ALL MY RELATIONS: Applying social innovation and Indigenous methodology to challenge the paradigm of food waste


The issue of food waste is now widely established as a key research agenda and as an urgent problem to be addressed by international institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (2011), the World Bank (2018) as well as by various scholars in the fields of sociology (Evans, 2014), planning (Soma, 2018a), environmental studies (MacRae, 2016), and geography (Parizeau et al., 2015). In popular culture, celebrity chefs are also contributing to the “food waste fight.” UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently launched a “food waste” themed pop-up shop serving repurposed surplus food and recipes with the most commonly wasted ingredients, such as stale bread. The 2017 documentary Wasted, produced by the late Anthony Bourdain, explored diverse solutions to address food waste based on the food recovery hierarchy framework (for more on the food recovery hierarchy framework, see Papargyropoulou et al. (2014)). As evidenced by the growing mainstream interest in this issue, no longer is this field restricted to technical concerns around waste management.

The search for solutions to address food waste has brought innovative collaborations across sectors, as well as critical debates. One particularly significant and critical debate around food waste solutions has centred around the pairing of the food waste issue with issues of food insecurity. More specifically, in aiming to reduce food waste, scholars and activists have critiqued the idea that it is acceptable to feed low-income communities with corporate food waste (Caplan, 2017; Fisher, 2017; Riches, 2018). Scholars have noted that approaches to reduce food waste that is focused on shifting unwanted food from retailers or corporations to low-income communities does not actually offer a long-term solution to the problem of food insecurity. This solution also does not address the root causes of food waste, and may in fact, as Fisher (2017) argues, reward wasteful behaviours financially through tax incentives, as well as providing these corporations with a “halo” of doing good for simply maintaining the status quo. While it may be argued that said solution is a necessary stop-gap measure, increasingly, more and more scholars are calling out for more systemic solutions to address food waste (Gille, 2012; Cloke, 2013; Soma, 2018b), as well as solutions that are embedded in social justice.

To better understand the ways in which systemic approaches can be developed, this chapter will first explore the theoretical underpinnings of the social innovation method with respect to aspects of complexity, uncertainty, and knowledge creation. The chapter will identify the potential role of social innovation methodology and some of the barriers to solving a complex problem such as food waste. To do so, we will showcase findings from the Food Systems Lab, a Canadian social innovation lab focused on tackling food waste in the Greater Toronto Area through the principles of Indigenous reconciliation and decolonization (see: 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Call to Action). It will also share a vignette from one of the authors (an Indigenous scholar from Six Nations) to illustrate an alternative paradigm that challenges the commodification of food and the unjust relationships that lead to waste. The Indigenous paradigm and teaching of “All My Relations” informed the methodology and the facilitation of the lab workshops. The lab included the co-creation of knowledge and collaboration with participants (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous), the incorporation of Indigenous ceremonies, stories, teachings as well as learning circles. Social innovation labs typically aim to generate disruptive innovations and systemic change. Without a systems approach to addressing food waste, deeply held assumptions might not be challenged, critical features of the broader system might go unnoticed, and opportunities for innovation and collaboration might be missed.

What is social innovation and why apply this to food waste?

A social innovation lab strategically brings together a variety of stakeholders to develop a common understanding of a problem. The stakeholders then work together on innovative solutions through iterations of information collection, analysis, creative engagement, and prototype development (Westley et al., 2012). A social innovation lab is useful for working on complex social problems such as food waste because it takes a whole systems approach and uses a data-oriented evidence base for testing hypotheses, rigorous tracking, and analysis. There is no single agreed-upon definition for social innovation. However, the general idea of social innovation is something that causes a profound and permanent shift in the social system. Westley and Antadze (2010) define social innovation as a complex process of introducing new products, processes or programmes that profoundly change the basic routines, resource and authority flows, or beliefs of the social system in which the innovation occurs. Such success- fill social innovations have durability and broad impact. Social innovation can take different fonns and is generally categorized into three types: (1) incremental innovations; (2) institutional innovations; and (3) disruptive innovations (see Table 19.1).

The types of disruptive innovations that would facilitate systems change and enable long-term solutions to the food waste problem are of interest in this chapter. According to Westley and Antadze (2010), the potential for social innovation is significant considering the innovations that have the potential to disrupt and change the broader system. To disrupt an unjust or wasteful system, diverse and cross-sectoral participation are important. As Westley and Antadze argue (2010, np), “a social innovation must cross multiple social boundaries to reach more people and different people, more organizations and different organizations, organizations nested across scales (from local to regional to national to global) and linked in social networks.” In light of Gille’s (2012) caution, she noted that the risks and the complexity of food waste (both from a geographical and scalar perspective) will mean that “solutions to the ‘food waste problem’ limited to technological innovation and a few sites or even countries will prove insufficient and will likely exacerbate existing inequalities.”

