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Final Reflections

Arriving at the end of our journey tracing food deliveries through the city, it is time to take a step back and reflect on what we have seen along the way.

Our research started with the goal to better understand the impact of food delivery services on cities and their inhabitants. While the food delivery markets have been growing for years – showing a great dynamic with new players entering the scene constantly – the COVID-19 pandemic has given this trend a significant boost. Not only has the use of food delivery services increased worldwide, many other activities in public spaces have been – and in some cases still are – restricted due to lockdowns and restrictions imposed by many levels of government. As a result, new ways of interacting in private and public spaces (digital as well as physical) are taking place. These unique circumstances have intensified this already existing trend, and are making the effects more visible. Social interactions are being highly affected by food delivery services, as well as our habits around food consumption. Through our fieldwork  we were able to observe visible changes to the urban environment, and to detect the intangible digital geographies that form an additional layer in the cityscape, connecting and yet also dividing people and places. We describe the different aspects we included in our presentation as “urban traces” of food deliveries.

Our concept of  “urban traces” allows us to put a framework around, and to connect, the many different pieces we discovered along the way, making the multilayered reality of food deliveries visible.

The existing scientific literature comprehensively addresses the working conditions and health risks of gig workers in relation to food delivery. Sustainability as well as innovation, AI and technological innovations in general are also discussed. In addition, there are works that address digital geographies in urban space and explore the digital infrastructure of cities. Last but not least, the study of food in terms of social, cultural and economic aspects is also relevant to our research question. Yet, we discovered that a comprehensive study of the impacts of food delivery on the urban is underdeveloped. Therefore, while working on the project, we developed our own concept of "urban traces" building on the mentioned aspects. It allows us not only to link them to one another, but in particular to make visible the tangible and intangible networks around food delivery that impact our social interaction, as well as the physical environment and how we interact with it. We deployed different methods in our research  to deepen the understanding of the urban traces of food delivery: starting from interviews with people working in the field as well as end consumers, we furthermore conducted observations in hotspot areas around restaurants in different geographical locations. These methods were further completed with (counter-)mapping approaches of a food-delivery cycling route and visual explorations of the urban environment through photography and filming. The result is a rich collection of individual yet global pieces, each referring to urban traces spotted along the way:

Starting from the very moment somebody places an order and sends the rider on his or her way, to the preparation of the food which then is picked up and travels through the city, to the doorstep of the customer who casually consumes it, leaving only empty boxes in the end.

By observing the big picture, it becomes clear that all of these (inter-)actions are initiated, enabled and connected by a common digital, overarching thread. The individual items presented here complement each other to form a multi-layered picture of the topic at hand.

Social Interactions

Let’s start with the social interactions we were able to explore including riders, restaurant workers and finally the customers. What all these interactions have in common is that they are mediated through apps that on one hand connect the different people engaged in the temporary virtual/real connection, but on the other prevents them to form any kind of daily, long-term relationship that might emerge between in-person co-workers, or clients and hosts: the turnover of delivery staff is high due to the straining working conditions, riders rotate alone  between different restaurants in the city, and the only connection restaurant workers  end up having with customers  is a rating after receiving the meal. The actors are therefore all united in their solitude and alienation that is fuelled by the spatial and personnel dispersion characterising delivery processes. Nevertheless, we have also collected traces of acts of solidarity among   platform workers  tying up to support each other and make shifts more pleasant and bearable – just as any co-workers would. The carefully packed meal or a drink offered while waiting for the pick-up seem like trivial actions to the outsider, but can make an important difference for the individual riders during their stressful shifts. However, because such solitude and alienation among delivery riders are the norm in platform services, these actions take on a special significance in their day-to-day routine. Based on the interviews with riders we also derive that the interaction with the customers  is highly individual and (not yet) a situation for which a social standard exists. Therefore, the behavior of customers seems to vary greatly. The aspect of isolation in this particular situation and a lack of social control through the presence of other people make it difficult to develop a broadly accepted societal script for it. And finally there is of course the final customer who ordered the food to their home. With restaurants closed during lockdown and restrictions to meet other people indoors, the entire social dimension of eating changes. This affects both consumers and chefs who do not get the joy of seeing people enjoy the meal they prepared, showing yet another instance of people being estranged from each other. In conclusion, the more these types of platform-mediated contacts increase, the more people will potentially experience forms of isolation at work as well as a lack of interpersonal closeness and emphatic connection in their daily interactions.

Discordant Geographies

This impression is further reinforced by the spatial scatteredness of delivery work and the related changes happening in the urban geography, as well as the selective use of urban space that the collected testimonies and our fieldwork have exposed. For example, it can be difficult for restaurant personnel to handle at the same time online customers and those on site. Due to lockdown-related economic losses on site, but a parallel increase of orders through delivery apps (for many the only way to survive during these times), it might be possible that in the near future many restaurants will decide to only deliver food, thus intensifying the trend towards "dark kitchens".



