Niches and mainstreams in our food system

Whenever I attend gatherings in my line of work that address the question how to change the food system for the better, I’m confronted with the recurring pattern of a split in the discussion between niches, developing alternative propositions, and the mainstream, working on improvement of the existing ones. Entrepreneurs that find the space to tinker in a niche are looked upon by the mainstream with slight amusement and bemusement at just how alien that class of innovation is to them. Real change is achieved by a big system making big shifts. Not by gullible projects with cuddly eccentrics, right?

What I would like to point out here is that mainstream forgets itself in this stance. In the mainstream everybody is a good manager, we work by certain protocol towards certain expected outcomes. Everybody participates according to those values. A nested system network, where assembly of the food components fit snuggly like a Matryoshka doll. The emphasis is on execution and optimization of the known business model, not the search for alternative ones. Over longer periods of environmental constants they are unbeatable: a big, efficient, influential, even dominating community.

But when key supports in the business environment start changing, then such value systems become vulnerable. And change is happening, and the rate of it happening is accelerating; whether mainstream likes it or not. The graph below depicts just how fast new technologies diffuse through society. This alone is change enough to radically alter the landscape in which business is done.

Adoption_diffusion_technology

The real question under such turbulence is whether the mainstream is still delivering what the customer wants. Is it still in tune with the customer, and with the empowerment that technological change is providing her? Or is it rather suppressing pressures on the system, for instance, controlling for animal welfare issues by getting activists to shut up, or by downplaying horse meat in beef lasagna is an anomaly? Is the mainstream still in tune? Or, is it practicing elitist technocratic infantilization of the customer, who currently has no real alternative on how to purchase food products?

The reality of our environmental dynamics, combined with the attitude of “how everybody is a good manager”, can now take a whole system down the drain with the same efficiency and speed. One day you might be member of a seemingly robust food security delivery mechanism. The next day, some niche-guy will have figured out how to hack a whole market through empowering customer choice, by actually delivering what costumers really prefer for their basic food requirements. And, trust me, customers simply don’t care if that implies leaving behind a whole industry for another one that provides a better alternative.

My position is that members of the mainstream food network need to revalue the niche. Revaluing the niche, means learning about how what the niche is doing, might apply to the mainstream, instead of doing the opposite. The niche is likely to provide an insanely rich source of actionable customer insights, that the monolith execution network will never discover.

The dichotomy in our discussion is dangerously artificial. It is created by fear, leading to scathing of the tinkerers, with complete disregard of the fact that we’re dealing with competing business organisms in the same ecosystem. What we should have is inspiration leading to the embrace, crediting the tinkerer with the insights they can provide about what factually works and what doesn’t under new circumstances. And, it all starts by treating our tinkerers in the food system in a more inclusive way, not exclusive. As a well known Blankian phrase in Silicon Valley goes:

What do we call a failed entrepreneur? Experienced!

I want to see more of that attitude in food and agriculture.

2 thoughts on “Niches and mainstreams in our food system

  1. Great thinking! Your post corresponds nicely with the complexity theoretical notions of diversity and the need for a balance between exploration and exploitation.

    Only a market with diverse business models can be resilient and robust, as a convergence towards a main stream business model, as you rightly noted, can bring the whole system to a fall once this model fails. Outliers (or niche players as you refer to them) are extremely to offer alternative business models that can survive the fail.

    There does not necessarily be a dichotomy between mainstream and niche, I rather see it as a continuum. All businesses should have a healthy portion of exploration mixed in their strategy of exploiting a working business model. As the fitness landscape of business plans (see Beinhocker) is dancing, exploitation is healthy to have alternatives to the main business model ready and if all businesses do explore, there is a healthy diversity in the system that goes beyond the two stages of mainstream and niche.

    1. Thanks Marcus! Fully agree with your points.

      The worrying thing in practice though is that outliers are often social cast outs in the discussions that take place. I observe that they are rather dismissed fully on their faulty features, than included in the discussion based on the insights they can factually provide. Might be the key difference between natural ecosystems, and the social ones. A threat to adaptive ability

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