How do we implement missions that help us address the greatest societal challenges of our time? The new Cookbook for Systems Change: Nordic innovation strategies for sustainable food systems lays out how policy-makers can adopt more experimental approaches.
AFTON HALLORAN, Independent Consultant in Sustainable Food Systems Transitions
AMANDA WOOD, researcher, Stockholm Resilience Centre
So, what’s this cookbook all about?
This is a Nordic cookbook of strategies that investigates the role that a strong public innovation system can play alongside the pathways toward sustainable food systems.
The cookbook provides you the ingredients to create your own recipes for change – like templates for developing interventions, guides for how to get started and examples of cross-cutting projects.
If strong sustainable pathways or public innovation systems seem like gibberish to you, we’ve written the Cookbook in an easy-to-understand format. This is not an academic textbook.
ACT I – Food: an essential ingredient for sustainable development
Act I looks at grand challenges like climate change and social inequality, and the entry points in the Nordic region that we can use to address these challenges.
If you have an interest in food, you’ll know that food systems have been driving societal progress for millennia. Yet, some societal progress has come at a high cost to human health and the environment. This means that urgent action is needed if we’re going to address grand challenges like unsustainable consumption and production patterns, environmental degradation, fragile livelihoods and poor health.
This is where food comes into the picture: food systems are powerful because they can be used to address multiple grand challenge action fronts. And lucky for us, the Nordics are ripe for food system transformations.
The Cookbook identifies eight broad entry points – or core areas of change – that can get us started:
• Food environments
• Food culture and identity
• Diets and meals
• Food supply chains
• Resilient food production systems
• Food producers and cities
But here’s the thing: transformation of the food system requires an “all hands on deck” approach, and systemic changes will be needed to tackle these complex and multifaceted grand challenges.
This brings us to our main message: governments, and particularly public innovation agencies, can play a key leadership role in coordinating this action.
ACT II – We’re on a mission
Societal missions are emerging as mechanisms to direct multi-stakeholder innovation towards a common understanding of how best to solve our urgent grand challenges.
Let’s take this even further and talk about something called a mission approach. This kind of approach aims to create transformative change by breaking down complex and high-level grand challenges into more granular components until concrete actions can be developed.
This is done by identifying the opportunities to address grand challenges, proposing innovations that can help overcome these challenges and outlining an approach to test and coordinate these innovations.
Act II gives two specific examples about how to develop missions. We suggest one mission that focuses on food environments and another that focuses on school meals.
In Act II we also give you some insight into the characteristics of a mission. Societal missions should be bold, inspirational and ambitious while at the same time offer multiple solutions to get the job done. This type of mission should also provide a clear direction for action by setting measurable and timebound goals and use innovation and innovation policy to achieve ambitious but realistic change. Societal missions should bring people together to work in new ways, involving multiple sectors, actors and disciplines.
There is no recipe that we can hand over for a Nordic mission on a sustainable food system, but … we can design one together.
Based on the possible entry points to food systems transformation that we point out in Act I, our cookbook of strategies explores the example of one specific mission: to ensure that, by 2025, all public meals consumed in the Nordics are sustainable and tasty.
ACT III – Demonstrating transformation
Act III gives a concrete example about how to change school meals in Oslo. We took the school meal mission from Act II and addressed it in much more granular detail.
Full-fledged research and development projects require a lot of money and other resources to carry out, and they are best deployed when you already know what you’re fixing and why. Experiments, on the other hand, are a low-cost, low-risk way of learning how a mission can be achieved.
And because of the complexity and dynamism of social systems their transformation requires interventions at multiple levels at the same time. Demonstrators allow you to work with, rather than against, this dynamism. In other words, demonstrators are basically a way to plan and coordinate a bunch of small experiments that aim to inspire large-scale change.
Successful demonstrators have six essential qualities: mission-oriented, demandled, place-based, iterative, holistic and grounded in citizen perspectives.
Systems change is not only about changing the nodes of a system; it’s also about changing the relationship between them. Sometimes, it’s the synergies themselves rather than the specific solutions that can contribute most to systems change. Demonstrators can help connect the dots.
ACT IV – Bringing the cookbook to life
In Act IV, we sum it all up. We’ve also made a little bookshelf with some additional reading materials if you’re interested in taking the next step.
As we encounter unprecedented 21stcentury challenges, it’s easy to get lost in the complexity. This is why we need to have a set of different utensils close to hand.
A mission approach is powerful because it can help form a new way of thinking, not just about the people, action and orchestration needed to achieve a desirable future, but also about how to collectively imagine a new food future. A mission approach can be implemented within your organisation either by fitting it into existing infrastructure or by creating new infrastructure to accommodate it.
Has a large-scale Nordic mission on sustainable food systems led by government ever been carried out before? The answer is no, but there are clear signs that it can be done.
Whether you’re working on a very local level or in a national context, you can get started today by identifying the grand challenges that you want to address, figuring out your entry points, drawing up your mission and carrying out small experiments through your demonstrators that can help you fine tune your process.
Remember that this is a journey. It’s not just about the destination, but also about what you learn along the way that matters. Sometimes it’s from moments of failure that we learn the most.
About the Cookbook for Systems Change
The Cookbook for Systems Change is the result of a collaboration between the Nordic Food Policy Lab of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Stockholm Resilience Centre and EAT, and forms part of the joint initiative with the following organizations to establish a first shared Nordic mission:
• Design and Architecture Norway
• Danish Design Centre
• EIT Climate-KIC
• EIT Food
• Innovation Norway
• Nordic Innovation
• Research Council of Norway
The Cookbook is funded by EIT Climate-KIC as a part of the Deep Demonstrations on Resilient Food Systems and Diets. It is written by Afton Halloran (editor and author), Amanda Wood, Florencia Aguirre, Marie Persson, Marius Weschke and Ove Kenneth Nodland.
Download the book here.
Photo: Alex Raths.