Cucinino is the first delivery kitchen of Turin! Starting from November 2nd, you can find us on every delivery app! We deliver traditional piedmontese cuisine at your home! (picture taken in April, 2021, Turin, Italy)

Conversely, restaurants might consciously try to come back to on-site service again. It remains to be seen what the long-term consequences of the pandemic will be in this respect, and our work aims at casting a light on the need to observe and study such undergoing shifts. In no way it should be underestimated that a large proportion of customers have experienced the benefits of online ordering  during the pandemic, and many will certainly prefer food delivery to on-site grocery shopping or a more expensive night out at a restaurant in the future. As a result, delivery drivers will remain a permanent and highly visible part of the urban landscape while the social aspect and connective role of food gets diluted. In this context, the question of the use of public space also plays a central role, of course. In various cases of our field work, we have seen what it means when a digital infrastructure in the form of hotspots and delivery routes is drawn into the urban geography as an additional layer, but it only fits the real existing environment to a limited extent. Parks and sidewalks converted into break rooms or loading areas  and parking spaces, as well as growing delivery traffic in residential areas are only the first signs of a disruptive development in the urban landscape. The extensive use of bicycle lanes (and sometimes sidewalks) to deliver food might also be challenged as a private sector activity consuming too much public space. In the competition for the fastest delivery of any products and services with just one click on the smartphone, there is also increasing pressure to establish hyperlocal delivery infrastructures for activities of individual private sector companies, which eventually leads to changing the current use of residential neighborhoods and public space alike to serve their needs. While customers enjoy the convenience of having food and groceries delivered to their doorstep, users of public space or residents next to a dispatch center are rather critical of these developments. At the same time, the race for the fastest delivery is one among many reasons making the job as arider full of risks for their health and safety .  The mountains of food-delivery waste  that are currently accumulating in parks and other public places in cities everywhere in the world point in the very same direction. And even if there is a partial return to on-site consumption with the lifting of the COVID-19-related restrictions, the problem of lacking sustainability in terms of single-use packaging and tableware remains. On the same line, an unsolved issue is the allocation of more portions of public streets to restaurants to accommodate customers in outdoor terraces, and the transformation of housing into hubs for commercial activities.

Digital Layer

The increasing scatteredness of social interactions and physical environments involved in the delivery process should make us aware that above the individual aspects there is a complex digital infrastructure that significantly influences the behavior of all the actors involved and that shapes the impact of delivery services on the urban landscape. The dominant position of large digital platforms , supported and reinforced by a seemingly never-ending flow of money, must be a central aspect for a further profound analysis of the intangible "urban traces" around food deliveries. Because of the way such infrastructures are constructed, they reshape our cultural and economic norms around food consumption by silently reinforcing the characteristic anonymity behind any platform interaction. Furthermore, they have an equally strong influence on an individual's spatial behavior as we found out through the engagement with the riders’ way through the city . The app introduces certain hot spot areas and related delivery zones, as well as dictates and limits the routes a rider can take in the city. As narrated by the different actors interviewed, such abstract and intangible digital overlay has very real consequences. For example, in our presentation, we used the results of our fieldwork to illustrate the elements of a generic delivery route. Similar routes are taking place millions of times every day around the world. The individual rider or user may not think much about this in everyday life. However, the implications goes beyond an individual daily routine, as digital patterns can be extracted and computed from the aggregated orders and deliveries collected, providing information about ordering preferences, peak times, duration of preparation and delivery, and customer satisfaction - every action, every second is tracked. Such knowledge however, remains with the companies owning the platforms: they are the only ones in the digital world to have an overview of the digital geographies produced by their services in the physical world. Potentially, in the future these data may become even more valuable. In combination with new trends such as delivery drones and robots on the horizon, and the potential spill-over of platform services into other industries, platform companies will be able to further capitalize on the detailed amount of data they possess. Their knowledge about delivery routes and speed are valuable to those trying to introduce automated delivery vehicles in our cities. Linking back this technical innovation built on digital geography, it also has major implications for the use of public space, when more vehicles compete for the already limited space.

Conclusion

With our investigation of the many different, overlapping forms of tangible and intangible urban traces - produced by and left behind - by food delivery, we have only started to  scratch on the surface of the multiple impacts these kinds of services have on urban spaces, and human and spatial interactions and how they will affect urban spaces post-pandemic. Every item we presented along the way has enough potential to kickstart a more detailed and thorough investigation of its own dynamics and implications. We encourage more research of specific and of such general, common dynamics. For example, a way forward is to conduct further research that  goes deeper into local peculiarities of certain aspects, or research that provides further insights into counter-movements and common reactions that are forming against these developments. Nevertheless, the presentation and analysis of the multi-layered and interconnected aspects of different urban traces we provide here already allows for a broad, better understanding of how the urban landscape is currently being reshaped through many subtle, invisible changes and traces that are becoming more and more visible and potentially will continue to populate our digital and physical world in the near future.

We hope to have increased the level of attention on how the intangible data/traces each of us produces through the use of food delivery services might be even more polluting than an empty package left on the floor, as they might cause long term consequences not only on our urban landscapes, but also on our social and personal geographies.


Further reading and references can be found, here