Foster I, Omar A, Lameda R. Commitment to Co-Creation: How to empower and accelerate grassroots solutions for global nutrition and food system transformation. HPHR. 2021;41.
With food security and malnutrition continuing to be pressing and urgent global challenges, the need for more innovative solutions that fundamentally include local voices is critical. This thought piece illustrates the need for greater co-creation in the design of food and nutrition initiatives and describes an innovative methodology for doing so: Idea Accelerators. After participating in a global Idea Accelerator themselves, the authors of this piece reflect on this opportunity and describe why such models must be expanded. By offering a unique methodology for empowering and elevating local voices, Idea Accelerators can play an important role in efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals before 2030.
In 2015, global leaders created 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a follow-on to the Millennium Development Goals with an ambitious vision to end all forms of poverty by 2030. A guiding tenant underlying these targets included eliminating hunger and an obligation to work in collaboration with respecting planetary boundaries, building resilient communities, and improving health outcomes.1 Yet five years later, in 2020, the United Nations reported that “nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food, and challenges to meet the global nutrition target”,2 demonstrating the increasing need to achieve SDG 2, Zero Hunger. Numerous pre-pandemic factors have exacerbated the current state of hunger and nutrition, magnifying the triple burden of malnutrition in vulnerable populations (hidden hunger, underweight, and obesity).3 The COVID-19 pandemic also strained the food system, bringing greater awareness to the barriers, access challenges and affordability of food globally. Disruption in food supply chains and increasing market prices globally made more apparent the interconnectedness of food security, health, and nutrition.
Until the pandemic, however, the energy and investment of leaders, nations, and organizations to confront these challenges had been insufficient. The COP26 conference in October – November 2021 illustrated that many countries fell short of their pledged commitments during the 2015 Paris Agreement, including $100 billion USD in climate finance for developing countries and continued support towards sustainable agriculture.4 Yet with negative climatic events on the rise and global nutrition remaining an ever-pressing issue, novel solutions are paramount.
While recent environmental shocks may have catalyzed greater global consciousness of nutrition and the food system, comprehensive investment and commitment is needed to alter our collective global trajectory, support the attainment of the SDGs, and ensure universal access to affordable, nutritious food. According to the Global State of Nutrition, “all around the world, too few countries are on course to meet nutrition targets’ that focus on maternal, infant and young child nutrition targets and all-diet related non-communicable diseases”.5 While some countries are making progress towards several of these targets, none are on track to achieving all simultaneously.
Interestingly, dietary diversity and quality of diets is not addressed within this report and is seen as a huge gap in addressing malnutrition globally, as no region is currently meeting dietary recommendations for balanced servings between all the food groups. A consistent pattern is apparent between high and low income countries, where both dietary diversity and access to healthier foods is lacking in the latter versus foods that have a higher environmental and health impact in the former. The report cites that global fruit and vegetable intake is 40-60% below the recommended levels respectively, thereby underscoring the need for increased awareness on the importance of healthier diets for improving health and environmental outcomes.5
To achieve this, innovative and disruptive thinking is required globally. Participatory, grassroots solutions are essential to ensure an equitable world with optimized food security and nutrition.6 If hunger and malnutrition are to be eliminated by 2030, it will take sustained passion, desire, and collaboration. High-level dialogues like COP26 and the United Nations Food Systems Summit represent a traditional approach driven by the idea that world leaders themselves can decide what is best for the planet and humans, and that such decisions will translate into action on-the-ground. Yet politics, governance structures, and bureaucracy often impede action, resulting in a disconnect between those creating mandates and those 1) bearing the burden of food insecurity and malnutrition or 2) implementing local, community-driven solutions.
While there are numerous stakeholders working in the food security and nutrition sphere, many work in silos, and nutrition and food security topics have been addressed and measured separately. The food system is often driven by agricultural systems that focus on yield, productivity, and income, whereas nutrition is typically addressed at the household level. While this gap has been acknowledged in the past, major progress still needs to be made. The FAO and AED held an Open Forum in 2010 to discuss this topic, describing how an agriculturally-focused program may not think to integrate nutritional outcomes because the primary focus is to impact livelihoods rather than designing for increased nutritional status.7 Over a decade later, significant change is still needed. Donors’ interests often also play a significant role driving project priorities and may at times lose focus on the need to address challenges holistically and locally. However, involving local stakeholders during the project design and development can ensure that projects take a more integrated approach to solving not only food security and malnutrition but other areas such as public health and the environment. Given that these topics are complex, a well-designed, comprehensive approach is needed to address the multifaceted nature of global nutrition and food security, leverage past insights, and multiply the impact of funding and resources.
