“Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
So said Max Elder, Research Director at Food Futures Lab for the Institute for the Future. Elder joined The Spoon yesterday for a virtual workshop on how to think like a food futurist during these uncertain times, and he had a wealth of tools and advice to offer attendees.
Besides the aforesaid quote, one of those nuggets was that you might be dining beside a mannequin next time you go out to eat. Sounds a little William Gibson-esque, right? Personally, I thought immediately of the ’80s film Mannequin, and some folks are no doubt creeped out by the whole idea.
But whatever images it conjures in your head, the concept actually already exists in some places. During yesterday’s workshop, Elder highlighted a Michelin-star restaurant in the Washington, D.C. area, The Inn at Little Washington, that is using mannequins to fill empty tables now that social distance guidelines require restaurants to run at reduced capacity in the dining room.
This isn’t a widespread trend — yet. It’s what Elder calls a “signal.” Signals, as we discussed at the virtual workshop today, are facts about the present we can use to make predictions about the future. They’re especially important at a time when there’s so much uncertainty about so many parts of the food system, from the supply chain to restaurants to how we’ll get our groceries in future.
So how does one restaurant seating its empty tables with mannequins become an actual trend in the restaurant biz? For that matter, do we want it to become a trend? To answer these questions, Elder led the group in discussing the consequences, good and bad, of restaurants using mannequins as stand-in customers.
- Monetizing mannequins with ads
- Mannequins becoming an extra item in the restaurant to clean and sanitize
- Creating a Walking Dead-themed restaurants with mannequins
- Ensuring mannequins are inclusive from racial, gender, and cultural angles
- Mannequins becoming robots and therefore potential diner companions that could talk to you
- Said robot-mannequins becoming holograms
The list goes on and on.
As a side note, mannequins and other doll-like figures aren’t just at the Washington Inn. A restaurant in Tokyo, Japan has strategically placed them around its establishment and even partnered with a clothing brand to make the mannequins as stylish as possible. And restaurant in Thailand uses stuffed animals, because who doesn’t want to eat across from a giant stuffed panda bear?
If it all sounds a tad ridiculous, that’s the point. And as Elder and the workshop audience showed, seemingly ridiculous ideas can sometimes lead to us pondering the bigger implications of signals poised to become trends.
That’s just a smidgen of what we talked about at the workshop. To learn more about what signals are and how they become trends, what a future wheel is and why it’s important to making forecasts, and a bunch of other tools, watch the full video.