When Does Smart Get Stupid?

In the 1950’s, Betty Crocker had a breakthrough. Instant cake mix; just add water. If food scientists in the mid-century ever had a moment to shout Eureka!, this was certainly it. Unfortunately, consumers remained unconvinced that, while easier to just add water, the resulting cake would be any better than crafting one by hand and baking it with love. In many ways, “Just Add Water” felt like cheating. So Betty Crocker refined their instructions: just add water and a fresh egg. A small but meaningful change that brought love back into the mix. Almost 70 years later and we’re back to just adding water. Or in this case, Just Add A Screen.

In 2008 the number of Internet connected devices exceeded the number of people on planet Earth, and by 2020 it’s projected there will be over 50 billion. For the designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs inventing this future, there is an immense responsibility to ensure that these products and services transcend gimmick and provide real value to the lives of their customers. Current trends, however, don’t bode well.

Consumers are drowning in expensive, single-purpose smart devices that contribute only to overcrowding kitchens in a time where countertop space is more desirable than a dishwasher. We have smart plates and cups that remind you what you’re eating and drinking, smart skillets that send a push notification when it’s time to flip your salmon, and smart refrigerators that offer functionality previously available to the elite few whom own magnets and Post-It notes. Products that, in an effort to cut down on food waste, require proprietary, single-use, and barely recyclable pods for preparing your “authentic” meal. In a world where authenticity is so highly valued, do consumers really want their food dropping out of a plastic pod? Sure you can make juice at the touch of a button, but only after the produce is shipped from farms on refrigerated trucks to a refrigerated factory where it’s triple washed using all that spare Californian water, chopped, packed, and shipped to you for $40/week.

When did smart get so stupid?

“Smart” products that treat us as incompetent and leave no room for creative discovery in the kitchen aren’t smart. “Smart” products that prioritize convenience over our planet and our health aren’t smart. “Smart” products whose core innovation is Put A Screen On It aren’t smart.

Smart products shouldn’t take the humanity out of the kitchen. They should empower people to learn about the foods they’re eating and allow freedom for experimentation and play. They should be giving us the skills we need for cooking confidently and healthy, even when the internet is down or the power goes out. We’ll be the first to admit there’s something magical about putting a plastic cartridge in one end and having a tortilla come out the other. A good product should feel like magic. But sometimes it’s important to teach your audience how the trick works so they can be magicians too.

This week in Seattle is the Smart Kitchen Summit, where industry leaders in technology, food, and design offer an inspirational glimpse into the future of food. There’s no doubt we’ll see some exciting innovations at the show, and hopefully not ones that could have been prime material for The Onion.

So we wrote some headlines and will be passing them out at the summit to get the conversation started and ask: What is smart?



At MINIMAL, we are disruptive problem solvers - a collective of designers, engineers, strategists, and storytellers focused on making ideas reality. And when it comes to the smart kitchen, this is what we think smart is:

  • Products that invite creative exploration and empower people in the kitchen by supporting their efforts, not just doing it for them
  • Products that make it easy to eat better, not just easy to eat, and with fewer consequences to the Earth
  • Products that promote and encourage a community around food, not just distract with more screens and apps

A smart product is one that makes you smarter by using it. Something that doesn’t trade its connection with humanity for connection to the internet. Something more than just adding water. We’re eager to help shape this future of food. Join the conversation on Twitter. #whatissmart.