9 Ways Big Companies Can Incorporate Next Generation Innovation to Tackle Food Security

Picture of Nicholas Haan — Faculty Chair, Global Grand Challenges & Managing Director, Global Solutions Program at Singularity University, Keynote Speaker at 2014 TFF Global Summit

With an average age of 60, the farming industry has some of the world’s oldest workers. A 2014 article in The Guardian asked, “Is global food security jeopardized by an old age timebomb?” They point out that older farmers are less likely to introduce and embrace new, transformative production techniques.

In fact, the whole ag sector — including the large companies that dominate it — is often viewed as outdated and a place with poor career prospects. This negative perception isn’t exactly enticing for younger generations entering the job market.

A significant divide exists between the way things are currently done by incumbent organizations and their future potential. By harnessing the benefits of a “next generation” innovation mindset and approach, large companies can can play a pivotal role in leading breakthrough change in an industry that is ripe for reinvention.

So who will feed the future?

The world is changing — and the pace of this change is faster than ever. We’re out of time to rely on entrenched institutions and traditional methods to keep up. We need to re-frame agriculture as an industry filled with possibility, a place to innovate and “disrupt,” and a place where young people can foster their innate entrepreneurial skills.

The opportunities that we have to solve the complex issues of feeding our growing population are as exciting as they are diverse. In my work leading the Thought For Food (TFF) Foundation, I see every single day that thousands of next-generation innovators from around the world are excited to jump in and develop bold, new solutions. These innovators are not your usual suspects — they are artists, architects, scientists, designers, programmers, economists, engineers and more — and they realize that producing food doesn’t mean perpetuating farming as it has always been done.

Importantly, it’s not just about the ideas and solutions they bring forward— what is even more powerful is the mindset and approach they use, which we can all learn from.

For me, the question isn’t whether we have the capacity to create the kind of change we need in food and ag, it’s how soon we’ll make it happen.

How can next generation innovation help?

Many of the capabilities that we desperately need to tackle our most complex global challenges (such as food and nutrition security) come naturally to the globally-minded, hyper-connected and passion-driven members of the next generation. But, the good news is this: you don’t have to be a millenial or GenZ to take advantage of this powerful innovation mindset and approach.

Next-generation innovation is about adopting a more collaborative attitude, embracing a more open, curious and entrepreneurial outlook, and creating space for experimentation. It also means considering ideas and influences from outside your usual frame of reference and combining them in new, unexpected ways.

Some of the key principles of next generation innovation include:

  • Radical openness and collaboration
  • Curiosity and passion
  • Experimenting and “failing forward”
  • Connecting unexpected dots
  • Bootstrapping

If you’re a business leader, this is your mission: Create an internal innovation environment that attracts the next generation, or at least incorporates some the best ways young people collaborate and create.

Here are nine ideas to help you start experimenting today:

  1. Include a millennial or Gen Z employee with strong leadership and communication skills at every board meeting, internal forum or strategy meeting.
  2. Build multidisciplinary and age-diverse teams for innovation and/or ideation opportunities.
  3. Set up a reverse mentoring program for senior leaders and C-suite executives.
  4. Ask a smart, entrepreneurially-minded young leader to conduct comprehensive interviews (with all team members in a specific department, your entire employee base, or your best clients), to surface the biggest, most pervasive problems in the organization or division, and then create a “skunkworks” to design innovation experiments around each of these problems.
  5. Incorporate a “design thinking” approach to problem-solving: define specific user problems, brainstorm hundreds of solutions, create and test easy prototypes and get feedback quickly. The key here is to fail fast and fail forward, so encourage people to embrace mistakes!
  6. Add some fun to your workplace environment and culture. You might include props like LEGO bricks, Play-Doh and other toys on hand, or simply encourage people to take walking meetings or play a game together instead of simply meeting for coffee. This helps people shake out “mental mothballs” so they can unleash fresh insights. You can also incorporate gamification (i.e. friendly and fun competition between colleagues and teams) to solve problems and boost business results.
  7. Think outside your industry and look for ways to adapt ideas from one industry to another. For example, you can subscribe to magazines from other fields or get daily updates from sources like BrainPickings. Or, hold regular “creativity check-ins,” where workgroups meet to discuss a “Big Idea” from a seemingly random place of inspiration.
  8. Organize a hackathon— this is a sprint-like event in which teams of diverse thinkers come together over a short, intense (and usually coffee and pizza-fueled) period of time to solve a problem. These started in the tech world, but have been adopted by universities, social organizations and companies as an effective innovation tool to stir up new ideas on everything from culture change to supply chain management. Recently, a group of Princeton students found a way to solve Facebooks “fake news” problem in only 36 hours. TFF also recently ran an open data for ag hackathon at the GODAN Global Global Summit.
  9. Experiment with some of the collaboration and communication tools startups use. Some top ones to try are Slack, a real-time messaging service, or Zoom, a videoconferencing platform with an immersive user experience.

With so much at stake for the future, we need fresh minds and divergent approaches that can help us completely revolutionize how we feed the world.

If you are an industry leader, try one of the nine tips above over the next quarter. Then, try another. Rinse and repeat until you create an environment in which collaboration, ideation and entrepreneurial approaches are the status quo.

P.S. If you have other ideas on how to make next-generation innovation come alive, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at christine@tffchallenge.com.