This calls for a decisive transfer in the decision-making process, from top-down to bottom-up; one rooted in the co-creation of solutions that account for the local context respecting the communities social governance structures. Including voices of grassroots actors and diverse stakeholders is critical, making it imperative that acts of inclusion move beyond basic discussion to enabling authentic empowerment through community-driven decision-making and implementation. This raises the question: What are innovative, new models for co-creation that are tailored to local contexts but can be expanded globally? How can solutions rooted in local expertise be global in scale and implemented effectively within the boundary of the communities structures and the planet?
In order to address challenges confronting the food system, additional approaches must be explored for identifying and scaling innovative solutions that are closely attuned to local needs. A promising model for doing so are Idea Accelerators. These programs–which vary with regards to length and organization, bring together people from multiple backgrounds and geographies using a participatory framework that allows for cross-collaboration between grassroots actors. The goal of such programs are for participants to develop fresh ideas and solutions for addressing specific problems in their local and/or global community. Idea Accelerators have yet to receive widespread attention due to their nascency and are often associated with ‘startup accelerator’ programs that have gained widespread recognition over the past decade. The genesis of the typical startup accelerator was in 2005, starting in the United States before spreading globally. These programs were brought to public attention after several of the most successful technology companies–i.e. Airbnb and Dropbox–participated in accelerators, leading to a desire to scale this approach.8
During 2021, the Idea Accelerator Food Systems Game Changers Lab (FSGCL) was launched, convening hundreds of people eager to contribute for change within the food system. As participants in this program, the authors of this paper recognize the tremendous potential that Idea Accelerators offer and believe this approach should be scaled, as it is a vital tool for facilitating a decentralized and grassroots approach towards addressing global nutrition and food security. FSGCL was structured to allow diverse groups of practitioners and experts from various facets of the food space to collectively brainstorm and share qualitative ideas that were eventually transformed into a final report with ideas for actionable, measurable solutions.9
This unconventional approach for problem-solving must be leveraged in the collective journey to reshape global nutrition and food security. FSGCL was organized and implemented by several leading institutions–including The Rockefeller Foundation, Thought for Food, IDEO, EAT, Forum for the Future, Meridian Institute, Intention 2 Impact, and SecondMuse–who had the conviction that community-based approaches for addressing challenges in the food system are essential. There was a particularly strong appetite to do so leading up to the United Nations’ Food Systems Summit in September 202110 and COP 26 in fall 2021. These organizations developed FSGCL to help connect and catalyze individuals from around the world to “co-create an Action Agenda that offers a vision for future food systems that are sustainable, equitable, healthy, and diverse as well as a transformative pathway to actualize that vision through a particular collective solution set.”9
Designing programs to achieve such an ambitious objective can be challenging. However, FSGCL is an important example and case study for how to do so. Accelerators can bring together community members to spur thoughtful dialogue, rapid ideation, and empower transformative action. While the concept of an Idea Accelerator is unfamiliar to many and there is not much research on the topic, existing work on general accelerator programs outline many key benefits, including offering early-stage entrepreneurs mentorship, a cohort of peers, and training on how to start a company.11 Research demonstrates that companies which participate in accelerators seem to achieve greater success and higher levels of equity investment after participating in such programs.12 Many of the most well-known accelerator programs, such as Y Combinator, provide initial seed funding to ventures in return for equity, allowing new businesses to more quickly launch. The collaborative aspect of accelerator programs–particularly peer networking and joint problem-solving– greatly contributed to the beneficial impact of such initiatives.8
Idea Accelerators, which draw inspiration from several aspects of the traditional startup accelerator model, have distinctive characteristics that differentiate them from this approach. Unlike the traditional accelerator model, Idea Accelerators are not necessarily oriented towards creating a company as the overarching objective, and instead seek to find novel and innovative solutions to a specific problem, regardless of format. These could be ideas for new policies, initiatives, research, or even public awareness campaigns to address a real and pressing societal need. This orientation towards pursuing impact through a variety of strategies is one of the unique benefits of Idea Accelerators. In a world where the public sector, private sector, and civil society are so interconnected, considering solutions that work at the interface of these spheres is vital.13
This was evident from the authors’ experience in the FSGCL program, as the program was designed to be inclusive and community-driven. After an open application period in 2021, the FSGCL team selected innovators from over 400 submitted solutions and grouped individuals into 24 thematic cohorts covering a wide array of topics, from Elevating Indigenous Food Systems to Scaling Agroforestry. Hailing from 85+ countries, participants came from various backgrounds, including thought leaders from diverse sectors, all of whom were devoted to developing solutions to achieve sustainable development in the food system before 2030. The intention was that these groups would co-design new ideas and solutions for the food system, which would be published in a report-format and shared broadly with a variety of stakeholders and potential partners who could assist in the execution of the proposed solution sets.14
