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Social labs for the food system

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Monday, this Examiner got to learn about social labs. Social innovator Zaid Hassan has worked inside some pretty daunting social and environmental challenges and his new book The Social Labs Revolution (released this week, which this Examiner gobbled up on Wednesday’s snow day) details that journey.

In contrast to technical laboratories where clearly defined problems render straightforward planning sufficient, social laboratories are Hassan’s prescription for addressing uncertain and complex challenges.

As a system, food does not call for a technical lab. Be they global or local, food systems are adaptive, which Hassan defines with three characteristics:

  1. activity is emergent (i.e. unpredictable)
  2. information load is monumental and growing
  3. responsive behavior is adaptive

In short, eater behavior changes in response to new information, which is driven by emergent activity.

In the thorny thicket of diet-related disease, soil and water degradation, extreme weather, food access and distribution breakdowns, more widely recognized human rights violations, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, unsustainable government subsidies, fragile ecosystems, trans-global supply chains, unsustainable energy demands, and fragmented but rapidly growing consumer awareness – our food troubles are not universally understood. Nor is there agreement around the path forward.

Everyone eats. So everyone is in the food system. When has Planet Earth ever managed to reach consensus? Let alone when it comes to something requiring the coordination of us all.

Hassan worked with The Sustainable Food Lab for years and reflects: “The modern global food system can, without being hyperbolic, be called the mother of all systemic problems.”

If this Examiner is honest, most days the food-system landscape looks pretty bleak. The scale and severity of our challenges are daunting. Climate change is a very real threat to our capacity to feed and water ourselves. It’s scary stuff that keeps me up at night.

What gets me out of bed in the morning is the energy, ambition and commitment of food entrepreneurs of all kinds who are willing to try, to risk, to fail, to rethink and to try again. These scrappy food warriors recognize, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell in his new book David and Goliath, “that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.”

What gets me out of bed in the morning is the chance to go to the places where these warriors meet, places like Community Table, Food Sol’s prototype of a social lab, that twice a week hosts food entrepreneurs of all kinds to share coffee and possibility among individuals who are rewiring our food system whatever ways they can, every single day.

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