An analysis of Vinnova’s mission to transform the Swedish Food System

Thinking & Analysis

With the TIPC Vinnova experiment coming to a close after two years of collaboration, the TIPC team has conducted a concluding analysis to uncover to what extent the objectives and desired outcomes of the project have been reached, which challenges remain and how to move forward. The analysis shows a growing consensus for the need to transform Sweden’s food system. It indicates that some key actors in the food system have started collaborating much more closely and suggests concrete pathways for utilizing this potential further and for maximising and evaluating the generated impact.

Vinnova is Sweden’s innovation agency, helping to build Sweden’s innovation capacity and contributing to sustainable growth. Over the past year, Vinnova has experimented and worked intensively with missions in which different actors work in the same direction towards a common objective. With this approach, Vinnova aims to achieve system change by bringing together actors from different sectors, industries and disciplines to address a boldly inspiring and measurable objective that must be achieved within a certain period of time. The defined goal must have an effect on society and politics and be of relevance to a large part of the population. 

By means of applying the TIPC methodology, consisting of developing a Transformative Theory of Change with Transformative Outcomes and applying Formative Evaluation along the policy cycle, the TIPC/Vinnova team embarked on a learning journey aimed at supporting the mission of Vinnova’s food area, namely that “Every child in Sweden should eat sustainable and good school food” and ultimately transforming Sweden’s food system as a whole. 

A Transformative Theory of Change

To gain a better understanding of influences, actors, dependencies, opportunities and challenges and to form the basis for developing a Theory of Change, the TIPC/Vinnova team developed various pathways for transforming Sweden’s food system. A Theory of Change establishes the chain of causality to achieve the desired change of an intervention, linking inputs, activities and (short-term) outputs contributing to (medium-term) outcomes and (long-term) impacts. It helps actors to reflect and be aware of the change process as a whole. 

The TIPC methodology takes the Theory of Change one step further and combines it with so-called Transformative Outcomes, a conceptual framework that identifies three large-scale change processes in sustainability transitions and 12 equivalent outcomes that set the paths for transformation. The three change processes are: 

  1. Building and nurturing niches, which are protected spaces where innovation occurs;
  2. Expanding and mainstreaming niches;
  3. Opening up and unlocking regimes, which are the dominant and often unsustainable ways to provide socio-technical needs, such as supplying energy, food or transport services. 

Reflecting the food area’s mission and based on the transformation pathways, the TIPC/Vinnova team developed a Theory of Change with Transformative Outcomes to generate a roadmap for transformation and achieving the biggest possible impact. Three (Transformative) Outcomes related to opening and unlocking regimes were prioritized to move along the intended transformation in the Swedish food system. They are listed in the table below:

Outcome Assumptions Transformative Outcomes
New understanding of the food system in terms of agents and configurations
The food system displays in some areas a rigid and conservative way of working, which impacts its transformative innovation capacity. A systemic understanding of the challenges can lead to changes in the different value chains towards sustainability.
Unlearning and deep learning in regimes; Strengthening regime-niche interactions.
Policy and business actors within the food system change their perception and behaviour towards the relationship between the three dimensions of sustainability
As long as economic growth and productivity are seen as the overarching goals by the sector's dominant policy and industry actors, it will be challenging to enable rapid transformative change towards a fully sustainable food system.
Changing perceptions of landscape pressures; Unlearning and deep learning in regimes
Government agencies are working together to produce alternatives for new sustainable food systems
In order to enhance the possibility of changing the food system, different government agencies must work together with a joint vision on where to go.
Dealigning and destabilising regimes

Table: Transformative Outcomes defined in Theory of Change for Vinnova’s food mission

By means of analysing project and workshop reports, internal work documents, learning histories and conducting a number of interviews with key actors working in Vinnova’s food area, the concluding analysis aims to reflect on how far Vinnova has unlocked transformation with the process undertaken from 2019 until today and to guide further activities in the coming phases of the food area’s mission work.

