The role of innovation to achieve a sustainable food future

Ensuring a sustainable food future is one of the biggest challenges of our time and a powerful driver of innovation. Last year, time and innovation researchers from CBS invited executives, entrepreneurs, researchers, and policy makers from the Danish food industry to a workshop to explore the role of innovation in shaping the future of sustainable food.



Though the project has now ended, activities and focus are still being continued. Professor Tor Hernes from the Centre for Organization and Time and co-leader of the VELUX-funded project called ‘The Temporality of Food Innovation’ explains what needs to change for society to reach the goal of a sustainable food future.

Why as a society do we need to radically change our relationship with food?

The first and most important reason is that the planet cannot sustain our habits in the long run. We have become, at least in the Western world, a society of notorious meat eaters, and that tendency has accelerated since the 1950s. A second reason is that our food habits generate unacceptable amounts of waste. A third reason is that our current eating habits are not healthy for ourselves. Obesity is becoming a huge problem in many countries.

The main point, however, is that our food habits and their consequences are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. This means that changes need to cut across multiple chains of breeding, processing, logistics, packaging, etc. and that solutions need to be seen holistically rather than individually. For instance, imported food requires more energy for transport, packaging and storage than locally grown food. On the other hand, locally grown food, such as through vertical farming, require energy systems and storage to be viable.


Danish companies are already on the journey to finding new innovative solutions for a radically different future – what are these solutions?

Well, there are many and there are already solutions that are in the making. But few actors, whether they are start-ups, research agencies or corporations, have “solve-it-all” solutions that apply across the board. Instead, multiple actors have partial solutions, which, when connected to solutions of other actors, make up what we might call an “ecology” of solutions.

For instance, for Arla to implement plastic-free solutions for dairy packaging it may require that other actors develop, say, wood fibre technologies, which may be largely CO2 neutral and do not cause problems of waste.

Similarly, for Naturli’ to succeed with their 100% plant-based products, they depend on broad consumer acceptability of, say, oat drink as a milk substitute. As with vertical farming, which depends on land, money, and infrastructure to sell their products. These and many more solutions become “ecologies” of solutions when many actors at different levels and at different places collaborate, even if they also compete.


Explain more about the Velux project The Temporality of Food Innovation.

Much of the current discourse on innovation praises “disruption”, the idea that innovation should bring radically new products and practices that break away from existing ones. However, this strong focus on radical newness ignores how innovators often take inspiration from the past in addressing the future. We believe that novel solutions for the future work best if they are somehow connected to how we did things in the past.

Novel solutions may work best when they may be associated with past technologies, practices, habits, and ways of organising. That gives people and organisations a sense of where they came from in the past and where they are heading in the future, which can be a very powerful narrative for change.

For this reason, we suggested an approach that we called the “temporality of innovations”, which implies studying how attention to both past and future plays a part in innovation processes and, equally important, which aspects of past and future are brought to bear on innovation processes.


With food being an integral part of our identity and history, how challenging will it be for consumers to adapt to new habits and traditions? 

Food is so ingrained into who we are. We say that “habits die hard”, but food is about much more than habit. It is about culture and identity, social as well as political. People need to somehow bring the past with them into the novel future because tradition and identity belong to the past.

There are examples of tastes, for instance, that people have associated with dishes over many years, but which they did not realise the importance of, such as umami, which is one of the five basics tastes beside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It is particularly in relation to taste and consistency that actors need to think about how people change their food habits without sensing a loss of identity.


At the workshop you looked at new approaches to innovation and identified a number of key directions?

We ended up with a list of directions that we consider important for this complex and deeply ingrained problem that needs to be changed and addressed in the next few decades:

Treat the future as unknown. We said plan for the next thirty years but also distrust these plans. We know that we need to bring down the CO2 footprint. But we do not yet have the solutions that correspond to a close to zero footprint in a more distant future. So actors will need to work with concrete solutions, while expecting that other solutions will be dominant in the long-term. This challenges how managers think about strategies for the future.

Bring taste to the fore. If the taste is not right, things will not change. It will need to resemble a taste that is meaningful in people’s memory. 

Compete through collaboration. Actors need to compete for solutions because we crucially need balanced, radical, and of course, CO2 neutral solutions. But it is important not to pit competition against collaboration. Smart actors can do both.

Leverage the past. Habits and tradition reside in the past and makes change difficult. But habits and tradition may also help us change if actors, including consumers, can see a link from the past to the novel future. What is needed is an exciting narrative from past to future via an innovative present.

Follow trends to create new trends. The future will not be a clean break from the present. We do not believe “disruptive change” necessarily will drive us towards a sustainable future, because there are too many interconnected technologies at play. And the right solution at one point in time may be the wrong solution at another point in time. So, yes, change radically, but step-by-step!


The VELUX-funded Temporality of Food Innovation project members include:

To watch a selection of educational videos to accompany this project click here.

The page was last edited by: Sekretariat for Ledelse og Kommunikation // 07/11/2023