lorry, onto a tug out to an aircraft, and then in just a few moments, shift between flights. I mean, completely epic. And it's also that you can have an ice cube in your cup while you're sitting on a flight. It's remarkable what the lengths that we'll go to.

Sara Hendren
And we get almost no other amenity. It's like 7 hours, you know, like your choices are the same, my friend. But ice, we'll look at you all day long. You know, it's fascinating.

Lee Moreau
It's a big deal. I think you'd have a riot if you didn't have ice on an airplane.

Sara Hendren
I mean, one thing that Nicola didn't name that I think is interesting and possibly entirely unnecessary is the the introduction of insulated bags at the site of the grocery stor.e at Whole Foods they will sell you a you know, a branded Whole Foods insulated bag. And it's really interesting to think about is that a kind of over delivery of service, you know, in terms of that pathogen threat thing we were talking about before.

Lee Moreau
The line where something hits a life safety issue in terms of whether or not it's been refrigerated, I think we've pushed that rather far. This is actually, you know, this it's convenience. It's something entirely different.

Sara Hendren
There's something there about luxury service and protectionism or something that's worth thinking about beyond just the science. It's kind of the inverse or adjacent to the ice on the airplane, you know, like what's necessary and what is an association that's necessary, but not in a medical sense.

Lee Moreau
So it's really the pushing of this line that Nicola continues talking about and I think is part of her fascination.

Nicola Twilley
I think seeing how quickly we refrigerated an entire food system and how much of a transformation that has made to so many different things is both important for understanding how we might want to change our own food system, but essential for the rest of the world that is refrigerating right now.

Sara Hendren
All of this is a kind of industrial response to preservation that does actually overlook a huge number of folkways for, you know, brining and curing and salting and and then sort of lower tech forms of preservation with clay and so on that have been in global traditions for a long time. It is interesting, we still consume some of those products, you know, jerky and all of that. But all of those, right, are pre refrigeration technologies and techniques. They're really reliable, they're sanitary. They're they, you know, they were they were developed in cultures, you know, to solve this issue of like making food last. So it is really interesting that Nicola's just saying we've just we've we've put all our, you know, kind of energy and stock into this big solution when there are actually solutions elsewhere.

Lee Moreau
And are we squeezing out other options in the process? Right. I remember Nicola was talking about some research she was doing in China and how there's a widespread move to do massive refrigeration in that country, which is a very large country. And that's having implications all throughout the kind of food ecosystem there.

Sara Hendren
And just right. What are the costs and what are the what are the benefits? What is the logic behind this, this massive paradigmatic shift given its consequences? But, boy, it's going to be interesting to watch because it does seem like there should and could be kind of leapfrogging technologies, right. That don't mean just recovering old ways or you know, I mean, I do think the sustainability conversation always has to include life with limits and the kind of spiritual despair of rejecting life with limits, right, that comes with that kind of exponential growth mentality. Nonetheless, I think there are opportunities in technology, to-to perhaps, again, leapfrog over what it is that we've taken as inevitable. And we're going to hear about that I think.

Lee Moreau
We are, we're going to hear more about that. It's a global conversation. And as you said before, it's also a race with time.

Vipul Saran
We have commercialized our technology that allows us to extend shelf life of perishable food products without needing refrigeration and freezing.

Lee Moreau
Vipul Saran is the co-founder of Father Farms, a food technology company working on making shelf stable versions of traditionally frozen or refrigerated foods. And some of his work— effectively, what he's doing is making things that are stable on the shelf, meaning they don't ever have to go into the cold chain at all so they can kind of stay out of the cold chain entirely. When he was working in his family's agriculture business in India, he kept running into the same problem, which is basically that they were trying to scale through export and there just wasn't enough refrigeration available to kind of export foods in a safe and timely way. So looking for other options, basically.

Vipul Saran
The position that we are in today is where you have 26 to 27% of refrigeration in a country like India, where supply chain is yet to being built, to cater to the quality of food that is dependent on refrigeration or freezing infrastructure. So you have a choice today to make whether you take your precious dollars and you put them to scale a technology and implement the infrastructure of refrigeration and freezing in the supply chain. Or do you put those dollars towards use? Very you can implement and scale technologies that are more sustainable all together and allows you to skip that same step in that evolution of the food supply chain.

