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Sweden’s Innovation Agency Vinnova and the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium have embarked on a joint journey to transform the Swedish food system, consolidating Vinnova’s role as a change agent in system transformation and responding to societal and environmental challenges as expressed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

According to Vinnova, a third of today’s households’ climate impact comes from food. A more sustainable and healthy food system can thus help reduce environmental impact and at the same time prevent common diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. However, to succeed in achieving Swedish and international sustainability goals, a lot has to change in the way we produce and consume food. As Jenny Sjöblom, Program Manager at Vinnova, and part of the TIPC/Vinnova team states, “The research is clear, the industry agrees. We need to transform our food system to reach global sustainability goals. We can eat our way out of the worst effects of the climate crisis, but then we have to halve our food waste, eat planetary smart and update our production methods”.

In order to contribute to a sustainable food system, Vinnova wants to help make the (policy) challenges visible that currently prevent a transformation of the food system. To do so, the Swedish Innovation Agency applies a transdisciplinary approach that is about breaking down silos and letting people who otherwise do not meet discuss common problems and collective solutions. The overarching aim is to have all stakeholders of the food system work in the same direction with one common objective in focus: making the Swedish food system sustainable. 

This approach is well aligned with the aims and ambitions of the TIPC methodology, which by means of co-creating a Transformative Theory of Change as part of a Formative Evaluation framework, adds a reflexivity layer to the policy design process is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous societal systems and uncovers opportunities for transformation. Therefore, TIPC and Vinnova embarked on a joint journey and started their Experimental Policy Engagement (EPE) in 2019. 

Defining the aim and scope

The TIPC methodology focuses on contributing to system transformation. System transformation requires experimentation to catalyse rapid shifts on all dimensions of a societal system, including its regulations, policies and institutions, infrastructures and markets, but also user practices and mental constructs like values and behaviours.

As system transformation naturally deals with complex environments, the TIPC methodology aims to embrace uncertainty, and respond to changing contexts in a dynamic and flexible manner. The method can be applied in many different settings, ranging from specific small scale projects or programs to entire organisations, with the remaining aim to recognise and realise their potential to contribute to system transformation. 

Therefore, it was important to dedicate the first phase of the Vinnova/TIPC Experimental Policy Engagement (EPE) to defining the specific aim and scope of the collaboration and assess strategies to develop and test the TIPC methodology within Vinnova’s food area. 

This was done by means of conducting a number of inaugural meetings and workshops, interviews and focus group activities as well as consolidating a continuing exchange between the core members of the TIPC/Vinnova team to align the EPE’s aims and ambitions with organisational changes and focus area developments. 

Please note that this event took place prior to the COVID pandemic.

Ultimately, the team decided to focus the EPE on Vinnova’s food area in general and take the school food mission, which aims at ensuring that, “every child in Sweden eats sustainable and good school food” as a reference to test the transformative potential of the food area action pathways. This mission was set up by Vinnova together with a broad range of actors since school food accounts for almost half of all the meals served in Sweden every day. Transforming Sweden’s school food system is expected to serve as a great catalyst for a comprehensive systemic change.

More specifically, questions to be addressed as part of the EPE included: 

  • How can we contribute to overcoming transformational failure in specific activities by agents such as Vinnova? 
  • Does working with a Theory of Change and Transformative Outcomes embedded in a Formative Evaluation approach help actors to navigate the process they are in and stay focused on transformation? Does it help to induce second learning? Reflexivity? Anticipation?   
  • And finally, how can such a formative evaluation framework be expanded and used at a broader scale within Vinnova and beyond?

KEY MILESTONES AND ACHIEVEMENTS

The first stage of the collaboration concentrated on defining the level of Vinnova’s Theory of Change (ToC), namely whether the focus should be placed on a specific project, program or on the school food mission as a whole. One conclusion of this phase was that it was rather difficult to match Vinnova’s mission-oriented approach with the core elements of TIPC’s Theory of Change (Inputs, Activities, Outputs, Outcomes, Impact). Therefore, the team entered a deep process of collaborative learning and ended up making changes to both the mission-oriented and TIP approach to accommodate both methodologies and carve out a common basis. The video below provides a deep dive into the team’s learning journey.

Ultimately, it was deemed most suitable to develop a holistic Transformative Theory of Change for the activities related to Vinnova’s food area. In line with Formative Evaluation principles, and by means of a number of interactive workshops and reflection exercises, the team mapped and reviewed a set of core assumptions that Vinnova’s food team had in relation to transforming the Swedish food system. These assumptions related to existing key actors, activities, rules and infrastructures within the Swedish food system and predicted changes and impacts that certain actions would have. The aim of making these assumptions explicit, was to add a reflexive layer to the definition and implementation of Vinnova’s mission – one that is integrated, participatory, and based on co-creational principles, inducing second-order learning. 

Next, the three core assumptions that emerged were linked to three related desired outcomes and specific Transformative Outcomes that were relevant to making the change happen. Hence, Vinnova’s Theory of Change is following the logic that supposing the stated assumptions are accurate, these outcomes need to be achieved in order to bring about system change and these Transformative Outcomes are crucial to consider along the way. The defined approach was consolidated in a Theory of Change visualisation.

NEXT STEPS

In the last stage, TIPC researchers conducted a historical analysis of the activities developed within Vinnova’s food area, and the school food team in particular, in 2019 and 2020. The aim of the analysis was to first find out if and how the activities conducted up until this point have unlocked transformation according to the outcomes defined in Vinnova’s Theory of Change and secondly, based on the findings of the analysis, guide future activities and the food area strategy.

Furthermore, the next phase focuses on sharing what we have learned of applying the Formative Evaluation approach in Vinnova’s food area. On the one hand, this shall kick off an intra-organisational learning process, meaning that other areas within Vinnova can reflect on what such a process would imply in their programs, considering various angles such as program management, knowledge, attitudes and interactions between team members and co-designing and implementing experimental methodologies and a formative evaluation approach. The learning histories, which are designed to trigger questions on the process, will be a crucial element in this process. 

And finally, learnings of the project will offer an increased understanding of how to implement a Formative Evaluation methodology in an organisational context like Vinnova’s, allowing us to make inferences for developing and improving the TIPC methodology as such.

The upcoming blog posts will present and reflect upon the historical analysis and the results obtained as well as the concluding workshop with the Vinnova team in March 2022. 

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