The nature of transition

Very soon, substantial and aggressive changes will be needed to fix the problems of the food system, in part because we have ignored for too long the problems that have actually been apparent for decades. Some decision makers acknowledged these problems, but excused them, or only proposed solutions that tinkered with the status quo.  Such myopia now leaves us in a position where drastic changes will be required to correct our failures, also known as system redesign.

I use the Hill and MacRae (1995) Efficiency – Substitution – Redesign[1] framework to help identify a wide range of solutions to the wicked problems of the food system. Their "wickedness" means they are difficult to implement, in part because resolution touches on many other issues at different scales (Chalifour and McLeod-Kilmurray, 2016). This framework helps to make sense of changes, and  serves as both a guide to action, and an indicator of progress.   In this framework, Stage 1 strategies involve making minor changes to existing practices to help create an environment somewhat more conducive to the desired change. The changes would generally fit within current policy making activities, and would be the fastest to implement. However, change strategists must be careful not to choose strategies at this stage that reinforce existing problems.

Second stage strategies focus on the replacement of one practice, characteristic or process by another, or the development of a parallel practice or process in opposition to one identified as inadequate.  At the substitution phase are new organizational arrangements, the substitution of processes and practices, and consistent with Geels (2011), alternative / niche activity introduced of the dominant flow of change. What  instruments might move firms from efficiency measures to this stage? At this stage, advocates must be careful not to install infrastructure that will not be used at the redesign stage.

Finally, third stage strategies are based fully on the principles of the ecologies, particularly agroecology, organizational ecology, political ecology and social ecology, and are fully elaborated to address complexity (the earlier stages benefit from an understanding of complexity, but are not in themselves necessarily complex to execute).  They take longer to implement and demand fundamental changes in the use of human and physical resources. This final, or redesign stage, is unlikely to be achieved, however, until the first two stages have been attempted. Ideally, strategies should be selected from the first two stages for their ability to inform analysts about redesign (the most underdeveloped stage at this point) and to contribute toward a smooth evolution to the redesign stage.

A presumption of this framework, then, is that policy change in the Canadian food system is largely evolutionary, but given existing pressures, must be accelerated.  It is a staged reformist approach, with the dominant structures  adapting progressively to policy pressures, ultimately leading to a profound redesign of the food system. This means that the joined up food policy frame does not need to have deep resonance with policy makers and the public in the early stages of transition, but can build over time, a key consideration given the challenges of food system change.  It is more at the substitution stage where such resonance must be significant to mobilize resources. The redesign stage is visionary but presumes progressive layers of transition leading to its realization. It is the most difficult stage to write about in detail because very limited modeling using redesign concepts has been undertaken, and the detailed plans may not become clearer until the Substitution stage has been achieved. We assume that there are no changes to the Canadian constitution and this limits what and how redesign efforts can be brought to bear[2].  As highlighted in MacRae and Winfield (2016), the Canadian constitution is a significant brake on food system innovation and we account for that in these proposals.

Another key analytical transition question is the extent to which community and alternative initiatives are transforming the dominant system.  This is an important consideration because it helps explain what alternatives are worth supporting,  whether government intervention is desirable or necessary, or why governments resist taking action.  A key raison d'etre of an "alternative" is to cause directly the dominant to change something.

From my experience and reading of the literature, there are multiple stages to this process of influencing dominant systems.  Starting from a position where the dominant ignores the alternative, viewing it as a tolerable niche activity:

  • At the first stage of influence, the dominant actors "bad mouth" the alternative, attempting to discredit it among decisions makers and the general public.
  • At the second, they try to co-opt the alternative, often by buying it up.
  • At the third, they try to look superficially like the alternative, again through purchase or marketing.
  • At the fourth, they partner with the alternative in some way, though the power dynamics of the partnership don't necessarily favour the alternative.
  • At the fifth, they start to revamp their supply chain to reflect the values of the alternative. This is when very significant transformation begins.
  • At the sixth, they start to dismantle themselves  so that the restructured dominant system is actually the alternative (ultimate success and long term obviously).

While there are many examples of the early stages of this process, there are only limited cases of the later stages.  This framework is also used extensively on this site to explain the change process.


[1] Note that there are many transition frameworks, see MacRae and Winfield (2016) for a review pertinent to food policy themes
[2] Although there have been amendments to federal-provincial powers in earlier periods prior to patriation of the Constitution, since 1982, because of the amendment formulas, amendment debates have been fractious and the types of amendments that would be pertinent to those discussion, largely unsuccessful.