The authors of this paper participated in Cohort 19, whose focus was ‘Enabling Affordable and Accessible Nutrition’. The team comprised of 44 members, hailing from 5 continents and 21 countries with collective expertise across various sectors such as policy development, sustainable design, and product reformulation.14 The team’s years of hands-on implementation offered an invaluable perspective that well-positioned the group to come up with solutions that might not otherwise have surfaced in large multinational organizations or national-level policy agencies. The cohort was able to share insights from across very different geographic, environmental, and community contexts. A strength of Idea Accelerators is that they bring together individuals who normally would not have connected to develop solutions in a generative and unconstrained environment, allowing latitude to challenge common norms or preconceptions. This is also a distinguishing factor between Idea Accelerators and traditional startup accelerators, as most traditional startup accelerators require people to apply with a team that generally already has some type of pre-established business. The stage of company formation might vary, with programs often looking for companies that have demonstrated some level of traction and have a relatively defined business model and solution.15 While there are a few startup accelerator programs that do accept individuals and help match them with other participants–such as ‘Entrepreneur First’–these programs are still designed to help participants create a venture.16
Especially with the advent of COVID-19, virtual technologies can broaden the geographic scope of such programs, allowing cohorts to be composed of people from around the world. This has numerous benefits, as teams with members from several different countries can draw upon their individual localized experiences to identify new solutions and contribute to a collective perspective informed by different geographic, cultural, economic, and political systems. However, it is important to note that digital access and internet connectivity must consider accessibility of these programs. Therefore, to keep programs as inclusive, different formats and variations to address digital access barriers must be explored. The authors’ cohort leveraged this virtual format, and during the period of 3-months, each cohort met at least weekly with an assigned FSGCL facilitatory on Zoom, using online tools such as MIRO, Discord, and shared Google documents. The program’s curriculum provided technical support and strategies for collectively brainstorming ideas most relevant to the cohort’s theme. While Idea Accelerators can take on various forms, ones that are longer in duration enabling a deep, collective analysis of challenges can be the most impactful. As an example, the first major component of FSGCL was to diagnose shared challenges in the food system sphere by exchanging perspectives on local and regional challenges and successful solutions that members had witnessed from their personal experience. Techniques such as visualization and the Iceberg Model17 were employed to connect events that the team observed in the food system with mental models to better understand root causes and rationale for such events.14
Applying a systems-thinking approach, the second step was to evaluate the broader food ecosystem by creating a Stakeholder and Decision Matrix to infer power dynamics and influence.18 This led to the third phase of ideation, where the cohort developed ideas that could support systems transformation and collectively address issues around global nutrition and food security. Techniques such as future-casting were used, in which the team analyzed current barriers and resources needed for implementing potential solutions.19 The final step was to account for potential and unforeseen consequences and impacts of proposed solutions. After undergoing each of these exercises, the last portion of the Idea Accelerator program was for the cohort to collectively synthesize their main insights, develop an integrated solution proposal, and write a final report which FSGCL organizers used to create a compendium with all 24 cohorts’ solutions.14
To fully realize the potential of Idea Accelerators, it is critical they surpass ideation to incorporate action. As such, the final reports created by each team were consequently presented in conjunction with the 2021 UNFSS. Harnessing the energy and momentum from this summit, the FSGCL team organized cohort presentations immediately after UNFSS and invited Summit participants to attend. In parallel, the organizing team developed an online platform for ‘matchmaking’, so that UNFSS and other partners of the FSGCL organizing team could access cohorts’ presentations and schedule meetings to exchange ideas and explore partnership opportunities.14 Ordinarily, startup accelerators primarily provide resources to help participants scale their ideas. For entrepreneurial programs, this often takes the form of mentoring and funding.20 For FSGCL, the program provided a platform and visibility for cohorts and their solutions. The organizers announced in November 2021–after the close of the program–a unique opportunity in which cohorts could apply for seed funding to explore their ideas. These planning grants garnered interest from many teams, with eight cohorts applying in the first round for funding, six additional cohorts in the second round, and a third round still underway in March 2022.21 The authors’ cohort applied for and received funding to pilot a True Cost Accounting22 framework in Malawi and Japan connecting the true cost of diets to hidden costs within the larger procurement system. Recognizing the interface between agriculture and nutrition as barriers, the goal of the initial planning grant is to explore more of a joint approach to addressing the overall solution. Similarly, Cohort 18–whose central theme was ‘Building Resilient Local Food Systems’9–also applied for and received funding. This cohort is establishing a nonprofit and exploring partnerships with organizations such as the World Food Programme and the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). Additionally, they received a nomination to apply for the Earthshot Prize,23 organized by The Royal Foundation and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.24
If available, offering such ‘catalytic grants’25 can be an invaluable way to increase the impact of Idea Accelerators. However, given that Idea Accelerators do not necessarily have the objective of creating entrepreneurial ventures, it can be arduous for these programs to acquire funding and resources. Investors and Venture Capitalists generally provide capital to entrepreneurial programs as there is the prospect of financial returns in the future, whereas this is not entirely applicable with Idea Accelerators, whose solutions encompass policy change or community initiatives.
