Old dog, new tricks

Categories: News and previews

How Borough is collaborating with South Bank University to bring innovative start-ups to the Market and why it is possible for tradition and tech to go hand-in-hand

Words: Ellie Costigan

The old never has sat particularly comfortably with the new. It’s practically a rite of passage for the older generation to balk at the behaviour of the young, it’s often lamented that they “don’t make music like they used to any more”, and the appearance of yet another block of high-end flats on our historic skyline is enough to make most of us recoil. The problem with ‘the new’ is that it feels suspiciously like it’s trying to oust ‘the old’—and, well, we quite like the old.

While we might get excited at the opening of a new restaurant and inadvertently drawn in by the latest foodie fad, the food world is not without these sentiments. Countries defend their traditional cuisines vehemently, and new-fangled kitchen gadgets are mostly shunned. There’s been a backlash to the homogeneity of high streets without a butcher, a baker or a greengrocer, and a renewed determination to cook “proper food, like we used to”, from scratch. In this context, it’s understandable that an eyebrow might be raised when it comes to the pairing of food and technology. How can tech possibly aid us in the fight to retain our culinary traditions when it’s so... untraditional?

Arriving at YFood’s Food at Home and in Cities event as an advocate of Borough Market and all it holds dear, it’d be understandable to be asked the question, what does a 1,000-year-old London food market have to do with tech and innovation? But in fact, as David Matchett, the Market’s development manager, points out, “innovation is part of the Market’s DNA. You might think we are the epitome of traditional, which in some ways we are, but when Neal’s Yard Dairy set up here in the nineties there were only a few traditional British cheeses left in production. Randolph Hodgson pioneered a new type of retail model, linking rural farms via an expert trader to the urban customer. Everyone played a role. That was very forward-thinking and shaped the food landscape that we now can take for granted. And that’s just one example.”

The food scene
Indeed, the contemporary food scene has (quite rightly) become inextricably bound up with issues surrounding sustainability and tackling food waste, both of which sit at the heart of the Market’s ethos. We have traders that make crackers out of wasted juice pulp and a long-standing partnership with Plan Zheroes which collects surplus food from traders and distributes it to local charities. The Market’s water fountains and water bottles are examples of its efforts to get rid of plastic packaging for good. And if the YFood event is anything to go by, tech innovation is only going to aid these efforts.

There are apps that allow restaurants to sell surplus food at reduced prices direct to consumers, at once providing affordable meals and minimising food waste; apps that create recipes based on what’s in your fridge and your dietary requirements; packaging that’s fully flexible, and fully compostable. The Mindful Chef told us about a home delivery service that provides a box of ingredients sourced to the highest ethical standards, with recipes to create healthy, tailored meals alongside—all provided in ready-measured amounts, minimising food waste.

In a world where time is tight and convenience increasingly trumps all else, it’s all the more important that those championing fair and ethical food sourcing and selling get on board with all that advances in technology has to offer. “These are exactly the sorts of things that Borough should be and is thinking about,” says David. “Borough Market is one of the world’s leading food hubs and to remain at the cutting edge, we need to satisfy the generation of the future. One of the great things about that lovely 18-to-30 bracket is, they haven’t established their food identities yet, which means they are much more curious—particularly about food that is produced with social and environmental awareness. We need to tap into that. With that in mind, we really want to bring in these smaller, innovative businesses: and that is where our partnership with LAFIC, the London Agri-Food Innovation Clinic, comes in.”

Bridging the gap
Housed at London South Bank University, LAFIC is a project with the explicit aim of improving and supporting start-up food businesses in London, providing them with free, professional advice, as well as funded support to increase research and development. They’re “trying to bridge the gap between academia and industry,” says project manager Liam McNamara. “Us and Borough Market are institutions with the ability to have an impact. We have the ability to effect change. Because of that, we both feel we have a responsibility to do so—that’s where our ideals align, and why we have come up with a way of helping each other in those goals.”

Come spring 2019, LAFIC will be popping up with a rotating stall in the Market, giving the young, forward-thinking food businesses that have come through the University programme the opportunity to show the public what they’ve got. All traders will go through the traditional application process and will have been given the Borough seal of approval—but it’s not all about produce. “The only commonality between all our businesses in the programme is that they have something to do with food,” Liam continues. “That could be produce, or it could be a food tech business who are there to talk about their product and its potential. For example, one guy has a smartphone app that tells you the proximity to the closest healthy lunch or meal, based on your dietary requirements. If you tell it you’re gluten intolerant, say, it will use a GPS to locate where you are and direct you to the nearest decent restaurant or food retailer.”

When you begin to consider the potential of technology in this capacity, it no longer feels like a threat, but a boon. Technology that helps us minimise waste and make ethical choices convenient has obvious benefits for us, as consumers and citizens, but it also has the potential to effect much wider change. The launch of food labels that tell us when an ingredient is past its best based on real-time organic changes, for example—just one of many innovative inventions presented at the YFood event—could have huge implications were it to be rolled out on a national scale.

Enablers of innovation
It’s these ideas that Borough Market, through its collaboration with LAFIC, is looking to shine a light on: LAFIC will provide the support and guidance to get businesses ready to face the public, and Borough will provide a platform once they are, as well as access to customers that are engaged with food as more than simply fuel, spreading the word and, hopefully, sparking conversations. “We are enablers of innovation,” says Liam. “It’s a pretty groovy thing to be a part of.”

A centuries-old Market embracing the new to further build on its traditions; young, pioneering businesses finding stability in the long-established and experienced. Perhaps in with the new doesn’t have to mean out with the old after all.