As mayor of a small urbanized community, it’s easy to think strictly “local,” since so much of what happens plays out in our homes, schools, shops, and neighborhoods. For most issues, this mindset works well because it keeps me focused on the things that impact people where they live their lives. Yet, I find that the forces shaping life at the community level are increasingly national and global, moving with far greater velocity than in generations past.
The main driver of this global-to-local upheaval, I believe, is technology—specifically connective technology, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the huge amount of data coming from our connectedness. I’ve been encouraged by the Murphy administration’s overall focus on innovation in New Jersey in all its flavors, including life sciences, information, clean energy, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and finance and insurance. This matters greatly since we’re no longer competing locally or even regionally, but nationally and globally.
Technology, data, and logistics have shrunk the world into a much smaller place, allowing markets to essentially overcome the challenges posed by time, geography, and borders. Knowing this, it is critical that New Jersey and the communities and regions within the state remain competitive and relevant in what we do best—in our strongest industries. While acknowledging the great diversity of industry that exists from one end of the state to the other, I believe that one sector worthy of its own category when discussing technology and innovation is food and beverage manufacturing.
We tend to consider food and beverage either at the end point (retail and consumption) or at its starting point (agribusiness inputs), but we give far less thought to the in-between. And it’s precisely in this middle ground where technology can have the greatest impacts.
The importance of this became more apparent to me while working on the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s Innovation Challenge, which had Bridgeton joining forces with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, Cumberland County Improvement Authority, and the Cumberland, Salem, Cape May Workforce Development Board to focus on what types of technology might be employed by small and medium-sized food and beverage manufacturers, why, and how.
The details are contained in the final report for the Innovation Challenge (cityofbridgeton.com/foodbusinessparks.php), but the upshot is that small and medium-sized food and beverage manufacturers can greatly increase productivity, quality, and food safety by adopting this technology—but there are challenges in getting there. One small but important step in facing those challenges is approaching food and beverage manufacturing as separate from its retail or agricultural components.
Many small and medium-sized manufacturers rely on human labor because it costs less, but no company will invest in new technology unless it has access to a trained workforce with the knowledge and skills to operate and maintain the technology. The proposed Smart Food Manufacturing Center would provide the training and skills for new and incumbent workers. The adoption and use of new technology is the only way to remain competitive and move the needle in today’s marketplace, given the emphasis on food safety, integrity, and sustainability.
Finally, there is great untapped potential at the intersection of food/nutrition and medicine and biotech. Facilitating investment in new technology will allow us to become the place where that potential is realized in the same way that the 94301 zip code (Palo Alto, CA) or the 10012 zip code (SoHo/NYU) are top locations for software investment and media/entertainment investment, respectively.
The 08302 zip code can be a top location for smart food—part of a unique food and beverage manufacturing ecosystem in our county anchored by the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, Food Specialization Center (under construction) and hopefully soon the Smart Food Manufacturing Center. There’s much work to be done, but we’re closer today. Food manufacturing is an investment category with much untapped potential.