Stores in Santiago, Chile, ran out of yeast in mid-March, such as it happened after the beginning of the social crisis in 2019. Given that Chile has the second-highest bread consumption per capita in the world, it would seem that Chileans handle uncertainty stocking up ingredients for bread making. Everybody wants to make bread, including myself.
Two yeast sachets arrived earlier today, along with the rest of my grocery delivery. When reading the information displayed in the packaging, I was surprised by how many factories and offices were involved in the yeast supply chain. I was also surprised by the fact that the burgers I bought were produced in southern Chile, then exported to Argentina and Colombia, while the yeast was brewed in Argentina and exported to Chile. It is like selling mezcal to Mexicans.
Globalization, worldwide interconnection, and unexpected supply chains are not breaking news, but the current COVID-19 pandemic and our anxiety due to the fact that any envision of the future seems blurred at this time led me to think over the future of our cities.
A yeast sachet's journey
125 grams (4.4 ounces) of yeast were produced in El Manantial, an industrial zone on the outskirts of Tucuman, a city north of Argentina. The factory is owned by Calsa, a company whose headquarters are 1,257 kilometers (781 miles) away from El Manantial: in East Lanus, south of Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. The yeast will be delivered by truck across the Andes Mountains to be imported and distributed in Chile by a company named Levaduras Collico. Their headquarters are on the outskirts of Valdivia, Chile, 2,151 kilometers (1,337 miles) away from El Manantial, and 1,846 kilometers (1,147 miles) away from Calsa. Nevertheless, the yeast will not be packed in Valdivia, but a third company will be in charge of that process: Plaspak, a packaging company based in Buin, Santiago, a countryside-turning-urban town settled 816 kilometers (507 miles) north of Valdivia.
Neither Clasa nor Plaspak will sell me the yeast sachets. The commercial offices of Collico are in ENEA, an industrial hub in the outskirts of Santiago — 37 kilometers north of Buin. ENEA holds a strategic location for the national logistics process due to its connectivity to Santiago and the largest ports of the country through urban, interregional, and national highways.
My yeast sachets were brought to a hypermarket named Jumbo — a chain owned by Chile-based Cencosud holding that operates in Argentina, Colombia, Brasil, and Peru. Collico delivers its cargo most likely to either each Jumbo branch or Bodegas San Francisco, a warehouse leasing company, the hypermarket chain is one of their customers. This corporation owns logistic centers in the outskirts of Santiago — including a hub near to ENEA — along with five other Chilean cities, plus warehouses based in the outskirts of Lima, Peru. From the Bodegas San Francisco or the closest hypermarket to my house, it starts the movement of my grocery list to the final destination — my house. This stage has been recently known as last-mile service.
As a consequence of partial or total lockdown measures imposed by governments all over the world, significant drops of pollution levels and animals taking to the streets have been reported, while urban infrastructures such as highways, avenues, bike lanes, and sidewalks are underutilized. Every single day seems like a Sunday afternoon. The streets have turned into infrastructures for essential workers and delivering last-mile services. Uber Eats, Cornershop, Instacart, you name it. Moreover, companies, restaurants, convenience stores, and social-media-based businesses have decided to skip third-parties delivery by setting their own systems.
The biggest crisis can gestate tremendous changes but at the same time speed up and smash trends that might have been emerging before. Automation? Bitcoins? Populism? Climate emergency? 3D printing? Let's see what actually happens. In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed testing a massive conversion into e-commerce — hence, their scalability. Consider a middle-income country such as Chile, where there are more smartphones than inhabitants. Even though online grocery sales accounted for 1% of the market share of supermarkets in Chile back in 2018, the following year a research estimated 6 out of 10 Chilean consumers made online purchases every month.
Let's go back to the yeast.
A network of peripheries
These yeast sachets have made visible not the periphery, but a network of peripheries. The production, packaging, and commercial management are based on the outskirts of four cities. Moreover, some stages of this workflow are twice peripheral, since they are performed in cities whose economic development orbits around powerful national-scale economic centers — Tucuman orbits around Buenos Aires, — while Valdivia does the same around Santiago. This network has a second well-known feature: it is made up of anonymous participants. We don't know the people and companies that are forming the supply chain that allows the yeast to be delivered to any place. Paraphrasing Paul Seabright's remarkable anecdote: who is in charge of the supply of bread to the population of our cities? Nobody. Is it relevant to know about that? No, apparently.