By participating in FSGCL, Cohort 19 crafted a holistic, integrated solution that sought to address both food security and nutrition across multiple levels of society, seeking to empower those at a grassroots level while also leveraging the private and public sectors (Images 1-3). The authors’ combined participation in FSGCL has demonstrated that an integrated approach–either addressing food security and nutrition concurrently or tackling other multi-sectoral Public Health challenges–are fundamental. Idea Accelerators in particular offer a unique channel for addressing critical public health challenges by creating space for co-creation, increasing grassroots representation, and empowering local actors to generate creative solutions.
As the world reorients after COVID-19 and COP26, government leaders and international organizations looking to deploy resources to support food security and nutrition should organize frequent Idea Accelerators. National and international-level implementation of such programs can bring us one step closer to making substantive and equitable progress in Global Nutrition, Food Security, and Public Health more broadly.
Image 1: Cohort 19: Solution Ecosystem Matrix
This diagram emphasizes the interconnected and circular nature of Cohort 19’s solutions—one which leverages the public sector, private sector, and civil society to offer unique and relevant solutions that work together to support more affordable access to nutritious food.
Image 2: Cohort 19: Overcoming Barriers & Solution Pathways
This image is part of Cohort 19’s final solution set, showing the barriers, recommendations, and potential impacts for each of the different recommendations.
Image 3: Cohort 19: Three-Path Solution Approach
This image depicts the interdisciplinary approach that Cohort 19 took in crafting its solution—focusing on addressing the Public Sector, Private Sector, and Civil Society in its final recommendation.
The authors would like to thank the organizations that supported and made possible the Food Systems Game Changers Lab Idea Accelerator, including The Rockefeller Foundation, Thought for Food, IDEO, EAT, Forum for the Future, Meridian Institute, Intention 2 Impact, and SecondMuse; we are appreciative of the hard work by each of their colleagues. A special thanks goes to Janina Peter, Cohort 19’s facilitator for all of her leadership and support over the course of the program. We would also like to thank the entire Cohort 19 group for the incredible opportunity and experience to work alongside these inspirational leaders and innovators over the past several months. We are also grateful for the ideas, inspiration, and leadership of Cohort 19’s Action Agenda team, including Disa Björklund, Charlie Hoffs, Christina Jung Sewell, Rita Lousa, Llyord Mwaniki, Kotoba Miki, and Taylor Quinn, as well as Tetra Pak for their support.
Isabelle Foster is the co-founder of unBox, a social enterprise focused on empowering and connecting young people in the food system in the United States. Working for systems change through policy advocacy, data analysis, and community activism, unBox strives to support youth in building networks and implementing solutions for a more equitable and sustainable food system. Isabelle also works at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as an impact investing specialist. She has a background in food security, innovation, impact investing, economics, and policy, and was a Fulbright Scholar to Paraguay, where she assisted with the National Innovation Strategy. She holds a BA in Public Policy and an MA in International Policy from Stanford University.
Afshan Omar is a full-time permaculture designer and land-use specialist who developed the vision for the integration of health care, nutrition and agriculture at the Area 25 Hospital under a partnership between the Malawi Ministry of Health and Baylor Malawi. She inspires patients, staff and youth from the community to see the important relationship between the earth, the food we grow and eat and the healthcare provided for mothers and babies at the facility. By facilitating a continuous exchange of information and skills, Afshan has built and designed a productive permaculture garden around the maternity-waiting home which also serves as a demonstration site for various permaculture interventions: creative meal planning, composting, backyard garden design, reforestation initiative, plant starter kits, innovative bamboo utilization and the integration of fuel efficient cookstoves for the community.
Dr. Ramón Alberto Lameda Perozo is a retired university professor and researcher in the areas of infrastructure conservation & maintenance, and the Social and Cooperative Economy. He is an innovator in the design and development of resilient structures against climate change and its impacts, and in climate controlled techniques on urban and rural land. As a full-time activist for high impact, social development projects, Dr. Lameda has designed and successfully executed projects in Venezuela such as: educational training programs for work and entrepreneurship for youth and children in poverty and extreme poverty, as well as health promotion through sports and recreation for older adults. Right now, he is leading the project “Food Multi-production Units (FMU) in Support of Sustainable Development Goal 2 “Zero Hunger”. Dr. Lameda has a BS in Civil Engineering from the Polytechnic University Institute of the National Armed Forces (IUPFAN), an MA in Project Management from IUPFAN and MA in General Management from Central University of Venezuela, and a PhD in Social Science and Labor Studies from the University of Carabobo.