Lee Moreau
Sara, we don't usually think about design as basically another way of making hard choices, but in this example, and I think in many examples in design, that's really what we're doing. We're trying to figure out what's the best way to make a really tough choice.

Sara Hendren
Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, I guess I'm thinking about— I mean, this is not so much in hard choices, but it is nonetheless an infrastructural scale issue. I think about the moment when cellular phones were becoming ubiquitous but were not quite universal. So it still costs you quite a lot to make a long distance call. But it was radically cheaper. But do you remember this? It was kind of like 99, 2000, 2001. And I remember being a child of the eighties, growing up and thinking like, whoa, it's really cheap now to call my friend, you know, if I'm traveling.

Lee Moreau
It's actually possible.

Sara Hendren
It's actually possible. And of course, we couldn't foresee then the way that that's what I mean about that leapfrogging thing that lots of people work and then go straight to mobile phone entirely and obviate the need for the landline and everything that goes with it. So I guess the question, right, for this work on refrigeration is can you make a technology that feels like that feels like the future in the way that mobile also felt that also comes with these benefits? I mean, you know, I hear people say beware of the win win. Right. And yet I think design does have a kind of optimism about us, about it. And I do think it calls us to ask that question. You know, is it possible that I mean, as my colleague at Olin Deb Chachra says, energy is actually plentiful, right, if you can find ways to harness it cheaply, energy is not what's in short supply, right? It's this kind of like the means and mechanisms by which we harness it. So how do we do that? That's this is an energy question after all.

Lee Moreau
You mentioned paradigm shift or paradigmatic thinking. And, you know, in work, in systems design and designing systems, that's often the hardest thing to do, right? We we talk about this quite often in the studio, which is like you can you can change the metrics, you can change how you measure, you can change tactics. But actually changing the model that you're using in the way that people conceive of it, that's the really hard work.

Sara Hendren
That's right. And here's where designers, I think, have to be trained in things like. Narrative symbol. Metaphor. Arts of persuasion. Organizing. All of that stuff. Because the large scale uptake of a new technology that precedes from a different paradigm, that's an entirely separate matter. Right? You can have the the means. And I mean, we see this all the time in kind of energy efficient and green technology. It's not really about the technology so much. It's about the adoption, the wide scale adoption, the meaningful adoption of those technologies. And those have to do with culture, folkways, persuasion, narrative, you know, the attachment of joy and pleasure to something that's also urgent and necessary. Those are deep and fine arts. I mean, so when we, you know, teach at all and we also are training students to tell the story of what they built. You know, how would you enfranchise and enjoin an audience to this and to what would you appeal? I mean, those are very open questions. And they come, frankly, from the humanities above all.

Lee Moreau
So let's hear more from Vipul about paradigm shifting in his work.

Jonathan Rees
You know, a lot of times we-we are ask this question about are you disrupting the food supply chain, the refrigeration infrastructure and the freezing infrastructure? I think for us, the whole intent was more to do with accessibility of quality food products. Now, what is refrigeration fundamentally solving for it is solving for accessibility. It is a vehicle that allows for food to be traveled across borders and the quality to be maintained.

Lee Moreau
I mean, that's such an important perspective, right, that refrigeration is solving for accessibility. The point here should be accessibility, not refrigeration.

Sara Hendren
I mean, this is that's a classic reframe that you just did the right that you want to see in the studio with designers where you go. We can talk about optimizing refrigeration all day long, including alternatives to freon and air conditioners, including mechanisms to dry that gives us the cool that doesn't- is not so energy suck- you know, all that stuff. But as you're saying, like actually the question is about access in this case, the scale of a country like India. It's about closing the the spatial gap and the frequency gap between people and getting good, healthy food. So now-now we're in the space of what actually matters.

Lee Moreau
We're solving for something completely different at that point.

Sara Hendren
That's right. That's right.

