Accenture innovation center seeks ‘to solve the world’s biggest problems in the food chain’: From feeding 10 billion to automating cocktails

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

Accenture on Wednesday launched a food-focused innovation center that aims to tackle the panoply of challenges confronting the world’s food system, from reducing food waste to perfecting curbside pickup.

The Extract, housed within Accenture’s Chicago innovation hub just west of the Loop, invites companies, think tanks, universities and startups to brainstorm, prototype and test ideas in a space designed to foster cross-industry collaboration. The name represents the goal of pulling together skills and insights from different stakeholders along the food chain, including retail, hospitality, manufacturing and agriculture.

“We are looking to work with all parts of the food ecosystem to solve the world’s biggest problems in the food chain,” said Lee Moore, head of Accenture’s Midwest practice.

Those big problems include how to feed a global population expected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050, how to reduce $1 trillion in global food waste and how to help grocery stores and restaurants adapt to the digital revolution in how people are buying food.

The consulting giant will use the space to counsel its corporate clients so they are well-positioned to grow and compete, but the vision is broader than that.

“It’s not only helping our clients envision their future but looking at those world issues and using the space for good to bring the people together from end to end to work on those issues,” said Karen Voelker, director of Accenture’s Chicago innovation hub.

The Chicago innovation hub, founded 15 years ago, is one of 11 Accenture operates across the world; others have different focuses depending on the industries that dominate their regions. The decision to focus on food in Chicago reflects the city’s importance as a center of food production, branding, hospitality and agribusiness.

In the works for about a year, The Extract was due to launch in April but was delayed because of the pandemic, which also forced it to change some of its content because of the sweeping changes to consumer behavior, Voelker said. Accenture unveiled the new space Wednesday morning through a virtual tour and hopes to bring clients into the physical space once the COVID-19 threat has eased.

The Extract, which takes up part of one floor of the two-floor innovation hub, is divided into three sections that reflect the farm-to-fork vision: the Future of Living, the Future of Buying and the Future of Growing.

The Future of Living section, which contains a mock living room and kitchen, features a countertop cocktail maker called Drinkworks that illustrates the type of innovation Accenture expects to come out of the initiative. Accenture worked with Keurig Dr Pepper, maker of the K-Cup coffee pods, and beer and drinks giant AB InBev to create the machine, which produces margaritas, Old-Fashioneds and other cocktails from single-serve pods.

In the Future of Buying section, designed to look like a retail store, Voelker described how the pandemic created an urgent need for retailers to adopt curbside pickup, which she expects to remain a big part of the shopping experience. In the space, companies could test how to make it an efficient operation, both in the parking lot and inside the store where employees fulfill orders.

The Future of Growing section invites conversations about vertical farming, blockchain technology to trace where food comes from and the manufacture of alternative proteins like lab-grown meat.

The Extract launch comes as Accenture prepares to move its Chicago headquarters from 161 N. Clark St. in the Loop, to the building at 500 W. Madison St. where its innovation hub has operated for three years.

Accenture, which has more than 6,000 employees in Chicago and is in the process of making 600 new tech-related hires, plans to move next summer to the building, now called Accenture Tower.

“The future, we believe, is all around innovation, that’s why we are bringing everything to one roof,” Moore said.


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