Navigating uncertainty — part 2

How three Swedish food actors coped during Covid-19

This is a series of two blog posts by Rapid Transition Lab, a collaboration between Stockholm Resilience Center, Dark Matter Labs, and Vinnova. The first one presents the findings from interviews with three Swedish food system actors. In this second post presents key learnings and further research.

Insights and takeaways

Based on the three cases presented in the last blog post, evidence shows that the pandemic opened up a critical ‘need for change’ for food system actors, since pre-existing operations were unable to function during parts of the crisis. The structure below outlines layers that enabled the transformational potential of each actor, along with different factors that helped them to shift and iterate their methods over time.

  • Preparedness: Features of each actor that existed before the pandemic
  • Uncertainty: Emergent context with an uncertain time-frame that has a direct effect on the organization
  • Buffer: Cushions to reduce the emergent situation and enable a ‘softer landing’, eg., financial support for the organization
  • Trigger: Factor that creates space or opportunity for transformational potential
  • Transformational potential: Long-term strategic thinking and actions towards sustainable development
Layers of enablers for transformational potential © Rapid Transition Lab

1. Preparedness

Preparedness can be defined as a set of inherent organizational features each actor held before the pandemic. Depending on this foundational layer, actors were directly and indirectly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic to different extents, and so their responses were also unique. These features include actors’s defining mission[1], vision for the future[2], financial or growth strategy, network, organizational structure, or capabilities and knowledge built through experience. These features are embedded in their context and change over time, and are challenged during times of crisis.

All three cases revealed how financial security, such as external investors or savings, became crucial as preparedness during the crisis. But also, shared objectives and a shared belief in the vision for the future are the significant drivers that lead to secure investors and investment. For example, the shared trust in the mission that Karma experienced from their investors, gave them financial security. For Martin & Servera, the owners’ belief in the long-term vision allowed them to proceed with investments towards sustainable development that were planned already before the Covid-19 outbreak.

2. Uncertainty

Uncertainty became a critical aspect throughout the crisis period. Actors from all three cases had difficulties making decisions because they were uncertain of how long the pandemic would last, or for how long crisis packages would apply. For instance, after keeping the restaurant open for 9 months after the breakout, Debaser chose to fire all the staff and close the restaurant. When the stricter regulations were introduced, it was too hard for them to remain profitable while open. After all, the interviewee expressed a clear regret of firing all the staff, as if conditions concerning restrictions and support packages would have been known beforehand, they might have kept the staff temporarily furloughed instead.

On the other hand, uncertainty such as not knowing for how long the crisis would last could provoke actors to rethink and reinforce what the business wants to achieve in the longer term. Karma decided to expand the mission from reducing food waste to establishing a much broader mission: enabling the sustainable restaurant of the future. The restaurant (Debaser) has established a new strategic objective: to educate customers about the climate impact of food. Martin & Servera kept their focus on their long-term goals despite the uncertainty, not letting it hinder them in achieving their strategic vision.

Uncertainty turned out to not only be a hindrance, but also a catalyst for change — without it, change in both operations and longer-term strategies might not have happened. In the face of unknown time-frames and uncertain conditions, actors were forced to act on what they believed to be the right decision in the present, using their existing core values or vision in order to act rapidly, and with some agility.

3. Buffer

A buffer, in this case, can be thought of as a reserve that helps actors to better cope with a crisis, such as their financial security. In the three cases, the crisis package from the Swedish government provided a buffer of financial support to cover for lost income. It also gave companies the possibility to temporarily furlough staff with salary. Thus, the organization could keep the business running even if the company stopped making a profit. This assurance, in combination with existing financial savings or support from investors, unlocked certain triggering factors during the pandemic: the space to learn, self-reflect, experiment, and collaborate rapidly.

4. Trigger

In face of the crisis and its consequent uncertainty, the actors managed to stay resilient due to their inherent preparedness in combination with external support (e.g. government packages). Triggers can be described as factors or actions which led actors to change their strategies and modes of operation in response to the altered context. From the above cases, these core triggers emerged:

  • Rapid experimentation and immediate feedback

Karma had an organizational culture that encouraged fast, small-scale experiments, in place well before Covid-19. This appetite for risk, in terms of trying new things, enabled them to experiment during the crisis, responding as conditions constantly changed. The actor launched two new services during this time, and the immediate feedback received helped them to make further strategic decisions, changing their service and business model. This actually re-focused the company’s mission, enabling it to become more resilient to future crises.