Lee Moreau
And so when we're thinking about these kind of topics and that sort of reframe from the perspective of human centered design, you know, as you said, like we don't want to go out and talk to people and just ask them what they want. But we're trying to understand perhaps what they need and what might be the optimal circumstances that we can provide for giving people the things that, frankly, will help to support their lives in fundamental ways. But sometimes we don't solve for the right stuff. So where's that disconnect between how we do our design work and how things get executed in the world? Because I think if we kind of are honest with ourselves, we can look at lots of different things in the world and arrive at the same kind of like, hmm, questions like why are we solving for that when we should really be solving for what people need?

Sara Hendren
Yeah. And I think this is where it takes that a very precise blend of humility and confidence for designers. That is to say, you could let's take this, you know, example that Vipul Saran just named about, like accessibility. If you wanted to try to mitigate food deserts, you could say we need more refrigeration in more areas that have been historically marginalized in cities, and maybe that would be the answer. But if accessibility to fresh food is your question, then right, how would you actually think about that as system scale? So that's what I mean about humility and confidence. You both want to be hearing from people in the community about what it is that they're wanting. And if they're saying, I want fresher food in the form of more refrigerated produce sections in my neighborhood, that may be in the short term what is called for. If your mandate is to think in the long term, you may have to try to be confident to keep pushing and say, well, what's the signal behind that signal? Okay, we want more refrigeration. It's actually about accessibility. What kind of systems might be brought to bear to actually do that, that work of equity. And I love the way Saran talked about, you know, really trying to get to the heart of the matter in his own kind of business. It makes me incredibly optimistic to think about folks who are thinking in a very particular sector, but they're thinking with that big paradigmatic kind of lens.

Lee Moreau
So in a little more optimistic kind of way, let's hear a bit more about food as it pertains to refrigeration of food in our lives.

Robyn Metcalfe
It's a very human thing. Food is very— it's very anchored to our entire psyche, soul.

Lee Moreau
Robyn Metcalfe is a lecturer in the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She's the author of Food Routes: Growing Bananas and Iceland and Other Tales From the Logistics of Eating.

Robyn Metcalfe
One thing I often say is the minute the food gets harvested, it's dying all the way to your plate. You know, it's basically disintegrating. It's losing its value as well. So there's a lot of incentive to move it as quickly as possible to you and then for you to be able to hold it in its fresh state for as long as possible. The perishability of the food supply chain is what makes it one of the most interesting and fragile and challenging supply chains there is. It's not computer parts or car parts. It's food that is living and losing value every minute. It doesn't get consumed at the plate.

Lee Moreau
So we've been talking about— first we started with food and refrigerators and then we kind of moved into this kind of dark, cold, almost dystopian cryosphere, cold chain. And then we're taking it back to food again. But where does the human, the humans present through all of this journey, whether they're either consuming the food or transporting it or what have you.

Sara Hendren
And you think about, right, the emotional attachment to summer peaches or strawberries or tomatoes. Like I think about my CSA allows you to purchase those things in bulk at a certain moment, which means you've got to go home right away. You got to process those things because they are doing this dying that she talks about. And of course, they're doing a dying in the literal sense. But you're also trying to hang on to summer a little bit. When you do that, you're thinking of yourself. You're poor, you're sad. New England South in February and thinking, you know, might I find some of those peaches, you know, in the freezer? So I think right as she's saying, there's it's not a kind of, you know, impersonal, like melancholy, sublime of the of the supply chain, you know, of just anything where we think we could have a debate about that in terms of sustainability. We are talking about how we live. And I think this is where maybe if we want to talk about the role of eating and consumption in our lives and a sustainable future, you know, this is a really fraught space when you think about plant based eating and all of those conversations. Because why? Because it has to do with psyche, soul, with culture and ethnicity, with holidays and rituals. There's so much that's at stake here. So how does refrigeration then connect to some of those, you know, ineffable, you know, more like visceral in every sense, you know, like really, really personal values that mean something to us. I mean, so design in other words, it's going to have to do a work of care there. It is interesting to think about just at the node of the human. Is that what's going to matter to people? In part, you know, in the future if they're trying to tackle refrigeration.

