What Strategic Foresight Means to the Future of Agribusiness

Is there much innovation in the agricultural sector?

Tamara Carleton"Absolutely! There is a lot of innovation around food and a number of food business accelerators. Some of these take new approaches to distribution, processing, animal welfare or sanitation models, for example.

Hydroponic farming and drip irrigation are different approaches to the question of how to use less water in agriculture—an important question both where I live in California and in many other places across the globe. Even something like the popularity of food trucks raises basic questions about how food is distributed. Innovation comes from looking for ways to make improvements now and in the longer term.”

You’re an expert on strategic foresight and foresight engineering. What is foresight, and what does it have to offer agribusiness companies?

“Foresight helps you to see around the corners sooner. It is both a mindset and a method. As a mindset, it is the belief in a better tomorrow and the ability to think strategically about how to make those improvements. The method is the set of tools and technologies needed in order to build that future or plan the next steps. Foresight is closely linked to innovation because you must build the future or business outcome you envision. Often on the product development side it means designing not the next generation product, but the idea that is three or four product generations down the line. In practice, it is a structured way to try and address complicated and complex problems that require multi-disciplinary answers. There are certainly more than a few big questions in agribusiness today that fall into that category. It’s valuable for any team or group that needs to challenge themselves to find the next set of customers in order to grow in the future.”

What defines a big question?

“A big question puts forward a vision with potential big impact, and these big questions create high ambiguity and raise even more questions about what is possible. A big question asks what if and also why not. It gets into the zone of radical innovation. Each industry, and even each company, has its own definition and comfort level for what is considered as radical innovation. For agriculture, it can be anything from how food is produced, to how to handle spoilage and waste.

Not everyone is comfortable with the high ambiguity. At the so-called Fuzzy Front End of innovation, not much is known; there are few to no limitations so opportunities abound. At this stage, the unknown unknowns—in other words, what you don’t know you should know—are everywhere. As the team learning progresses and they take action and gain more information about the problem at hand, more clarity develops. 

Where can a company look for these big questions? Many of the open big questions will be marked by major changes in resource use, environmental impact, antibiotics, demographics, policy changes and also shifts in consumer belief.”

You work with organizations ranging from military and civil defense to IT to shipping and logistics and beyond. Where have foresight activities been applied to agriculture?

“In India we worked with an industrial conglomerate to conduct a foresight workshop that looked into sustainable future food systems. The result was a 3D prototype for a complete seed-to-mouth regional food system that reached across multiple dimensions including tractor manufacturing, seed distribution, transportation, processing, consumer experience, and purchasing. Even though the prototype itself was just a paper model, it spurred deeper discussions that touched on foundational thinking and ultimately pinpointed topics for future R&D activities. 

The advantage of building a prototype to explore longer term issues is that it promotes different ways of analyzing and solving a problem. So you’re immediately looking at what can be done, what resources are needed, etc. It is an effective way to learn and invite feedback from colleagues and even customers at low cost.” 

There have been calls on agribusiness for greater transparency and more consumer engagement. How can your approach to strategic foresight help the industry with this?

“One key is to simply open the conversation: there are immediate benefits related to inclusion that come from asking stakeholders to participate. Ask them, and they will be happy that you did. A focus group is another good way to gather controlled input, while a prototyping workshop where you work creatively is more open. You must remember to be open to the perspectives raised, even if they are challenging for you or your organization. Sometimes it is difficult for more established companies to open the doors to such input, but you cannot discount the benefits of hearing directly from your user base.

One relatively new design technique which started at Google is called a sprint, in which teams have five days to collect early market research and build prototypes. The last day is reserved for collecting feedback from current users. Everyone is highly engaged, and the teams benefit from having that direct, immediate contact. It ties in with a Silicon Valley belief to fail fast. By constantly testing through small experiments, you can be more efficient in getting to what works.”

Tamara Carleton will moderate a foresight workshop on the key characteristics, trends and implications for the production of food of animal origin in 2035, the results of which will be shared at the 2016 World Nutrition Forum hosted by BIOMIN in Vancouver, Canada, from 12-15 October.

@carleton explains what strategic foresight means to the future of agribusiness. More to follow at #WNFVancouver