Extracting full value from the abundance of data businesses generate can be a costly, time-consuming and overwhelming exercise, but the potential financial and ethical benefits are considerable, writes Nick Hughes.
What’s the most valuable commodity in the world? If your answer is gold or diamonds or any other precious metal or gemstone you’re almost certainly wide of the mark. In the new digital era, data is the commodity that capitalists value over any other.
Yet in the foodservice sector there remains a sense that businesses are not fully exploiting the value contained within the data they hold. In a recent report on how artificial intelligence (AI) will transform the hospitality industry, Winnow noted that sectors like manufacturing, retail and transportation are experiencing rapid change due to the disruptive presence of AI; however, the impact on the hospitality industry has to date been more subdued.
The reasons why this is the case are multifaceted. A simplistic explanation is that the data revolution has thus far proved overwhelming in its scale and speed. To get a sense of the volume of data that exists within the digital universe consider the fact that 90% of the data in the world has been created in the past two years alone, according to IBM.
For all businesses, including those in the foodservice sector, the wealth of data that now exists presents both an opportunity and a challenge. The advancement of technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) means companies have the potential to capture more information about their customers’ habits and their own business operations than ever before.
But sifting through this data, separating the useless from the useful, and turning the useful into actionable insights can be costly, time-consuming and, in some areas, extremely difficult.
At last week’s Footprint Forum: Sustainability in a World of Evolving Data, attendees were presented with examples of how progressive businesses are already benefiting from the data revolution, and in particular the ability of AI to turn unstructured datasets into valuable business intelligence.
One of these areas is food waste where the latest AI-enabled image-recognition technology is allowing caterers to drill down into what they are throwing away without further burdening already stretched kitchen teams. By identifying what food is being discarded most frequently businesses can then take measures to reduce its wastage.
The business case for reducing food waste is watertight: not only does it save money but it contributes towards wider CSR targets such as carbon reduction. In other areas of sustainability, however, the business drivers for unleashing the power of ‘big’ data are less obvious.
Technologies such as blockchain offer the potential for businesses to gain full visibility of their supply chains from farm to fork – an unequivocally good thing one might assume. But creating a blockchain solution is time-consuming and expensive and the returns on that investment are not easy to valorise, at least not in the short term.
Proponents argue that full supply chain transparency is an inevitable destination for the food industry whether businesses like it or not. Killian Stokes is co-founder of Moyee Coffee, which is pioneering a FairChain concept whereby the value in a cup of coffee is split 50/50 between the producing country – in this case Ethiopia – and the consuming country. Not only is the supply chain fully digital and transparent thanks to blockchain technology but customers are able to see exactly how the price of their coffee is shared among each partner along the supply chain and have the ability to ‘tip’ the farmer that produced their coffee.
Such levels of transparency may be unimaginable to certain large food operators who sit at the consumer end of the chain and face constant scrutiny about the larger share of value they retain from a product’s sale versus the producer as well as the impact of their labyrinthine supply chains on the natural environment of producer nations. Stokes, however, told the forum audience that the shift to full supply chain transparency is inescapable in the years ahead as the availability of data and the means to share it instantly gives companies no place to hide.
Looking beyond the supply chain, opportunities to use data for the benefit of the environment and society will continue to present themselves both as the technology develops and the expectation for brands to be good corporate citizens grows.
Industry disrupters like Just Eat and Deliveroo are at their core software companies rather than traditional foodservice operators. Their currency is data and the more they transact with their customers the better they get to know their habits and motivations. It’s not a stretch to imagine that, in the not too distant future, these brands could – through their own choice or under pressure from governments and campaigners – use that data to nudge customers towards healthier, more sustainable options in much the same way that certain supermarket brands are already encouraging healthy swaps via their online stores.
Data often gets a bad press when it’s (mis)used to sell us things we don’t want or to expose us to messages that are misleading – but its potential to drive positive outcomes in the foodservice sector is huge. A recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Google revealed that in Europe a net benefit of $1.8 trillion can be unlocked through AI by 2030. Removing food waste in a circular economy could alone unlock $127 billion in value each year.
With the stakes only set to increase over time, it’s high time foodservice businesses began unleashing the power of their data.