Lee Moreau
We've built these systems that allow you to have your peaches in February and have refrigeration all throughout the world. And now I think we're starting to have to hack our way out of some of those circumstances, like through like small affordances that we create to kind of undermine these broader systems. And yet the systems remain.

Sara Hendren
Yeah, it's true. And we have to ask. Right, is it that we'd want to go to the grocery store more often? Well, would we do that, if the grocery store were closer to us and walkable, you know, would we do that if our workday could end in a little more humane way and not be always on so that then we could walk to the store, so that then we could be there more frequently, so that then.. You see, like, what are the rituals and the values that would need to shift to make this possible? And I do think it's worth thinking about, you know, the way that industrialized systems, labor in the service of efficiency. And when efficiency maps onto all parts of our lives, we lose something, right? You know, we belong to systems that need efficiencies, no question. And also, our lives are more than the shortest possible distance from here to there. They just are. And certainly in food cases, we know that rituals of feasting and sharing and consumption together are what make communities. So this is why this is this particular supply chain is just so tricky.

Lee Moreau
Speaking of tricky, we tricked ourselves into believing that things are easy. But when we don't look at the whole system, that-that is at play underneath them, we're tricking ourselves as a as a society.

Nicola Twilley
You know, refrigeration is one of the sort of last areas of this unquestioned kind of man's dominion over nature approach to the world.

Lee Moreau
Here's Nicola Twilley again.

Nicola Twilley
Resilience is something you hear a lot about these days. We need to build more resilient systems. The cold chain is such a kind of monolithic solution. Just because we have the ability to refrigerate doesn't mean it's always the best solution. And I never want to come across as sort of anti-refrigeration, I'm definitely not. It's great. You know, it's that saying when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you have refrigeration, you stop thinking about other other considerations with your food. It's just it just becomes this sort of one stop shop of this is what we're going to do. And I think that's a mistake. I would love to see a food system that incorporated refrigeration but didn't depend on it.

Lee Moreau
And we've already talked about this a little bit, Sara, but this notion that refrigeration was a one size fits all solution that is universal and obviously it should be as extensive as possible— there are other ways to think about things in the world.

Sara Hendren
That's right. And then also thinking about the domestic space as perhaps maybe making some room for not just this cold box, you know, behind whose door everything goes, but like what- maybe our space, you know, there's such a passion for outdoor gardening. What else could be possible in that kind of domestic space for mitigating some of that accessibility and also some of that perishability question that that sort of haunts all of our consumption.

Lee Moreau
You know, one of the things I think we've lost and not to sound like too nostalgic or anything, but the notion that something cold can be special, you know, we almost take for granted the fact that cold is obvious. Like cold is going to be everywhere. Like naturally you can get something cold when you want it. But I feel like there was a moment in human history where cold was really, really amazing.

Sara Hendren
But again, you know, people hearing this are going to go like, okay, good luck with that. The past is not recoverable, right. So I don't know. It is an interesting question. On the one hand, I want to say, yes, that is true. The past is not recoverable. On the other hand, I want to say a globalism that's looking ever to the future and the new and the next also hasn't brought about the peace and prosperity that we might have hoped. So we do owe it to ourselves to ask what might we recover? And I think you're hinting at, you know, the kind of mindset that we would we might think about, in addition to recovering feasting as a communal, you know, hospitality as a practice. I mean, we're all out of practice after a pandemic. Like, that's what you mean, right? The joyful piece of specialness.

Lee Moreau
Yeah. I think it's hard to to instigate behavior change through sacrifice and through withdrawal and these kind of things. But I think if you instigate celebration and joy and pleasure, if we could find what cold- what makes cold special again, I think that would be a way to kind of reframe what probably needs to be a wholesale reconsideration of some of these systems. And certainly the relationship between what is life safety in refrigeration versus what is easy access to a cold beverage. Like that's a big gap that we need to kind of rethink.

