12min read

Seeding “Wild Futures” in food systems transformation: Using Backcasting to Strengthen Innovation Case Studies

Since early 2022 we have been collaborating on the Wild Futures Project led by Marrio Herrero, Daniel Mascon D’Croz, and their team of researchers at Cornell University’s Department of Global Development, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The goal of this project is to support expanding the climate adaptation options for smallholders in Limited and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) through transformational innovations and to develop tools to help inform food policy, while also building in rail guards to avoid the worst unintended consequences of more radical change.

There are an increasing number of existing and ‘pipeline’ innovations being generated and proposed in the food systems space from around the world. Although this represents enormous potential to bring about positive change, it is critical to make sure that solutions are appropriately designed, selected, and adapted to fit the concrete real-world challenges and needs of a specific context at the country or regional levels, in order to have a major impact in the near and medium-term future.

Over several months in 2023, we worked together with the Wild Futures team to develop pathway-to-impact maps for multiple innovative food system solutions using the IFSS portal backcasting approach, during facilitated online co-learning sessions and workshops. This triggered critical and applied systems thinking around case studies focusing on the potential for digital regenerative agriculture (DRA) innovations, insect-based animal feed innovations, and bacteriophages in livestock systems to improve animal health and boost food safety. 

Claire Lynch, a recent graduate of the MS program in the Food Systems and Global Development program, shared that “Working with [backcasting] helped me to contextualize the larger antimicrobial resistance ecosystem and the work being done to address this multifaceted problem.” This process demands reflection and strategizing around potential barriers, enablers, synergies and tradeoffs, considering multiple social and environmental outcomes. “Brainstorming with [Glocolearning] deepened my understanding of the nuance of antibiotic use within livestock production and what would need to happen for real food systems transformation,” reflected  Claire.

The results of this process lead to building cross-sectoral transition pathways-to-impact maps that address both ‘how to make that future vision more likely’ and ‘where to start’.  This helped to identify key constraints and challenges to innovation at scale, and improve innovation foresight to anticipate unintended consequences to build bundles of innovations, including policies and regulations to enhance the positive outcomes while mitigating the negative outcomes.

Backcasting starts with asking  “What do we imagine a desirable future to be?” and “Where do we want to land?”, and triggers food system actors to think more widely of the range of plausible alternative futures. Once clear visions for impact targets are developed, working backwards, these can be concretely linked to the present through identifying:

  1. key operational steps, potential barriers and strategies to overcome those,
  2. potential tradeoffs and synergies considering likely human well-being, environment, and equity outcomes,
  3. accelerators of change,
  4. critical stakeholders to engage with and at what points. 

The resulting pathways-to-impact maps allow for a more holistic assessment of strategies, for more rigorous decision making about partner engagement, collaborations and relationship building, and investments of time and resources. The process itself offers a methodology to engage, co-create and co-learn with a diversity of experts, partners and stakeholders. 

Follow these links to learn more about the IFSS portal approach to backcasting and the Wild Futures Project.