New understanding of the food system in terms of agents and configurations

For a mission-oriented approach, a key factor to success is creating a systemic understanding of complex challenges, which requires the inclusion of varied constellations of key actors, institutions and authorities operating in the system that is to be transformed. Challenges are defined by multiple visions of the actors and not given as a starting point.

For the mission of Vinnova’s food area, this meant conveying a new understanding of the crucial role that school food plays in transforming Sweden’s food system as a whole and recognising the need for innovation, renewal and challenging the rigid and conservative ways of working that prevail in the sector, as well as the impact this could generate. Through organising co-creation workshops and prototyping alternative practices with various food system actors, including entrepreneurs, food producers, chefs, teachers, students, families, school administrative staff, and municipality representatives, and allowing them to interact and reflect, a shared understanding of the systemic challenges and opportunities was fostered.  

Bringing together such a wide range of niche and regime actors, strengthened a system perspective on school food, meaning that a greater awareness for interdependencies and interrelations of stakeholders and the potential for leverage points and accelerating change was created. People involved in the workshops defined key challenges they were experiencing within the food system, considering various roles and perspectives. For example, the policy point of view, the food producers’ perspective, managing the logistics and being active consumers at the same time. The approach aimed at empowering participants to be part of the transformation process from the beginning, rather than passive observers of a given problem with a set list of proposed solutions. This yielded opportunities for defining common missions and pathways and forming new coalitions. Participants were found to have broadened their understanding of the food system (e.g. related to the diversity of actors), enriching their everyday experience by striving for action and recognising their role as change agents. A general change in mindset was visible amongst participants, who gained a better perspective of the food system’s complexity and saw the implications related to it.

Increased recognition of the three dimensions of sustainability

Source: UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development

The 2030 Agenda commits the global community to “achieving sustainable development in its three dimensions—economic, social and environmental—in a balanced and integrated manner”.

Therefore, the second outcome of Vinnova’s food area aimed at changing the perception and behaviour of policy and business actors within the food system towards the relationship between the three dimensions. This was based on the assumption that as long as economic growth and productivity are seen as the overarching goals by the sector’s dominant policy and industry actors, it will be challenging to enable rapid transformative change towards a fully sustainable food system.

To this date, the data sources do not show direct evidence of policy and business representatives enhancing their perception of sustainability. However, the mission is at an early stage and monitoring changes in perception should be ongoing as things are likely to advance.

Government agencies are collaboratively working towards new sustainable food systems

Vinnova’s food area presumes that to enhance the possibility of transforming the food system, different government agencies must work together with a joint vision on where to go. Ultimately, such a collaboration would result in ‘dealigning and destabilising regimes’, meaning that dominant unsustainable practices and policies are challenged and ultimately replaced by alternatives, contributing to a regenerated sustainable food system.

The conducted research shows strong evidence that Vinnova’s mission-oriented food methodology has successfully connected different government agencies to build a common approach towards food sustainability in Sweden. This approach manifests a systemic view to addressing complex problems in a participatory, non-reactive manner and fosters deep learning towards a more holistic perspective that goes beyond a ‘compartmentalised mandate’ way of thinking. Up until now, a number of food and procurement agencies have come on board, as well as various municipalities of local governments. Hence, while there is a lot to be done still in regards to convincing other agencies and the central governments, seeds have been planted for generating collaborative work. 

Generally, tapping into this was a high risk taken since the approach was an experiment for Vinnova as well and the process was stretching the dominant way of policy design and implementation. Vinnova’s food area team and the teams working in the national food and procurement agencies stepped out of their comfort zones in terms of working with a new rationale, but also practicalities like securing funding for some of the prototype initiatives. Vinnova’s support and guidance were critical in this process. 

