About the Research

The expansion of platform economies is not unproblematic and poses many ethical, societal – and environmental – challenges (Ming Tan et al. 2021). Globally, the post-Covid challenge is to reshape an urbanity that is capable of encouraging in-person sociality, mutual understanding and fairness. To facilitate such a process, a better understanding of the many virtual and real domains impacted by each delivery order is needed.

The aim of this explorative work is to raise awareness on the multiple forces that are operating in our physical and virtual worlds, contributing to possible long-term changes.  Such a journey invites us to take into consideration the sustainability aspect that has to be ensured, at labour-market and societal level – but also in terms of urban planning – to face ongoing and future challenges, calling for sound policies. Especially in such exceptional times, an opportunity is given to take action and to redesign a healthier post-Covid landscape, to better suit the needs of humans and the environment and to facilitate the development of sound, effective policies.

Research Locations

As such dynamics are replicating all around the world, we have chosen not to focus on a specific location, but rather to showcase different experiences collected during our fieldwork activities in Turin (Italy) and Berlin (Germany). Through multiple voices, different perspectives will be presented to invite to walk (or better, to cycle) in a food-delivery driver’s shoes as well as to explore the use of space and interactions happening in urban spaces as we order from home. Furthermore, experiences of solidarity among food workers and reflections on the changing eating habits of delivery customers.

We relied on multiple ethnographic and social research tools to differentiate and maximise as much as possible the variety of the perspectives and inputs collected ( link to research methods). We believe that such a shifting, complex range of phenomena can only be grasped through multiple formats that narrate personal experiences.

The Format

As this urban playground is aimed not only at researchers and people with a specific interest in the topic of food-delivery services, but also at any curious mind hungry to read deeper into the matter. Additional external inputs and further references can be found as the topics unfold, inviting the reader to spot urban traces in their own location.

Each item is intended to function as a standalone element while simultaneously contributing to the larger understanding of the problematic by adding to the narrative mosaic formed through our overlapping research.

Research Methods

  • Literary review

  • Online News, Reports & Media review

  • Fieldwork

  • Ethnographic research

  • Qualitative, semi-structured interviews        

  • Owner of a pastry shop in Turin - Read more

  • Restaurant worker and former delivery riders in Turin - Read more

  • Delivery riders in Berlin and Copenhagen - Read more

  • Resident of Berlin and frequent user of delivery services - Read more

  • Countermapping

  • Photography and video

Our group work started with a broad review of existing literature on the topic that helped us shape a suitable conceptual framework to guide our analysis. Since this is a new and rapidly changing phenomenon, we have also consistently relied on global and local media for up-to-date trends and information (including video documentaries, podcasts, news articles). We explored the latest trends that are emerging around the world and might shape the future of our cities (i.e. dark kitchens, automated deliveries, informal food deliveries, and much more) and framed our fieldwork to pinpoint the present moment. In order to capture those subtle elements that escape mere economic and quantitative impact analysis, it is important to start a dialogue with the different categories of workers (as well as customers) that are engaging with platform services in different ways: delivery and restaurant workers, food-business owners, final users, etc.

Through a kaleidoscope of perspectives and inputs obtained through qualitative interviews, it is possible to better grasp how each food delivery order is leaving urban traces along its journey – from the grocery store or the kitchen to our tables. Through observation, photo reportages and countermapping, the material traces in our built environment can be revealed.

Conceptual Framework

Tension points have exacerbated with the Covid-19 pandemic and the expansion of delivery services while people were forced to stay out of public spaces: researching the different subtle traces left, and better understanding the implications is therefore important. We have explored such phenomena through the lenses of Cultural Geography, Foodscapes and the Digital Turn happening in geography.

Cultural Geography, the intersection of human activity (culture) and location based context (geography). “Place” is what is created at that intersection. Places are formed from many layers of traces left by people and history (e.g. buildings, graffiti, signs, memories, smells, etc.). Cultural Geography is a study of these traces that make up a place, “It critically appraises the cultural ideas and preferences motivating them, and the reasons for their significance, popularity, and effect” (Anderson, 2015). This methodology also considers the creation of a place to be an ongoing and ever changing process.

Using this methodology, we are able to frame our research using both the locations and human activities observed. We are able to be hyper specific with the locations and still have a framework to compare the research done in Turin and Berlin by centering human activities in our analysis.

Foodscapes help our investigation of the urban traces of food delivery, because on the one hand it allows us to include the individual aspects of food (consumption and production), but also the wider networks, the individual producers and consumers involved along the food chain. This twofold approach also allows us to engage in the political, economic and social discussions in which the actions and behaviours of individuals are embedded. Simultaneously, it takes the materiality and consequently the waste production in the context of food seriously, adding another important layer to our analysis. Food geographies can put the emphasis on the ‘visceral’, pointing to bodies/eaters and their material and immaterial ways of perceiving, tasting and engaging with food (more or less in a healthy and equal way). Most importantly, such ‘visceral approach’ critically brings out the intrinsic influence of power hierarchies to each one’s “shifting, contextualised and indeterminate nature” (Goodman, 2016) ways of engaging with food.

Analysis using this methodology can move forward with the Food-isation approach, re-materialising cultural geography: food(y) things become material agents that influence cityscapes and bodies in tangible and intangible ways.

The “Digital Turn” in geography is meant to stand in place of a new field of Digital Geography. The boundary between digital and non-digital geographies is becoming increasingly blurry; geographies are now produced:

  •  ‘through’ the digital – the ever expanding influence of digital tools used in geographic research and urban planning, such as GIS or data science
  • ‘by’ the digital – the influence information technology on economy, society, culture and politics
  • ‘of’ the digital – the immense infrastructure that supports, and the independent rules governing the digital world, and can be geographically examined.

 It is crucial to maintain the approach of critical cartography, creating and studying existing maps (of such virtual and real worlds) to deconstruct power relations and the impact of such relentless production of spatial knowledge online and offline through online data production and elaboration. As data and spaces are computed, distances flattened and space and time contracted, the socio-political power of those owning data and controlling algorithms increase and expand. Globally and locally, owning, granting access, manipulating and elaborating data means more and more to influence governance and urban planning.

With this methodology we are able to add an extra dimension to our analysis by questioning the role of the digital in our findings. It also gives us another tool to view some of the invisible traces within our research.

List of references and further readings, here