The Future of Fish team, comprising a private funder, global association of social entrepreneurs, and a problem solving and design strategy firm, partnered to find new ways to spur sustainability in the seafood industry. Their efforts resulted in a great deal of insightful information on how the supply web operates and what is being communicated along it, as well as on creative new solutions to unleash the potential of the industry to improve efficiencies, transmit information more effectively, and build a more resilient and sustainable industry.
I was most impressed with the team’s research philosophy and methodology. They recognized that efforts to drive more sustainable supply chains are often “stuck” in the middle section. They believe the outliers provide better insights because their activities and approaches are more extreme than “typical” actors. They looked at patterns (common behaviors or repeated problems), inconsistencies (do people behave as they speak or are there unintended consequences) and unspoken assumptions (are there implicit or conscious norms).
The team’s research centered on common topics, including consumer demand, sourcing support, and sustainable production. Where the Future of Fish team differed from other endeavors was in their approach. They targeted the middle of the supply chain, looked at the outliers (not a “typical” supply chain actor), closely observed transactions and interactions between various players, and spoke to a wide variety of actors who are not normally part of the conversation.
The team went across four countries and eight sites to sit next to distributors as they took orders from buyers and placed orders with processors daily. They learned that “demand bullies supply,” and that buyers want a steady and consistent selection of fish—every day.
The actors in the middle of the chain do not push back on buyers’ demands for replicating yesterday’s order despite the inherent unpredictability of wild fisheries. The suppliers do not explain why meeting these requests is challenging and can lead to rapid declines of desired species. The middle of the supply chain is not transmitting information on how the lower supply chain actors operate and the challenges they face or educating their customers on the reality that the practice of providing consistent varieties and quantities of fish puts those species at risk.
Based on their research, the team categorizes individuals in one of four categories:
- Counselors are advisors, often in marketing or sales, who lack a platform or position from which to make big changes to the system. They should incorporate more new ideas.
- Catalysts are entrepreneurs who work outside big companies. Making change is an integral part of their work. They need a way to embed their ideas throughout the industry.
- Conduits focus on detail, retain vast amounts of knowledge, and are in key positions within companies. They need to better understand a taste of practical innovation.
- Compliers innovate and fix problems within their sphere of influence. They need to better understand their role in the wider effort.
The team learned that many innovators exist throughout the supply chain—and have great ideas that could solve some of the core problems the industry faces. Unfortunately, many of these innovators are currently unable to scale up solutions because they may be too small to attract loans and are not well connected with other like-minded entrepreneurs or innovators.
The issue is not a lack of ideas, it is the inability to scale up solutions and embed them throughout the industry.
As the Future of Fish team sought to identify a single intervention in this enormous industry, they quickly realized that “in order to make the solution bigger, [they] needed to make the problem bigger.” The problem was not limited simply to fish. The solution needed to address underlying challenges such as funding, support systems, and framing social enterprises as tools for change.
The solution the team came up with is an Innovation Hub that would serve as an accelerator for the industry. The Innovation Hub would act as a “connective tissue” throughout the industry with a goal to:
- Accelerate: Pilot the expansion of existing, small-scale solutions.
- Incubate: Invent and launch start-ups with a strategic sustainability mission.
- Disseminate: Create a network of innovators who can better share best practices and collaborate on creating solutions.
- Integrate: Include other social issues and recruit change agents from multiple sectors.
What I like most about this research and proposed solution is that the Future of Fish project actually went into the middle of the supply chain and really made an effort to understand how the actors operate with one another. More importantly, they recognized the potential for the industry players to work among themselves—with external support—to improve knowledge sharing, increase efficiencies, and create a healthier and more sustainable industry over the long run. Viable, scalable and effective change must come from within the organization that is trying to reinvent itself. Future of Fish is headed in the right direction.