Collective Impact to Solve Food & Agriculture Challenges

By Rob Trice, Founding Partner of Better Food Ventures & The Mixing Bowl.

I have written of my desire to see more focus by the food and agriculture technology innovation ecosystem on solving today’s problems. I would like to offer the concept of collective impact as an effective approach to problem-solving that I hope can be deployed more broadly to tackle the food system’s urgent and wide-ranging challenges.

Much of the innovation effort in food and agriculture technology today is funneled through more than 150 global food/agtech incubators, accelerators and venture support organizations. The general approach of these institutions is to select startups they deem to have the best solutions and promote them with funding, advice, PR, and customer introductions. In this regard, these incubators and accelerators have “predetermined solutions” they try to scale up. While incubators may have a thematic focus on a food system challenge, the aim of these institutions is to see the success of their selected portfolio of predetermined solutions, not necessarily to solve a problem by combining their solutions with others, for instance.

In contrast to this predetermined approach, what if we employed a different innovation approach —an emergent approach— whereby solutions to problems emerge from an innovation process with participation by actors who share a commitment to change, a common understanding of the problem, and joint agreement to solve it together?

Collective impact is just such a process. The approach emerged about ten years ago in the non-profit and impact sectors as an evolution of the concept of  “multi-stakeholder collaboration.” In 2011 thought leaders John Kania and Mark Cramer outlined five basic conditions of the collective impact approach.

In this emergent approach, a process of continuous interactive discovery and learning helps align collaborative impact community participants. According to Kania and Kramer, with multiple organizations looking for resources and innovations through the same lens and rapidly learning through continuous feedback loops, a unified and simultaneous response among participants emerges, rooted in an immediacy of action. In many instances, the solutions and resources to solve a problem are discovered without requiring breakthrough innovations or vast increases in funding. Rather, previously unnoticed solutions and resources from inside or outside the community are identified, adopted and scaled.

Let me compare and contrast the “pre-determined solution” versus “emergent collective impact” approaches with an example of a specific problem in the food system —scaling the practice of regenerative ranching. A standard incubator would likely select companies with a novel technology solution that can attract venture funding. (Remember, many of the organizations that run incubators and accelerators take equity in the companies they select, so they likely have a financial interest in seeing their predetermined solution adopted.) Regenerative ranching, however, has unique challenges that make the adoption of a standard venture-backed startup difficult—margins and profits are slim and technology adoption has been slow for a variety of reasons including lack of internet coverage on rangelands, challenging terrain and weather, and cultural views on technology. The predetermined solution approach may result in an innovative technology solution to address a regenerative ranching pain point that would be of interest to investors, but there is a real risk that this solution would not align with the economic or operating realities of ranchers. A technology solution will likely only see true success—broad adoption amongst industry participants—if and when it addresses the current realities of ranchers, or when the operating realities of ranching shift to become more in line with technology adoption.

In contrast, what if we got a variety of ranchers and their ecosystem partners from various geographies to embrace an emergent process by developing a common frame for the challenges they face, sharing potential solutions and lessons from their trials over time, and pooling resources toward market-appropriate, gap-filling solutions that they identify to solve their problems? This process puts solving problems first, rather than seeking success for a single solution.

While the collective impact process holds more promise to solve problems, it is harder to execute the predetermined solution approach. Kania and Kramer called out the complexity of bringing unfamiliar people together to collaborate, overcoming mistrust and politics, the lack of resources, and the difficulty of setting shared metrics.

At the heart of a successful collaborative impact process is a backbone organization that must navigate the complexities of the collective impact process. At the end of 2020, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published articles looking back at the first decade of collective impact. The study found, while the core principles of collective impact appear to have held true (though equity and inclusion could be added), an effective backbone organization is critical  for success. (For more on the functioning of backbone organizations, here’s a 2017 article by researchers at Rice University who studied alternative structures for collective impact backbone organizations aiming to solve food insecurity in Houston, Texas.)

As I wrote in my earlier piece, the food and agriculture technology innovation sector is currently experiencing growing pains. Over the past few years, increasing numbers of innovators and investors have entered the space and become aware of the challenges in this industry yet we are still not solving problems at a rate and scale needed. I am concerned that much of the effort amongst food and agriculture incubators and accelerators is simply promoting predetermined solutions that are unlikely to lead to solving problems at scale. To address this concern, we need to embrace new, more effective modes of innovation—and collaboration. The emergent process of collaborative impact may be more complex than most of what is done today in this sector but, given the urgency of addressing our food system challenges, we need to embrace this approach or other modes of more effective innovation to solve problems at scale now.