Food Hack Nova Scotia aims to innovate

The first event if its kind challenges students to explore food security, safety and sustainability from as many angles as possible.

click to enlarge “Food insecurity is a social justice issue. It’s not going to be solved by monetizing anything. It just isn’t,” says Jennifer Brady." - SUBMITTED
“Food insecurity is a social justice issue. It’s not going to be solved by monetizing anything. It just isn’t,” says Jennifer Brady."

Food Hack Nova Scotia
Sobey School of Business
Saint Mary's University,
923 Robie Street Mon
Feb 19 and Tue Feb 20 free,

Nova Scotia has a wicked problem. It's not the kind of wicked problem a teenager in Bangor might have with their high school boyfriend, though. It's the kind of "wicked problem" that is the opposite of a "tame problem." The kind that isn't easily fixed.

Nova Scotia's wicked problem is food insecurity.

A wicked problem—a concept introduced by social theorists in 1973—is, essentially, unsolvable. Why? Because the requirements are always changing.

"It's a problem that's difficult to define and not everyone agrees on what the problem actually is and also what the solution needs to be," says Jennifer Brady, assistant professor in the department of applied human nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University. "And often times one solution ends up exacerbating different aspects of the problem."

On February 19 and 20, students from five universities and colleges in Halifax are going to try at Food Hack Nova Scotia, an innovation challenge will take place at Saint Mary's University.

This is the first year for this event, a brand new forum for this kind of discussion in Nova Scotia. "With two days of intense and immersive work, combined with hands on training, mentoring, and peer learning, it is the perfect environment to turn ideas into reality," says Jordan Landry, manager of entrepreneurship with NSCC. "We expect ideas to collide and lead to the kind of creativity that allows for truly great projects and businesses to start."

Landry works with the organization facilitating the think tank, Spark Zone, a business development endeavour where social innovation and entrepreneurship intersect. The project began in 2013 as a partnership with Saint Mary's University, Mount Saint Vincent University, NSCAD University and the Atlantic School of Theology. "It was designed to bring post-secondary learners together to create, explore and innovate," says Landry.

click to enlarge Food Hack NS brings students together to “create, explore and innovate.” - SUBMITTED
Food Hack NS brings students together to “create, explore and innovate.”

The catalyst for Food Hack Nova Scotia was a meeting that the folks behind the Spark Zone had with Umesh Kumar, CEO of Pace Ventures, a London-based innovation and strategy consultancy. "Having run hackathons for the likes of Jamie Oliver, P&G and the UN, they have branched out to work with university students to help them develop their soft skills," says Landry. The Food Hack will be an incubator of sorts, "a unique opportunity to bring in the Pace Ventures team to unite our university students around an important challenge in our community: food security, safety and sustainability."

Landry says the Hack is essentially a challenge for students to explore these issues from as many angles a possible. "We expect to see all sorts of solutions and business ideas from our students, some of which will be techbased, while others may involve flipping existing business models, taking products to new markets and even developing campaigns."

Mentors include representatives from government, small business and the food and technology sectors, like Patricia Williams, director of the Food Action Research Centre, Linda Best of FarmWorks and Akram Al-Otumi, CEO of Spritely Technologies Inc. and, of course, Jennifer Brady.

"What I bring to this is not the business or food tech stuff," says Brady, who has a background in nutrition science and women's studies, focusing on health and cultural studies. "Other people will be bringing that perspective. What I bring to it is the need to focus on social justice aspects. I would like to see businesses—whatever ideas are dreamed up—that are focused on solving problems that need to be solved, but also designing the business model itself to not be perpetuating those underlying inequities."

“We want our students to see that they have the potential to inspire action by addressing the needs of the community through social innovation.”

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She cites Hope Blooms as a great example of a business where the product is only one aspect of the success. "It's really the community youth that are driving the business," she says. "The profits go into supporting the community. So while the actual product of the business is one thing, the method, the process and the design of the business itself is important."

It will be a challenge to work on real-world problems with this level of difficulty, but both Landry and Brady hope that bringing a multi-disciplinary group together to think about food security, safety and sustainability could lead to opportunities for Nova Scotians to be disrupters in the world of food tech in ways that could lead to greater change.

For Brady, it's that interdisciplinary nature of the Food Hack that hooked her. "It addresses and brings together different perspectives that can facilitate addressing the complexity of food insecurity as a problem," she says. "You need those multiple perspectives."

"We want our students to see that they have the potential to inspire action by addressing the needs of the community through social innovation," Landry says. "Nova Scotia has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in Canada. We need our learners to see value in challenging the status-quo and address the growing concerns of Nova Scotians."

Food tech conjures images of GMOs, vertical gardens or one of the dozens of convenience-based technologies, like ovens that text you when your barcoded dinner is ready, that have been scooping up venture capital in the past few years. But there is—or at least can be—more to it.

"There is a huge unmet need around food security, sustainability and safety," Landry says. "Those issues lack the 'glamour' of delivery or social networks, but they require brilliant people to solve them, and we envision Food Hack being the place to help our students begin down this path of innovation." Community-integrated and socially-focused businesses are key to a better future. "Disruption won't come from just tech innovation but also evolution of business models," Landry says.

But as much as this type of business development is important, let's not forget that this is a problem that won't be solved in a weekend. It may never be solved. And it will require more than business development to truly make any headway.

"I appreciate the importance of food tech and I do think it has a role to play but to me that role isn't in and of itself solving food insecurity. Food insecurity is a social justice issue. It's not going to be solved by monetizing anything. It just isn't," says Brady. She cites golden rice, a genetically engineered rice crop fortified with vitamin A. "That in no way addresses the underlying inequities that caused those nutrition deficiencies in the first place. And that's really what we need to do. I would say the same thing about food banking. It maintains a problem rather than attacking or resolving the underlying causes. Food insecurity is a symptom, it's not the problem. It's a symptom of bigger underlying problems."

Whatever food product innovations are made, however technology is used and applied to the food sector from seeds and farming to delivery and distribution, food tech will never tame this beast.

"We need to keep in mind even when technology is solving problems that do need to be solved, even when we have food tech aimed at addressing real problems, we still always need to be mindful that food tech will only get us so far," says Brady. "We need the political will to use that food tech in an appropriate way to solve those underlying problems. Producing more food is not going to solve food insecurity. Food tech is wonderful. It's important. But if the political will isn't directing the aims the technology it's just going to reproduce those problems."

There's no rest for the wicked problem, basically. But while it won't be solved in a weekend, that doesn't mean it can't be improved.

"Halifax's wider startup and innovation scene is building," says Landry. "And as talent continues to improve, and people continue to run ambitious hackathons, and other business building events, then we expect to see huge growth in the number of problem orientated, entrepreneurial people making real change."

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