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Students at the Stockholm School of Economics' House of Innovation. Image credit: SSE

Guest article: Technology alone won’t suffice when it comes to transforming the food system

May 29, 2024

Valentina Tartari is a professor at the Department of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology and the center director for the Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg Center for Innovative and Sustainable Business Development. Johan Jorgensen and Anders Sewerin are founders and partners of Sweden Foodtech, a leading think tank on the future of food in the Nordics that also produce the Sweden Foodtech Big Meet conference.

The views expressed in this guest commentary are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of AgFunderNews.

The other day, experts from the extended food sector gathered with professors, leading investors and students for the finals of Stockholm School of Economics’ pitch competition, which concludes its compulsory innovation management course for all first-year bachelor students.

For the first but certainly not the last time, the course centered on the challenges facing our food system and the role of innovation in addressing them. Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) students were tasked with building a presumptive business around one of eight food challenges, then pitching those ideas during the competition. While there was one winning team, the overall feeling was that the really big winner was the future.

SSE is one of Europe’s leading and most entrepreneurial business schools, with a successful startup portfolio and strong ties to the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Its innovation management course, which featured several leaders from the future of food as guest lecturers, was the result of a lengthy conversation between the school’s House of Innovation and Sweden Foodtech. Together, we have been reflecting on a new paradigm, shifting away from an almost singular focus on production efficiency towards a rising focus on the effects that our food system has on the planet and the people that inhabit it.

These effects – the negative externalities of food – are larger than the value of the sector itself and have grown too large to be ignored. This fact may be well known to agrifoodtech trailblazers, but it is definitely not evident outside the relatively narrow circuits that deal with food system transformation and innovation. Even in informed food circuits, we still see a lot of compartmentalization leading to rigid and sometimes outdated belief systems.

It is not just the true cost of food that is undervalued. Even more problematically, we undervalue food as a tool for achieving strategic goals such as increased productivity, social cohesion, or building attractive and well-functioning urban habitats.

Handling the effects of food and its potential to achieve strategic corporate or societal goals will be a core new driver in building value in the food sector. This is a far more complex topic than the food sector is accustomed to. Because of that, the transformation of the industry cannot rely on the usual suspects — the traditional food sector players. And technology alone will not suffice; these are major societal shifts that need new policy frameworks.

In this new paradigm, food has become a topic for all sectors, and it is by no means certain that the coming value-building around food is something that will benefit today’s food companies. After all, to earn the right to profits and growth you need to provide something of value. If you do not, your lunch is up for grabs.

The food sector transformation is thus multidimensional and requires a higher level of analysis and insights, especially around guiding policymakers, who will set the rules of the game. This means we need to add new competencies (such as those provided by business schools) and fresh eyes to an issue that has been amplified by acute climate anxiety, grave health concerns and geopolitical turmoil.

To that end, the partnership between SSE and Sweden Foodtech has also produced a “A Basic Guide to Food Sector Transformation,” which was launched at the pitch competition finals. The guide provided reading material for SSE students during their innovation management course, and the hope is that it will also provide insights and innovation for a wide variety of audiences in a field that will be transformed by new research, innovation and action.

The fact that 300 of tomorrow’s leaders and entrepreneurs have gotten their first shot of innovation in the form of food is encouraging. We need to build and leverage talent and expertise in food from new areas, and put the food industry firmly on the map as the place where ambitious young minds want to be. Then and only then we will be able to find the truly impactful solutions we so desperately need.

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