Sustainable Socio-Economic Models

Tomatoes as embodied data (ESR 9)

Rethinking data practice for ecological futures

Living organisms, such as tomatoes, have become engineerable resources, commodities, and digital twins through technology. Technology enables us to believe that we can create an inevitable fate for them, as if we were gods. In the process, countless quantifiable data have been generated to increase tomato production yield, create controllable environments, and transport them without harm, in order to sell them as perfect-looking products in supermarkets. 

However, as we generate increasingly vast amounts of data and information produced from tomatoes, this somehow obscures our ability to evoke emotions, memories, experiences, and stories about the “livingness” of tomatoes and environments where tomatoes grow. When you see data from a package and food label of tomatoes, can you imagine what the environment looks like where tomatoes grow? In your imagination, where do you place the soil, animals, plants, humans, and machines? What if we reconsidered data beyond a mere resource for improving human life by using the material body, animacy, and contingency of tomatoes as a lens? 

This work aims to problematise the limitations and challenges of current notions of data and propose a new way of reconsidering data onto-epistemologically and revealing the potential of materiality and relationality of data through design practice. This work allows designers and non-designers to raise critical questions about current notions of data, explore new mindsets and practices in a grounded way with an ordinary organism in various contexts, and envision ecological futures. Ultimately, my goal is to answer the question: “How can design provoke a new approach to data and encourage experts in an economic system to reconsider their data and data practice towards an ecological and more-than-human world?”  

Through participatory and speculative design methods, I utilize tomatoes as a provocation to 1) rethink and extend our notions of data, 2) envision ecological worlds grounded in social, technological, and environmental contexts and 3) reflect on the current data and data practices with diverse experts such as farmers, gardeners, scientists, and a municipality in food systems. 

Based on diverse data practice and knowledge of participants at different levels of food systems, they map out contextual relationships of tomatoes including data, human and non-human entities, and environments. This reveals the symbolic and functional meanings of the entangled relations and recover the animacy and contingency of the tomatoes. 

Next, participants fabulate phenotypes of future tomatoes and worlds through drawings of the tomatoes and fictional stories showing how the tomatoes shape and be shaped by a future world. Future tomatoes are imagined based on how social, technological, and environmental trends might impact the mapped contextual relationships of tomatoes in status quo.  

Lastly, the outcomes (future tomato artifacts and stories) of workshops are collected and developed as design artifacts. This enables discussion and reflection on different data and data practices from an ecological perspective through provocative artifacts by engaging with a broader audience.  

To date, I have established a conceptual framework for “data practice for embodied data” based on post-humanism and new materialism theories (Lee et al., 2022), and ethnographic fieldwork in urban farming. Furthermore, I have organized 5 workshops to explore the potential of the biological nature of “living” organisms for rethinking data and promoting an ecological perception. 

Through this practice-based research, I have learned that tomatoes, a common commodity that fits into human economic systems yet is a living organism, have the strong power to allow designers and non-designers to experience the significance of embodied data, experience, and knowledge, creating attention to appreciation, responsibility, and care towards the natural world. Tomatoes as data, evidence, and signals of the world help us to feel, question, and imagine unexpected encounters, relationships, and flows that exist beyond them, serving as an entry point to explore the unknown. 

Related work

Presentation at NORDES 23:

Doctoral consortium paper at NORDES23:

Artefact for NORDES23 doctoral consortium paper:


Karana, E., Barati, B., & Giaccardi, E. (2020). Living Artefacts: Conceptualizing Livingness as a Material Quality in Everyday Artefacts. International Journal of Design, 14(3). 

Lee, Y., Pschetz, L., & Speed, C. (2022). Investigating materiality for a renewed focus on data design practice. 

Tsing, A. L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press. 

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