Agriculture meets Design

In one way or another, we’re all linked to agriculture. Food availability is the basis for building any civilization. But what we’re also hearing is the challenges that agriculture has to meet. The world population is expanding and soon we’ll have to sustain 9 billion people. There is pressure on critical natural resources, like water, soil, fuel. And this is all happening amidst unprecedented change in the global political and economic landscape.

The good news is that this challenge to agriculture is widely recognized. Issues on agriculture are climbing up the agenda’s in an increasing number of fora. The bad news is though that agriculture is stuck. And by stuck I mean that key players in the field are not reaching the level of dialogue that is needed to meet the challenge at hand. It’s industrial agriculture vs organic agriculture, pro-GMO vs non-GMO, omnivores vs vegans., agronomy vs farmers’ intuition, etc vs etc.

With this form of conversation, solutions remain isolated as foreign languages and don’t connect. They’re caught inside the buildings where agriculture is professed, while the facts and answers to our problems are outside, where farming is practiced. Such a conversation landscape overemphasizes differences between tribes, aggravating opposing views, rather than enabling recognition and utilization of mutual strengths and gains from trade. Only conservative, incremental tweaking can come from this, while what the world acutely needs is a fundamental rework of how we produce and distribute food.

What can we do about it?
Despite the negative effects of polarities in the system, you can also look at it in another way. Wouldn’t it be great if we can use this diverse body of experience and knowledge available and leverage complementarities, rather than allowing the usual patterns of interaction to emphasize disconnect? Wouldn’t that enable a broad sensemaking inquiry into the problems at hand in our agricultural system, rather than remaining at refinement exercises within our own disciplines? Wouldn’t vested views on problems then turn into challenging assumptions that are to be examined and tested?

We need to create an enabling space where these new conversations can be started, conversations with ideas that will fire innovation; discipline to discipline, people to people. Ideas that progress from such conversations will likely create new paths of solution development, lowering barriers to adoption of new, game changing ideas by nature of having traversed that path. This is, I think, what we can expect when we build a space where agriculture meets design.


Me and my colleagues will be active on the Agri Meets Design platform at the Dutch Design Week in October in Eindhoven, working with farmers and multidisciplinary design teams on experience and business model design. There will be many more equally excellent or even better events given by the partners who made Agri Meets Design possible!  I hope to also see you there! Ping me on twitter if you’re interested to connect!

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.


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.