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Home > Focus > Responsibility and innovation: a business perspective (part 2)

Responsibility and innovation: a business perspective (part 2)

by Redazione FGB [1], 21 April 2011

(An interview with prof. Andrew McMeekin [2] - ...continues from the previous entry [3])

Index of questions:
13. >> We speak a lot about innovation within food at the foundation. Cristina has written about the reinvention of food and I know that food is one of your main interests. Can you speak about innovation in food?
14. >> In Italy there is a phenomena called 'gruppo aquisto solidale', ideas range from groups of families that have simple informal agreements with a local food producer to buy their produce, to others that have business plan involvement within the firm and seed or animal buying.
15. >> In the commons article you say that private growth is interdependent with growth in the public domain talking about bio-informatic software, can you explain what you mean by that?
16. >> And could this feed into an idea of responsibilization? If you have a broader field of people working on each particular thing the decision making process might become more democratic or accountable?
>> Concluding remaks.

Responsibility and innovation: a business perspective (part 2)
an interview with Andrew McMeekin by Jonathan Hankins.

Johnny Hankins. We speak a lot about innovation within food at the foundation. Cristina has written about the reinvention of food and I know that food is one of your main interests. Can you speak about innovation in food?

Andrew McMeekin. food is a fascinating area because it is one of the few areas about which we can safely say that we can't do without it. In other areas you can say that! You can look at aspects of the economy and say that we do not actually need that part and we can substitute it with other things, but food, well we have to have food. So my interest now is what are the dynamics that help us to understand how to shift the food provisioning system, including from before the field ie the seeds, chemicals etc right the way through to distribution, retail and consumption. What is going to actually happen in those areas to shift to a more sustainable food system? My reading of the debates are that a lot of people are actually imagining very profoundly different systems. A lot of people are interested in reversing the trend towards globalization and in other cases there is a sort of rejection of modern biological scientific knowledge in favour of discovering traditional farm practices and perhaps enhancing those again. Also the worry that there is too much economic concern in the supply chains of food and that this might inhibit progress towards an imagined new type of food system. In theses cases it is impossible to predict what sorts of transition will occur. One project that we have at the moment involves rather than assuming that all of the innovation is going to come from outside of this large and rather large player dominated system, so we are actually looking at what the large players are doing, not with a view that they are necessarily the agents that can bring about the required change but because people have actually forgotten to look at them. There is an assumption that the big players are simply the block to the change that is required and that they cannot deliver the local organic system that is preferred by lots of people who write in this area. I am not sure that that is the case anyway, I think that supermarkets for example would have no problem in offering short circuit delivery of organic produce if there was sufficient consumer demand. They very quickly became the largest retailers of organic produce. I think they are ambivalent almost to the food system that is in their supply chains, particularly when they can charge a premium for it as they did with organics. So I think it is a mistake to rule them out as major actors but I also think that there are situations when they can act as obstacles to the right speed or direction of change in the food systems. So there are lots of interesting cultural issues tied to the consumption of food and what it means to us. We seem to have a more heightened appreciation of what food means for us now in our daily lives than 20 years ago and whether that is the platform for building cultural sensitivities towards the environmental impact of food remains to be seen, but I think that it is promising. (up)

JH. In Italy there is a phenomena called 'gruppo aquisto solidale', ideas range from groups of families that have simple informal agreements with a local food producer to buy their produce, to others that have business plan involvement within the firm and seed or animal buying.

AM. Yes I think it is impossible to say what the likely transitions will be though, because there are lots of groups like this and that is a good thing, but I would say that this behaviour is likely to be constrained to a particular type of person. It is very much a niche. Chorlton (university and artistic zone of Manchester) has a disproportionate amount of people like this so if you live there you could labour under the illusion that everybody is like that now, but in other areas you put out this plan and say well you can only have cabbages today and hear 'well I've had enough of cabbages so I'm going to go to the supermarket'. I think that there are some interesting things within our cultural responses to food, and from some points of view that is one of trying to get control over our food, where it is coming from, and I understand that there are some big societal challenges out there that maybe this type of system might help to meet. But if you go to Ardwick (inner city zone) cultural dispositions towards food are completely different, it is not reflected upon that chicken is so cheap, it is just there so you can have a roast every week, and if you take that away from someone there might be a lot of unrest, so I find it difficult to see how that cultural change would occur generally across the population but you cannot rule it out. History has shown us that the most unlikely things over time actually gain momentum and who knows what is required or needed to take a set of principles or principles like those that are in Chorlton and make them into common sense ways of understanding the world in Ardwick. I think there is a lot of inertia in the system to stop that from happening and that includes the large organizations that have their businesses reliant on all these different forms of demand. So I find these sort of alternative food networks very interesting and enchanting but I find it hard to see how these types of ideas could scale up in order to feed 9 billion people in 40 years time. Strangely in a globalized food system that is highly centralized in few hands brings a great deal of efficiency in the way it operates and as much as there are concerns about the control of that system resting in the hands of a few companies I think that that degree of control over food production creates the opportunity to transfer good practices or best practices very quickly from one place to another, and if we are talking about environmental sustainability reaching a crisis point over the next several decades then we need some urgent responses to these problems and I think that dismantling the global political economy around food would take much longer that it would take to develop the new technologies and diffuse them via the existing organization of food production. I am not entirely happy about that but I think that the position of the moment to underplay the dominance and power of these key players is a mistake. They are there and their businesses will not be swept away from underneath them so I think there can be experimentation outside the system to see what might be learnt and that should not be instead of working with the large players and trying to change the way they work to deal with the most urgent environmental problems. (up)

JH. In the commons article you say that private growth is interdependent with growth in the public domain talking about bio-informatic software, can you explain what you mean by that?