Jumbo launched its own app back in April 2019, seven months after the multinational retail company Walmart — which operates in Chile since 2009 after acquiring Lider, Jumbo's main competitor— announced the acquisition of Chilean start-up delivering service Cornershop. Back then, CEO of eCommerce Groceries Cencosud Hans Hanckes stated in an interview:
The users of our app are buying directly from Jumbo. Our customers are not placing an order to a third party. Those who are picking their groceries have the knowdlege and attitude to be a Jumbo shopper.
Thus Hanckes makes this network of urban peripheries and anonymous people partially visible by pledging that, when picking our groceries by the app, there is something we should actually know: we are "buying directly from Jumbo" and the distributors are actually hired by the company. This is a message for their competitors as well.
Last-mile apps work under an Uber-like business model: those who pick up the groceries (shoppers) or deliver our order are neither hired by the app nor the supermarket chain. They have no employment contract neither certainty about their future —precariats, as coined by Guy Standing— because the app matches those who want to buy with those who want to make some money. Apps charge a fee for each product we see in the online catalog — from 8% up to 16%, as it is the case of Cornershop. Shoppers and the people who deliver earn a fixed commission set by the volume of orders and weight, plus the total amount of requested products (collected by the shoppers) and distance from the supermarket to the final destination (delivery people). They are not anonymous people because we are not able to see their faces, but because we know enough to trust the app service. I will have the assurance that somebody will deliver my order, while the delivery people will have temporary access to my first name, my phone number, and my address. However, the app is the one that knows the most about us.
Jumbo delivery service relies on Beetrack, a Chilean company that has developed a logistic distribution software able to track deliveries, reaching over 12,000 hourly shipments for over 400 customers all over the world. Beetrack tracks deliveries, shares real-time data, reports to costumers, sends notifications to final customers about delivery status, and optimizes workforce and fleet, just like Google Maps or Waze do when you are driving. We are describing a technology that is part of our routine nowadays but was unknown a decade ago.
A global, simultaneous, slow-motion crisis
Sure, quarantining while working from home is something that some of us can do. Whole sectors of society keep working, but we are not able to see it. However, we won't see it until we decide to, because it is not something that we are forced to do as consumers.
For this reason, movements such as fairs trade, veganism, or slow food seek that we, as consumers, take over the chain of production of what we eat. These movements could counteract the effect of food production pressure on biodiversity; achieve better tradings for local farmers when negotiating with large corporations, or creating consciousness about the potential extinction of local food cultures and traditions because they do not fit the requirements of the food industry. As French anthropologist Claude Fischler concludes, the industrialization of the food mechanisms has coined a new concept: gastro-anomy. As we don't know what we eat, we don't know who we are. This existentialist uncertainty could be extrapolated to the market's needs in the Big Data era: companies know what they sell, but not who buys. Tech companies such as Facebook and Google have reached their level of profitability by satisfying that demand.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded as a global, simultaneous, slow-motion crisis. Among architects and urbanists, it has become appealing to foresee irreversible historic changes in our cities. A new disruptive typology, a new architectural style, or new radical pedagogies. However, if you lean out the window, would you be able to identify how our cities have changed over the last decade due to Amazon, Uber, Cornershop, WeChat, Tinder, Grindr, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Netflix, Spotify or Beetrack? There is no certainty in stating that the crisis will make us better people or help us design better cities. It is more of a will than a plausible projection.
A few weeks ago, the 2001 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economic Sciences Michael Spence was asked about the potentially major changes of the global economy derived by COVID-19 aftermath. Higher risk aversion, a bolder bet on digital technologies, and the "diversification of supply chains, given the evident dependence of a few countries". Then, where will the yeast come from ten years from now?
The impact of global economic transformations on everyday actions will say more about the evolution of the cities than the architecture itself in the future. Self-construction and top-down masterplans will coexist; as will brick and concrete; and Al Borde's low-tech signature with Zaha Hadid's parametrical design. In the meantime, as we are forced to live in this everlasting present, as long as we quarantine, we will remain feeling anxious, uncertain, or even bored while thinking about the future of the cities. We had forgotten the fact that cities are always changing, but as we were compulsively becoming something, we hadn't stopped to realize that.
This article is part of ongoing research on COVID-19 aftermaths in architecture and cities, developed by the author. Stay tuned to upcoming articles.
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