Are Designers Responsible for Obesity?

The design of a menu can influence consumers to choose healthier options, according to a FAST Company article. The corollary, of course, is that design choices can influence unhealthy eating. Which raises an interesting question: Are designers morally responsible for obesity in North America?

There’s no denying there’s an obesity epidemic: a staggering one third of Americans are obese. There’s a strong argument it’s a moral issue too with obesity causing 100,000-400,000 deaths each year, depending on who you listen to. There are many factors affecting people’s weight. Are some of them addressable with better design?

There are lots of reasons why people consume too many calories. For instance, designers have increased portion sizes, dramatically, as this ‘then and now’ visual shows (I’m not giving up movie popcorn anytime soon, even though my waistline says I should!). Of course the marketers who design menus, packaging, and advertising have all played a role. It’s also important to note that foods today use ingredients with higher calorie and lower nutritional densities. Essentially, many design choices have fed the obesity problem.

It’s not just a food problem, though. The car was a wonderful invention. Some claim the automobile has had the greatest impact on society, more than any other invention. A more sedentary lifestyle is one of the side effects. A study in Melbourne, Australia suggests your daily commute is weighing down more than just your cheery disposition. Why did car designers make passengers sit while driving, where the most exercise amounts to the tap of a foot or the turn of the stereo dial? Car design has clearly lost something since the stone ages: say what you will about the Flinstone’s car, they had slim waistlines and amazing quadriceps. I have neither.

The car’s impact on city design hasn’t helped either. In the article The Impact of Technological Change on Urban Form, Kenneth Jackson discusses how pre-Industrial cities were really ‘walking cities’:

“When Queen Victoria was born in 1819, London had about 800,000 residents and was the largest city on earth. Yet an individual could easily walk the three miles from Paddington, Kensington, Hammersmith, and Fulham, then on the very edge of the city, to the center in only two hours.”

In our real-time world few people are willing to burn two hours walking across town. But even then most people rarely walked from end to end. According to Jackson getting to work was a short jaunt: “In 1815, even in the largest cities, only about one person in fifty travelled as much as one mile to his place of employment.” The design of modern cities is based on the assumption that people will drive, or ride public transportation. The resulting urban sprawl turned that design assumption into a self-fulfilling prophecy – walking is rarely practical.

Addressing obesity doesn’t require one massive solution. Small design choices could have a huge impact in aggregate – smaller portion sizes, menus that subtly promote healthy food, bicycle lanes on city streets, cars with a built-in treadmill (okay, maybe not that one) – can all add up to visible results.

While participating on a recent design project I learned how Loblaw, Canada’s largest grocery store chain, implemented the Guiding Stars program. Guiding Stars helps shoppers make healthier food choices by displaying a health rating on its shelf display. While shopping the next day I noticed the stars, and my family ate a little healthier that night. I now look at every food’s Guiding Stars rating before I buy. It’s a very simple yet effective design element. Healthier design doesn’t have to be difficult.

Some argue that individuals just need to make better choices, to eat healthy, to walk to work. True, the consumer has a role to play in all of this. I don’t have to buy that large, butter-loaded popcorn every time I go to the theatre.  BUT it’s hard to deny that design influences us in subtle ways. Shouldn’t consumers be able to trust that vendors will keep them safe and healthy? We don’t allow manufacturers to use dangerous chemicals in children’s toys. When are designers in the food industry morally responsible for the design choices they make?


How DNA Testing Can Help You Eat Better

The very DNA of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value, not consumer value. The corporation’s need to sell product, and the competition nipping at their toes, theoretically ensures they do what is best for the customer. It’s the model our society operates on. And as a society we believe the ‘cost’ of damaged relationships will stop corporations from blatantly taking advantage of us.

Every day we trust the ‘customer is king’ mantra to protect us, with help from government regulations I should add. However, this only works if two important conditions exist:

  • As customers we know when we are being taken advantage of
  • There is healthy competition, giving use the option to switch suppliers

BUT how does this work when we can’t tell if we are being cheated? Based on research into the food supply chain, it doesn’t work well. A growing body of evidence shows just how bad it is:

And who can forget the horse meat scandal in Europe? Or what about the challenges Cadbury is facing in Malaysia right now? Researchers from the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario indicate problems exist in many food categories: meat, seafood, spices, coffee, tea, chocolates, natural health supplements, pet foods, and even cosmetics. Once food has been processed it can be nearly impossible to know what it is without DNA testing.