An example of such a prototype initiative was Vinnova’s and the Swedish Food Agency’s release of a country-wide call for municipalities to propose school meal prototypes that contribute to the food area’s mission (“Every child in Sweden should eat sustainable and good school food”). These prototypes had to address at least two of the following leverage points:

  • Involvement of students and school staff in the design of the school meal system;
  • Procurement and purchase of sustainable food, products and services;  
  • A connection between the school meal and the pedagogical task; 
  • Building competencies on environmental, nutritious and culinary food; 
  • Design of the meal environment; 
  • An evidence-based goal for school meals for the whole of Sweden; 
  • Strategies, implementation and follow-up of the objectives; 
  • The school meal system as a workshop for new sustainable solutions. 

In total, twenty-five municipalities submitted proposals for contributing to transforming Sweden’s school food system. Ultimately, four municipalities from different geographical locations were selected to become project partners: Munkedals, Hofors, Vallentuna, and Karlstad.

Mission-oriented approach

Within Vinnova, the food area was one of the first ones to experiment with and apply the mission-oriented approach. Generally, the school food project has proven to be an important learning source, with missions gaining strong momentum within Vinnova and other national agencies now applying a similar methodology. 

Some key learnings include: 

  • The prototypes phase (engaging diverse stakeholders into field-testing and experimenting with alternative solutions) is paramount for the transformation ambition.
  • To achieve a new system understanding, leading to strengthened networks of actors and a shared vision, a wide range of local businesses and social actors need to continuously be provided with opportunities to explore and experiment with alternative practices.  
  • The angles phase, in which different food actors come together for the first time to reflect on the food system and determine the challenges and possible solutions, carves out space for diversity and lays the groundwork for developing a common mission. 
  • It is essential for actors from the industries, markets and organised society organisations to stay engaged in system transformation processes for them to collaboratively create and nurture niches. 

More insights on this approach are manifested in Vinnova’s latest handbook on Mission-oriented innovation, which was launched in March 2022. 

Figure: The four steps in Vinnova’s mission-design framework.

Analysis implications

In conclusion, it can be said that most of the changes perceived to this point are related to government agencies working together to produce alternatives that contribute to a new sustainable food system. However, while these changes indicate a process of dealigning and destabilising regimes it firstly has to be acknowledged that the regime is not composed of policy actors only, and secondly, while this is one of the conditions for transformation, it is insufficient. More activities focused on businesses, local producers, school staff, families and students should be advanced as part of the process. Policy changes are critical, but policy and governance are only one of the regime dimensions.

It is now widely acknowledged that sustainable practices in the Swedish food system are a way to move towards system transformation. Designing intentional and dedicated activities to identify, nurture, create and integrate such alternative practices (niches) can be a way forward. The open call for municipalities to develop prototypes can be a good strategy for broadening and deepening networks, learning, and navigating expectations. It is one way, but not the only one to identify and strengthen ongoing localised initiatives related to sustainable food. Strategically shielding the small networks of actors that carry out alternative practices is critical to unlocking transformation instead of optimising the current unsustainable practices. Policy design in this respect is crucial for the success of the mission.

The mission-oriented methodology has a strong focus on generating and enhancing linkages between innovation actors to achieve that “Every child in Sweden eats sustainable and good school food”. In this attempt, Vinnova becomes an intermediary between government agencies to solve coordination and systemic failures. The outcomes defined so far are mainly directed towards broadening and deepening coordination among food system actors, with a methodology that offers spaces for learning by interacting. Now there is a way to move the transformation forward beyond the prototypes and the expected mid-term outcomes to achieve Sweden’s food-related SDGs. A stronger focus on creating opportunities for sustainable alternatives to thrive, scale-up and institutionalise seems like a sensible pathway. In this endeavour, the use of a formative evaluation seeking for transformation to guide the policy design and implementation can provide more elements to keep engaging internal support from Vinnova and other government agencies.

A new coming phase for outcomes setting related to the niches identification, nurturing and strengthening is being considered by the team. Vinnova might shield prototypes and demonstrators, with more experimentation arenas to open up the space for potential niches. The formative evaluation is crucial so that niche and regime actors can learn, adapt, circulate practices and scale up their initiatives.

Vinnvoa Blog Series

To learn more about the Vinnova/TIPC experiment, follow the blog series:

Blog 1: Transforming Sweden’s Food System 

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