Table 19.1 Categories of social innovation

Categories of social innovation




Goods and services to address social need more effectively or efficiently



Harness or retool existing social and economic structures to generate new social value and outcomes



Aim at systems change and can result in changes to power relations, alter social hierarchies, and reframe issues to the benefit of otherwise disenfranchised groups

Source: Adapted from Nicholls et al. (2015)

In addressing the issue of food waste, stakeholders ranging from consumers and producers to policymakers and investors each have their own perspectives on identifying the most difficult challenge in the food systems. There are also different interests with respect to desirable outcomes for the system. While there is some capacity to experiment within the food waste system, at a large scale, experimentation often involves bets with large stakes, be they economic, social, cultural, environmental, or health-related. Bringing these elements together suggests that food waste is a wicked problem domain (Rittel and Webber, 1973; see Table 19.2).

By existing in a space where different actors disagree about the objectives of the system and have a relatively high degree of uncertainty about the system, there is an inherent complexity to this system. In line with Gille’s (2012) argument that developing technological innovation in a few sites or even countries to address a complex systemic problem such as food waste will prove insufficient and will likely exacerbate existing inequalities, in these complex systems, straightforward planning and policy approaches tend to fail. Instead, approaches that involve the co-creation of approaches with a variety of system actors, namely via social innovation, are more likely to succeed (Zimmerman, 1998). Doing so

Table 19.2 Defining characteristics of a wicked problem

Defining characteristics



They have no definitive formulation

There is no stopping rule to determine when the problem is solved Solutions are not true-or-false but are, instead, better-or-worse There is no ultimate solution

Trial-and-error processes do not work because the problem changes its nature There is no exhaustive set of possible solutions Each one is effectively unique

They are nested within and also contain other wicked problems

How the problem is defined will determine the range of possible solutions

Those who plan or intervene in the problem are responsible for the consequences of the


Source: Information adapted from Rittel and Webber (1973) increases the variety of possible solutions that those in the system can use to respond to increasing complexity (Ashby, 1957, 1991), each of which in turn also produces additional information about the system that can then in turn be used to better understand the system itself (Arthur, 1994).

Given the complexity and the uncertainty of food systems, it is critical that research be brought into decision-making. However, doing so requires moving outside the realm of value-free and highly certain knowledge creation in “normal” science. Moreover, this also requires moving beyond “normal” decision-making where a policymaker is assumed to have the knowledge and authority' needed to make their decisions. High-stakes, high-uncertainty decisions are ubiquitous and both “normal science” and “normal policymaking” are incapable of responding to these often highly contextual decisions, yet these challenges do not negate the need for evidence to guide decision-making. Post-normal science moves beyond basic science, applied science and research-based consulting to bring in a broader set of stakeholders for both knowledge creation and knowledge use (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1994; Ravetz, 1999). Biggs et al. (2010) argue that triggers for fostering social innovation in ecosystem management are an impetus for innovation, bricolage, and opportunities for the spread of new ideas and processes. Tied to this, crises in the system, fragmentation, a refraining of perspectives, engagement with stakeholders, leadership, and social entrepreneurship all facilitate system transformation (Biggs et al., 2010).

Processes that support both the emergence of opportunities for social innovation and the facilitation of system transformation can enable social innovation to occur, though doing so is not without risk as the co-creative, exploratory nature of such supports is difficult to direct in a desired direction by' those providing the support. This deep co-creation of knowledge forms the research basis of directed social innovation processes and when brought into an operational form with design (or prototypes) offers opportunities to operationalize cocreation in complex systems. Design thinking provides systematic creative processes to develop prototypes that can be used to quickly test solutions to problems (Martin, 2009a; Brown and Barry, 2009). A wide range of design thinking tools and processes exist and in the space of wicked problems. A great deal of experimentation in the development of these prototypes can be used to help different stakeholders work through an understanding of their wicked problem and also to translate between their different ways of thinking. The prototypes can be viewed as boundary objects, which are malleable enough to be adaptable to their localized contexts and the needs of different stakeholders, but also stable enough to hold some consistency between the ways different stakeholders refer to and use them (Star and Griesemer, 1989). In doing so, the prototypes can assist stakeholders in communicating with each other and building common understandings of the problem in addition to providing early models of complex systems intervention.

There are numerous social innovation labs tackling various issues from environmental, health, housing and homelessness, to employment, Indigenous food sovereignty, and arts. The Ontario Tender Fruit Lab is one example of a social innovation lab—a partnership between the MaRS Solutions Lab and the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR)—to ensure a thriving and resilient tender fruit industry in Ontario (Tjornbo et al., 2014). There were several initiatives developed and launched through the lab. For example, one of the participants of the lab, the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers was awarded approximately $355,000 in a Growing Forward 2 Funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to better develop infrastructure and practices to manage the transport and handling of tender fruit products (MaRS, 2015). Another participant (Vineland Growers Cooperative) developed a more sustainable packaging alternative to minimize waste, and to save on packing and labour costs (MaRS, 2015). In line with food-related social innovation labs, we will now explore the role of social innovation in food waste prevention and reduction through the case of the Food Systems Lab.

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