How Innovations Influence Mainstream Systems

Tipping points to scale regenerative agriculture

By Hal Hamilton

During a Scale Lab of agricultural leaders, we asked them to describe a future countryside they hoped to help create, and their visions were remarkably similar:

“More bugs hit the car windshield again. And there are birds everywhere.”

“In ten years, I’d want to see a variety of different crops waving in the wind, not just corn and soy, but maybe some oats, maybe some alfalfa, maybe some animals.”

“What I see is way less continuity from field to field, or mile marker to mile marker, a lot of different cover crops, some that are tall, and some that are short, some cress or mustard or turnips, radishes. It’s biodiverse. So, every field is different, in a good way.”

“More people, including non-white farmers. Kids in the schools again.”

“Water we can drink, and in which we can swim or fish.”

“Places where people want to live again.”

These answers add up to a compelling vision, although we also noticed some shoulder-shrugging, an underlying fear that current trends might be irreversible.

With our Scale Lab partners, aiming to craft strategies that are both systemic and doable, we dug into the social science literature of innovation adoption. We noticed two wings of this literature: one attempting to answer how specific innovations are adopted and spread, and the other dexcribing how innovations shift business-as-usual across society.

Each wave of innovations tends to begin at the edge of existing networks because those on the edge are protected from the dominance of established thinking. Innovations then spread as they become useful to more and more groups of people, with individual influencers less important than clusters of adopters, people who are “like me.”[1]

In farming, we hypothesize that a tipping point of change occurs when about 30 percent of farmers adopt regenerative agriculture. Then everyone wants to be on the train before it leaves the station.

The business world seems to be similar. When we started Sustainable Food Lab almost 20 years ago, a senior vice-president of one of the world’s largest food companies told us that “sustainability just isn’t on our radar yet.” Now this company is one of the leaders, although still focused on what they can most easily communicate about the impacts from their own specific supply chains. We’re still watching (and nudging) toward the moment when these changes shift all the buyers of agricultural commodities, including ethanol and animal feed manufacturers. This will happen when business-as-usual is less successful than a new combination of markets, policies, and culture.

Within what circumstances are there tipping points at this systemic level? As we looked at the literature of social change, we found researchers who have evolved and tested what they call a “multi-layer framework.” This group of influential social scientists hypothesizes that large scale social change evolves from the interaction of innovations with two other layers. Within the regime layer of business-as-usual institutions, media, government, and markets tend to reinforce one another. As innovations ferment below the mainstream surface, some succeed and become part of a changed business-as-usual. The process of fermentation below, and adaptation in the mainstream, is usually incremental but occasionally moves rapidly and becomes transformative, influenced by a landscape layer of cultural patterns and external influences including shocks such as COVID19 and climate crises.[2]

[3]

Innovations bubble into system changes when conditions are ripe. In agriculture these conditions include corporate strategy, government engagement, farmer support infrastructure, landscape-scale partnerships, and market demand to diversify crops. These are all essential for us to achieve our shared aspirations.

For more specifically on the transition to regenerative agriculture, see the report of a Scale Lab formed by a group of visionary leaders of food companies and farmer organizations.

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[1] One useful summary of this research is Change, How to Make Big Things Happen by Damon Centola from the Annenberg School for Communication.

[2] Frank Geels and his colleagues have pioneered an understanding of “socio-technical” systems change, accessible via a number of papers. We recommend “Socio-technical transitions to sustainability: A review of criticisms and elaborations of the Multi-Level Perspective,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 2019.

[3] From: EEA, 2019, The European Environment: State and Outlook, 2020: Knowledge for Transition to a Sustainable Europe, Synthesis report, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

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