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What does the future of retail look like? At a time when we feel more connected than ever, we still don’t know the how, who and where behind the items we buy. Local start-up Provenance are changing that.

The rapid evolution of online shopping has changed not only the way we buy but also how companies make their products; if buyers can make better choices then companies will have to pay attention to how they scale and at what cost. Established in 2013, Provenance are seeking to empower both consumers and sellers with their digital transparency tools aimed to help companies share the stories behind their products. We caught up with founder Jessi Baker to hear more.

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Q: Tell us about your background

A: I’m an engineer by training. As part of my course, I got to visit many factories and suppliers around the world - this fuelled my interest for how products are created. I worked for several years in digital product design - building apps, websites and interactive hardware for a huge variety of brands from British Airways to The Guggenheim Museum. Working both in supply chain and in marketing led me to be confused as to why the two weren’t more joined together - it seemed the reality of making a product and the process of telling its story were completely divorced. Provenance started as a project alongside my PhD in Computer Science - a platform to connect the making process and journey behind products and the point of sale.

Q: So what exactly is Provenance and how does it work?

A: Provenance is a software service for product making businesses to share the story and impact behind their products at the point of sale. We help businesses be transparent on three levels: business level (e.g. where’s the company based?), product level (e.g. supply chain mapping) and item level (e.g. when was this batch made?). 

We enable businesses to easily collate their data, along with open data, and also verify key information (e.g. is this product organic?) on an immutable data ledger called a blockchain. The blockchain holds the most important information and allows anyone to check its validity.

Provenance is designed to live at the point of sale - we have an easily to use e-commerce plugin and also a unique item ID generator for labels. Meaning the secure provenance of any product can be accessed online and in store.

Q: What’s the driving ideology behind it?

A: We live in an information age. It was crazy to me that there wasn’t more information available about the products we buy at the point of sale - particularly when shopping online. There have been so many efforts to gather this kind of data about products and the businesses that make them, but without a blockchain they end up siloed, untrustworthy, not easily interoperable with other systems. We live in a hyper connected world and the brands of the future won’t be able to hide their real workings behind an expensive marketing campaign, so the inside needs to start looking as good as the outside.

Q: One of the things you’re doing is pushing for an open approach to business and manufacturing to help promote conscientious shopping - do you see this as part of the future of retail?

A: I do. It’s not just shoppers who are demanding this behaviour. It’s also the law. Regulation is on our side with legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act. At Provenance we are firm believers in an open approach, but we also appreciate this is a process - there are many stages to improving and mapping your supply chain in order to be more transparent and trusted by your customers. With Provenance we help businesses all along the way, and store data in the most secure, persistent manner - to build long term thinking change you need long term thinking tech. A standard database isn’t the method.

Q: But in order for Provenance to succeed you need manufacturers, consumers and businesses to play nice - has it been a hard journey? What challenges have you faced?

A: We’re currently working with pioneering businesses that have sustainability and openness as a core business goal, but this does require cooperation from others with different goals. Our platform allows for a staged approach to transparency - so we don’t need everyone to play ball straight away. But shoppers are responding very well - particularly to our e-commerce plugins, which can live in an email campaign, blog or at the point of sale in a highly sharable format.

Q: We’re still in the early days of social and connectivity, relatively speaking, and still trying to figure out the balance of technology vs face to face and communication. What do you think the future of interaction looks like?

A: I think the Internet revolutionised communications. I think the blockchain will revolutionise trust. We’re missing this trust layer from our interactions - meaning data sharing can become even more fluid. I’m working hard towards a future where I can use data to have a positive impact on the world - not just the world I see before me, but the world of direct and indirect influence I have. I hope there will be legal framework to protect human, animal and environmental well being and that data will make it impossible to break. I think there’s quite a way to go, but might as well dream big.

Q: What’s been your favourite story you’ve told through Provenance?

A: I love the bag story for Elvis and Kresse - their labels have Provenance info on so you can see the story of the bag. I am also a fan of all the product stories we’ve helped Lily Cole tell for her web shop Impossible.

Q: What does this year hold for Provenance?

A: We’re conducting a pilot of our item tracking on line and pole caught tuna fish in Indonesia and also coffee in Brazil. We will be inviting another few hundred product making businesses to use our tools and you will see Provenance pop up as a plugin in a lot of your favourite e-commerce stores. Watch this space...If you’re keen for an invite, please head over to our website

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