The challenges in conventional food production create a need to update the food system and for an alternative food system, new business thinking, and regional and, above all, functional operator networks. The Urban&Local – Future Food Ecosystem project forms networks of operators from the Uusimaa area, focusing on urban food, and supports cities in serving as testbeds for entrepreneurs.
The sustainability of food production is reduced by climate change, biodiversity loss, the lack of fairness, and phenomena related to these areas. Changes are required throughout the food system and the food chain linked to it because population growth leads to an increased need for food production while soil degradation increases.
A positive aspect of this change is that a new type of demand arises for the decentralisation of food production, storage, processing and distribution as well as for bringing food nearer to the urban environment and consumer.
The potential of food production in urban environments has already been acknowledged around the world. Decentralised food production and local nutrient economy provide the food system with stability and local self-sufficiency. While bringing the food chain to cities serves the needs of cities and their residents, thus increasing security of supply and food security, high-quality ingredients and downstream products provide market potential, an image of clean Finnish food and opportunities for expansion to the international market.
The concept of an alternative food system has emerged alongside the conventional food system. Described freely, it refers to a sustainable, functional and complementary way to produce, process and distribute food alongside the conventional food system. It is important for entrepreneurs operating within an alternative food system to find their place in the value chain and operator network of the regional and alternative food system. The Urban&Local project supports and develops these activities.
Entrepreneurs form the heart of the operator network
It is important for entrepreneurs operating somewhere in an alternative food system to link themselves with the regional food value chain and tackle the business challenges identified in the industry with other members of the operator network. Similarly to the parts of natural ecosystems, companies can also create more value by working together with others than by working alone.
Working in an operator network requires things from entrepreneurs, but it also benefits them. For example, belonging to a network can help entrepreneurs adapt to the post-pandemic world. At the practical level, participating in an operator network provides companies with an opportunity to test ideas, products or a business model in a new environment or find their place in the subcontracting chain of a larger company. Working together means being able to share goals, risks and costs or testing joint innovations, such as a joint marketplace or another joint offering.
As entrepreneurs carefully consider which undertakings they should join, the benefits offered by the operator network are important. For this reason, the operator network should be built around entrepreneurs, focusing on economy.
In the seminar Innovaatioekosysteemien kirjo ja kaari (Spectrum and cycle of innovation ecosystems), organised by HEVInnovations, also known as Helsinki+Espoo+Vantaa Innovations, the speakers came to the conclusion that the operator network’s spearhead is value creation. For example, Tommo Koivusalo from the Helsinki Region Chamber of Commerce remarked that money is also the measure of value in an operator ecosystem. At best, the work of an active operator network supports business and facilitates new cooperation models.
The spatial experiments conducted due to the COVID-19 pandemic provided entrepreneurs with an opportunity to test their product or service in a new environment. The City of Helsinki also aims to make use of experiences in developing the cityscape in the future by offering test platforms for entrepreneurs. Photo: Helsinki Material Bank / Camilla Bloom
Developing a sustainable food system through regional innovation cooperation
Contrary to a conventional food system built around agricultural policy, an alternative food system is relatively market-based, being an innovative industrial sector. Unlike primary production, it is independent of agricultural policy and the complex support structure related to it and does not require heavy use of labour. Instead, it appears to be very different from its predecessor in terms of its resources and risks.
It is important for regions and cities to support operators in this new industrial sector. For example, the publication Leading the cycle – Finnish road map to a circular economy 2016–2025 by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra states the following: “The food system brings together a wide range of different sectors and industries and developing it can benefit strong areas that have already adopted a sustainable society culture of experimentation.”
The network of local food operators and regional sustainable food systems complement and diversify the conventional food system. In other words, an alternative food system will not entirely replace the conventional food system in the future; instead, it will complement and support it, making it more sustainable. This creates a need for new business thinking and technology. The members of the operator network establish partnerships, cooperate with each other in research and development, cooperate with cities and share their innovation expertise.
We invite entrepreneurs to come and join us in developing the regional network of local food operators. Join our mailing list!
What is Urban&Local?
The aim of the Urban&Local – Future Food Ecosystem project (1/2023–12/2025) is to create an operator network that fosters local food and restaurant business in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area and, through it, facilitates continuous cooperation and information sharing between various operators, as well as the utilisation of research data in the companies’ business operations. This is because the industry requires the right channels in order to promote and coordinate broader development efforts. We promote the adoption of new technologies and spatial solutions together with cities, companies and RDI organisations.
The project is coordinated by Forum Virium Helsinki. The project partners are Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, Perho Culinary, Tourism and Business College and the City of Vantaa. The project is funded by the European Regional Development Fund.
Main photo of the article: Helsinki Material Bank / Aleksi Poutanen