AM. Here we are talking about the knowledge domain and we were trying to make the point that the knowledge domain are mutually reinforcing and intertwined. When we started that research we came across a dichotomized view that there was university research, freely published and publicly available on the one hand and proprietary knowledge, subject to patents on the other, and one is what businesses do while the other is what universities do. The system is however much more complex that that dichotomized depiction might suggest. Firms do not patent everything they do, quite a lot either just leaks out of their system or is made freely available. Equally it turns out that not everything that universities do is readily available or published the moment that it is produced and so there are ways in which the universities protect their knowledge as well. and after the recent  acts in the US and in Europe, universities have become more propriety about their knowledge including patenting things, so part was about trying to point out that there are not 2 distinct systems, one proprietary and the other public. The second part was to say that they fuel off each other, so the knowledge flows in both directions and we have in a sense a multi modal knowledge economy, both growth of knowledge and growth of public and private resources together.

You can have a situation in which a publicly available database or bio-informatic pool for example will actually prevent there from being a market for the privately owned one, which in a sense is what happened around the human genome. There was this famous battle between Solera and the International Human Genome Project and there is no doubt that overall progress on genome science sped up as a result of the competition between a private company and a consortium, so we could say that the involvement of the private sector on this issue brought about socially beneficial progress. But of course when Solera started up there was a great worry that they might try to make the human genome information proprietary , you could only access it if you payed that company for access to it, so privatizing the genome was the big concern and as a result of that the global public sector economy reacted by investing heavily in speeding up their process and although Solera technically published at the same time this was political, and they were not able to establish a business upon it because of the public sector involvement. So it is very much about the dynamics between what is proprietary and non proprietary in terms of knowledge. Well competition certainly does drive innovation and we normally think of that as within the market sphere, firm A competing against firms b and c, we don't normally think of it as being publicly funded activities in a non prop environment competing with privately funded things in a proprietary environment for profit. So this is public versus private competition as opposed to the way we usually understand competition within markets. (up)

JH. And could this feed into an idea of responsibilization? If you have a broader field of people working on each particular thing the decision making process might become more democratic or accountable?

AM. Yes I think it can, some of the things that came after the human genome story probably show that rather than it always being competition driving the process forward.... one of the interesting aspects of the aftermath of all that was the establishment of new public private collaborations for example the Single Nuclei Polymorphism Consortium, a particularly interesting low hanging fruit from the genome project. Here you had a group of large pharmaceutical companies partnering with the welcome trust. on this basis of pooled investment the burden and risks associated are lessened,  but the results had to be non proprietary, so in a way the idea was that this knowledge is for the common good. So rather than having it as an object of our competition we should pool our resources and accept that this is pre-competitive, we can produce it together and then use it and find different things to compete on in a market sense. I do wonder if that is something that could be fostered in relation to environmental concerns. There are some challenges out there and some areas of economic activity that are so obviously at odds with what is needed, you would think that those firms involved in those types of technologies rather than competing with each other and sometimes being in denial in relation to what could be done could say that this really could be hell for us so why not make things easy and say that we are not going to compete on this. The only excuse for not dealing with it is that someone might undercut us so we can't afford to invest in it, but if all the main competitors were entering into this in a pre-competitive sense then that argument is removed. Some of the big players in the food industry are pooling their resources in tangible ways, for example on developing natural refrigeration in a pre-competitive way. I think there is a consortium of companies like Coca Cola and Unilever,  Pepsi, TESCO and others raising the profile of natural refrigeration and trying to give an explicit message to potential innovators about this technology, so that when it is developed there will be a guaranteed market for it because these companies will collectively adopt them. This is the right signal to make an entrepreneur think that it is worth putting money in it is worth the risk. I think that could be enhanced even more if you could align public and private procurement of innovation. There must be all sorts of refrigeration procured by the government so why don't governments align with this as well and say that they guarantee to procure a refrigeration technology that is considerably less energy dependent than current systems and so the market is created and that financial risk is removed from the innovation process. (up)

Concluding remaks

Prof McMeekin addressed many issues during this conversation that may be of interest to the Bassetti Foundation readership. I feel the most important point was tied to the idea of pre-competitive research carried out by groups of companies, institutions and government bodies. The transfer of knowledge between such stakeholders should I believe lead to a more democratic and open decision making process, and this could be a move towards responsibility.

Another interesting point was that of guaranteeing a market so that innovators know that if they can produce a new more energy efficient of less environmentally damaging technology they will recoup their investment in research costs. This might in some way steer innovation towards a positive role taking position although the unintended consequences problem is still not fully addressed.

His argument about resistance is also closely related to the above, as are his remarks about governance, public versus private knowledge, risk management and the role of public institutions in research and publication, because all of these problems are political issues, related to power and capability as well as technological innovation.

On behalf of the Bassetti Foundation I would like to thank Prof Mcmeekin for his time and involvement in this interview and posting. (up)

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(photo by hijukal [4] from Flickr)

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.sci.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/sci_staff/andrew_mcmeekin/
  3. 3] /en/focus/2011/04/responsibility_and_innovation.html
  4. 4] http://www.flickr.com/photos/hijukal/3967346232
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