Futurist Nancy Giordano opens Prepared Foods’ annual predictions issue with a look at the

“next” normal for food and beverage processors.

Whew! We made it through 2020. How are you… really?

As this highly disruptive year has made so visible, I believe the food industry is undergoing one of the most transformative shifts since refrigeration was invented in the 1850’s.

While we all face extraordinary challenges – including supply chain vulnerabilities, concerns about both scarcity and waste, and the shape of retail dining (to name a few), there are also so many opportunities gathering steam. I am inspired by the growing interest in plant-based alternatives to animal meat and dairy products, encouraged by huge investments in vertical/alternative farming and worker well-being, and intrigued by growing conversations around precision fermentation. I found it fascinating to read about the hi-tech restaurant in Toyko that 3D prints sushi specific to a diner’s DNA. And my imagination soars as we see the growing integration of sensors in everything from farming machinery to our Tupperware and consider the role that data will play in how we make decisions at every level of this business.

No doubt, we have another challenging year to navigate ahead. But the pandemic has made four forces much more visible and accelerated a shift from outdated business practices, products and revenue models to a high tech yet highly caring future. In a nutshell, these awakenings are shaping the new economy:

1. An increasing reliance on advanced digital technologies for work, learning, shopping wellbeing and play. Changes we’ve made in how we procure and prepare food are spurring new innovations.  The shift to ghost kitchens, virtual food brands, robot-vending and online shopping has accelerated the growth of dark warehouses, micro-fulfilment centers and accumulation of lots of new data…and it won’t turn back.

2. A more respectful appreciation of our behavior on planetary health. As the world shut down, we observed how our consumptive behavior clearly has an environmental and ecological impact. So how can we resume economic activity in ways that are more in harmony with nature? This new awareness will shift the ways we source, manufacture, distribute and reclaim/reuse our resources ahead, encouraging the adoption of more regenerative, circular and sustainable supply chains.   

3. A deepening respect of the systemic bias and growing inequities. These new activities and economic realities are forcing us to acknowledge and finally reckon with the glaring and historic inequities that exist in technology access, medical care, stable and safe jobs and emotional and financial safety nets. We are not only facing a call for much overdue racial justice and a respect for all food workers, but a growing “she-cession” which needs our attention as well.


4. And importantly, we are developing a clearer understanding of ourselves, our capacities and our support networks. As we fortify our own resilience, we are now openly addressing anxiety, stress and other mental health conditions and intentionally assessing who has our backs. Can we rely on our neighbors? Our employers? Our favorite brands and retailers? Our government leaders?

So what are we learning about how to navigate such fast paced change? And the ways to better sense and respond to the opportunities emerging?

Last year I described a much-needed shift in approach from a reliance on a static, hierarchical, outdated form of industrial leadership focused almost exclusively on short-term growth to a much more dynamic, inclusive and adaptive practice of Leadering which supports continuous innovation to create long-term value. Having spent a lot of time researching change, I can confidently say that what we think is much less important than how we think.

Specifically, it is imperative that we become much more curious. And we must make peace with paradox as we create and adopt more fluid, hybrid solutions. 

When we look past the fear and inevitable losses of this difficult moment to compassionately embrace the humanity in each other, we will be in such a strong place to actively and bravely build a safer and more thriving future. With a greater reverence for life and deeper faith in our own resilience and ability to change, I believe the huge disruptions of 2020 are making much more visible the new solutions and more caring investments needed to shape a human-centered economy ahead. Thank you for all you are each doing.