  • Time for rapid learning and self-reflection

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Debaser decided to temporarily close their business and Karma scaled-down operation to a bare minimum. This break gave the actors time for learning and self-reflection and ultimately allowed the organizations to re-evaluate their visions for the future. Karma’s strategy had previously been to focus on aggressive growth (re-investing all their earnings directly into the company’s growth agenda), something that turned out to be a vulnerability rather than a strength during the crisis. They changed their strategy to focus on a slower, more-controlled growth dynamic, including securing savings as a buffer. Debaser also took the time for self-reflection and learning about the impact of food production on climate. The owners ensured that their staff was also educated in these matters. By redesigning the menu to reduce their climate impact, and communicating this impact to their guests, the company’s new objective became to educate customers about the carbon footprint caused by different dishes and to inspire other actors to do the same.

  • Opportunity for a new collaboration

All three cases initiated new collaborations during the crisis. For Martin & Servera, closer collaborations with other actors in the food chain became a positive effect of the pandemic and a key to coping with the crisis. From finding new logistics collaborations, as volumes became smaller, to collaborating with suppliers around receiving the right products. Debaser also initiated a new collaboration with Klimato to help make changes in their menus. For Karma, many new collaborations emerged. For example the initial collaboration with delivery companies and also with food producers as they introduced their weekly boxes of fruit and vegetables.

Each of these triggers functions as crucial conditions for building capabilities and capacities to make use of emerging opportunities for positive change. They enable, iterate and reinforce the actor’s preparedness for resilience in face of uncertainty.

Further research and next steps

As these cases reveal, whilst a crisis can often be overwhelmingly negative, it can also be interpreted as a time of forced experimentation. It can force the formation, refinement, and consolidation of new relationships in face of uncertainty. As we have seen from supply chains to healthcare provision to food systems, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed the fragile interdependencies that often underpin what was previously perceived as seemingly stable systems. It could be argued that the prevailing tendency to reduce food to a product or a thing — seeing it merely as an industry, supply chain, and resource flow — neglects our ability to cherish it as a richer kind of process, as embodying sets of relationships, a complex and diverse set of cultures, and a core part of our personal and collective health, and our ecosystems and environments. Covid-19 has revealed this narrow, reductive reading of food, just as it has of other fundamental aspects of our everyday lives.

Prior to the pandemic, we have become increasingly aware that multiple actors pursuing unsustainable social, ecological, and economic practices produce outcomes that make our whole food system unsustainable, unhealthy and un-just. However, Covid-19 has functioned as a form of ‘highlighter’, underscoring this dynamic very clearly. In coming blog posts we will further explore this relational aspect of food — as culture, ecosystem, collective health, environment — and how Covid-19 puts these more fundamental questions about food on the table. This first set of posts concentrates on only three cases from our extensive interviews conducted thus far, and on the restaurant ‘end’ of the food systems.

This analysis is one way of looking at the changes during the pandemic. Going forward, we will continue exploring what innovative responses during the Covid-19 pandemic could have the potential to move food systems towards sustainable pathways — and how those opportunities could be harnessed. Further, we will be reflecting on other parts of the systems as it was stress-tested by the pandemic, drawing insights from other actors and their experiences. We will translate these insights, and the questions they raise, into tangible, speculative, and exploratory scenarios, highlighting possible intervention points, relationships, and systems transformations.

This blog is co-written by Aleksander Nowak and Juhee Hahm from Dark Matter Labs, and Jenny Norrby from Stockholm Resilience Centre, with contributions by My Sellberg, Per Olsson and Garry Peterson from Stockholm Resilience Centre, Alexander Alvsilver and Dan Hill from Vinnova, and Linnea Rönnquist from Dark Matter Labs. Rapid Transition Lab is funded by Vinnova, and the project will continue throughout 2022. If you want to find out more, please contact us.

Footnotes

[1] Mission refers to a statement of how the business will achieve its vision

[2] Vision refers to an aspirational idea of what the business wants to become

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