So how can consumers know what they are eating? The Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, as part of the international Barcode of Life project, recently released a solution for consumers. The primary goal of the LifeScanner project is to crowdsource the documentation of the planet’s species, with the help of easy-to-use DNA kits and an iPhone application. BUT consumers can use those same kits to sample their foods and send it in for testing.

With the help of LifeScanner we can now know when we are being taken advantage of. But that only addresses part of the challenge. It doesn’t answer the question, “Who is the culprit?” Take Cadbury as an example. I highly doubt Cadbury deliberately used porcine-based gelatin in their chocolate recipe instead of non-animal gelatin; it’s their brand on the line after all! Likely a supplier sold Cadbury a misrepresented product; or maybe it was one of the supplier’s suppliers.

The food industry is dealing with a supply chain based on trust. Finding the breakdown can be solved with technology. Integrating DNA-testing into supply-chain visibility solutions will shine a light into the deceptive practices of some suppliers. Every customer in the food supply chain benefits, most importantly the consumer.


The Human Face of Big Data

Big Data is the latest technology trend being splashed across mainstream media. Undoubtedly, some write it off as the latest fad that will soon fade. And yet the potential for Big Data is captivating.

A new documentary – The Human Face of Big Data – explores that potential. Buried within the mountains of electronic ones and zeros we generate every day are patterns. Big Data proponents believe those patterns contain keys to solving our biggest and smallest problems alike, whether social injustice, health epidemics and disease, or saving the planet from, well, humans.

As experienced journalists and documentary film producers, brothers Rick and Sandy Smolan don’t paint a one-sided view. Early on in the film one expert states, “what can be used for good can also be used for evil,” and the documentary explores how Big Data can also invade individual privacy, oppress and control people, and attack the very roots of democracy and freedom.

Which raises a crucial idea: The biggest challenges with Big Data are not technological but human.

We often hold a fatalistic view of technology. We seem to believe technology is a force we cannot control; as if we are all just passengers on the train, unable to get on or off, rocketing down a predestined track. Yet this is not true. Yes, technological capability will likely change us and our culture, but it is not one way. We can shape and be shaped through Big Data. The biggest challenge is deciding what we want change to look like and how to make it a reality.

Answering this question may be a natural starting point: What does it mean to be human in an era of ones and zeros?

The fatalist views humans simply as another variable to be optimized, employees simply as tools to be maximized, patients as imperfections to be improved. What a depressing thought.

The era of ones and zeros is an opportunity to make us more human, not less.

The Human Face of Big Data documentary gives us a platform to begin the conversation, to break the ice if you will. The film was recently screened at a number of North American film festivals, including the Boston International Film Festival where it won the best cinematography award for a documentary.

It should get wider distribution later this year. In the meantime, join upcoming SAP events where it is being screened. You won’t be disappointed! As a sponsor of the project, SAP has the privilege of screening it at SAP events, including the SAP Forum in Austria and the SAP Forum in Basel, Switzerland last month. It has been exciting to hear how people are affected when they see Big Data’s human face.

Big Data has a human face in my life.

Statistically, 40% of all North Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life. It’s staggering. And it’s personal. Two years ago today my wife and I lost our friend Christine to breast cancer, and our friend Tracy passed away days later to the same battle. Both left behind young families after years fighting the disease.

Weeks before our two friends passed away I learned about Mitsui Knowledge Industry, an SAP customer exploring personalized cancer treatment. In essence, early research shows that cancer patients respond to certain treatments better than others based on mutations in their DNA. By understanding a patient’s mutations doctors can choose the cancer treatment that will deliver the best results for her body. As a result, doctors can reduce the grueling rounds of chemotherapy and other treatments, and improve the quality of life. MKI’s story made the potential of Big Data very real to me.

What is your human face of big data?