Sara Hendren
What you just said, I think is crucial for anybody thinking about urgent social issues. I think a lot of times designers go: Well, if it's urgent that I'm going to design straight toward the urgency. And I think you do an end run around human nature when you do that, if you don't go for wonder, joy, pleasure, community connection, good luck with your urgency mission. I mean, really and truly not because people don't want to do the right thing, but they've got a lot of things pulling on them. On what to do rightly and daily life, by the way, comes with a lot of survival stuff. That's why we need fridges to keep us alive, you know? So it's like this is the broad invitation that includes refrigeration as a monolithic system, but extends beyond it too. And I wish designers understood this more fully, right? That their joy is actually a piece of the urgency. It is not a luxury. You'll find rituals and joy and thriving and art forms in every culture and at every time throughout history. This is not a layer for shopping. It's elemental.

Lee Moreau
And it needs to be designed into the system. We can't design systems that are absent of those feelings.

Sara Hendren
That's right.

Lee Moreau
Well, I hope that we can think about systems in the future like that and not be paralyzed by how difficult it is to change them. But that through a simple reallotment or thinking about what are the opportunities that they present, how can we make something special and joyful and celebratory? I want to go eat ice cream right now after this conversation. Like, I still want that, too, so.

Jonathan Rees
Right, exactly.

Lee Moreau
Right. Like Nicola, I like I appreciate refrigeration. I just wish it worked better for us.

Sara Hendren
That's right. Isn't this always what it's about? Like, can something that has taken up a little too much space recede in its importance? Can it can its operations be distributed? Can it can we break apart some of the most costly sucking of that energy? And can we can we do something else with our time, with our rituals, with our technologies, for sure. What else, what else might be possible?

Lee Moreau
So on that note, I want to kind of continue the conversation into our sort of thought exercise that we've been doing this season, which is is there a almost a reflective exercise that listeners can do by themselves or with a friend to just think about what it's like to exist within a system or to even think about the systems that they interact with every day.

Sara Hendren
We've been talking today about how the refrigerator is a monolithic system and it behaves in your house like furniture. Okay, so what if you took a kind of furniture approach to distributed preservation and small household farming practices? So think about that lettuce grow, what would it look like to do a really miniature greenhouse that would also support a lemon tree? Like what combination of technology, amplifiers and also, you know, design work, something you'd want to actually look at— so, like, my husband is obsessed with bonsai trees, but you can imagine they grew great in California, but not in New England. So we've bought some grow lights for our house and they've just now gotten to where the grow lights don't look like you're running a laboratory in your living room like so. So then what would that look like for very small scale farming? That to me is an interesting design prompt that proceeds from the signal of that of the lettuce grow or hydroponics. What's a really beautiful furniture led, elegant, nice to look at and technologically sophisticated way of thinking about distributing what now is the work of the fridge to the rest of your house. And here I just want to, you know, acknowledge the caveat that we all know, right, that that a planetary, sustainable future does not depend on each person's recycling. We know this that individual behaviors do not tackle that behemoth, talk about a monolith. Nonetheless, at scale, shared changes in behavior and a kind of disposition to think differently about our everyday lives. It can matter, I think, if those paradigmatic shifts, you know, accompany them.

Lee Moreau
I love that. I mean, I think some way of thinking about this massive systems just for a moment, which is hard to comprehend and then reducing it to something the size of your life. Thank you, Sara.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is a podcast from Design Observer. To keep up with the show, go to TFA dot design observer dot com or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you liked what you heard today, please make sure to rate and review us and share it with your friends.

Sara Hendren
And if you'd like to follow my work, my website is Sara Hendren dot com. I also write an occasional newsletter about art, design, engineering, material culture in our everyday lives. It's at Substack and it's called Undefended Slash Undefeated.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you this season by Automattic. Thanks again to Jonathan Rees, Nicola Twilley, Vipul Saran, and Robyn Metcalfe for talking to the Futures Archive. You can find more about them at our shownotes at TFA dot design observer dot com along with a full transcription of our show. Our producer is Adina Karp. Own Agnew edits the show. Thanks as always to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and to Design Observer executive producer Betsy Vardell.


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