What does “eat right” mean to you? Many immediately think of nutritional choices, but I am struck by the prerequisite to making those choices – the right to access good food. That could be a question of geography and how and what food is distributed or available. But it could also be related to market distortions at the level of ingredients themselves. For example, think about how expensive whole-grain, organic, non-GMO bread, which is now sold as an “artisanal” luxury, was the meal of every peasant or factory worker. Ancient Romans were entitled to bread and circus. Give us our daily bread! Even prisoners expect bread and water. But today, unprocessed grains are so expensive that most people settle for affordable but nutritionally questionable derivatives without even thinking about it.
Now, the companies behind the food “science” of the past 50 years are not evil. Many of them began trying to make nutrition available more efficiently. And they are but one small piece of the larger puzzle. Indeed, the complexity of social, financial and even infrastructural systems makes tackling the persistent issue of food insecurity look almost Sisyphean. But the secondary epidemics spreading as a result of our broken food system (obesity, chronic disease, malnutrition and its impact on education and later life) demand we experiment with new ways to address the challenges.
As the Entrepreneur in Residence for BLK SHP Operation: Eat Right, I am excited to use agile methods to approach urban food systems innovation and to embody the recently articulated practice of network entrepreneurship. The Stanford Social Innovation Review elaborated on this approach, noting:
"Rather than leading with a top-down approach, network entrepreneurs focus on creating authentic relationships and building deep trust from the bottom up. This focus on relationship-building costs relatively little yet ultimately makes a tremendous difference in impact. Network entrepreneurs ensure that the power of others grows while their own power fades, thereby developing capacity in the field and a culture of distributed leadership that dramatically increases the collaboration’s efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability. These individuals foster unique cultures and values among their networks that enable those networks to sustain and scale impact...We think of network entrepreneurs as representing an evolution of social entrepreneurs. Like social entrepreneurs, they are visionary, ambitious, and relentless in pursuit of their missions. But where social entrepreneurs often struggle to scale their own organizations despite heroic efforts, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem."
This is precisely what I've been doing as the faculty running the THNK Vancouver Innovation Challenge. We orchestrate opportunities for unlikely teams of leaders to cross-pollinate investigations with partners that include incumbent players, academic thought leaders, and industry disruptors. The first THNK Innovation Future of Capitalism Report showcases the kind of insights and nascent solutions which emerge when the right conditions are created. For Operation: Eat Right, I’ll focus on interdependencies in the existing urban food ecosystem, working to identify what’s working and where there is opportunity to make a difference by developing connective tissue. Instead of raising funds to start a new company or design another product, we recognize that there are many players in the space already doing incredible work, like our friends at the Social Justice Learning Institute and the LA Kitchen. And we acknowledge the important role of foundations and grant funding bodies in providing critical last mile interventions at a massive scale, when so many are in need.
But there is a funding gap at the systems level, with precious few investors supporting scalable innovation approaches that can be shared and might accelerate achieving food security, for example, by connecting nodes in new or creative ways. And this is precisely where BLK SHP is taking a stand to uncover promising solution spaces – fostering unlikely collisions, rapidly identifying the most effective change agents in the network, enabling network entrepreneurship and opening up findings in the form of systems blueprints that can be adapted outside of Los Angeles. If you long be a node of positive contagion and support this effort, get in touch!
More details on the BLK SHP Operation: Eat Right can be downloaded here.