Wicked Challenges

Mat Hocken, 2017 Nuffield Scholar

What comes before the eureka moment? What is the latest thinking and what are the cutting-edge innovations in the agriculture and food? My goal has been to understand what generates innovation and I’ve been searching for innovative people, ideas and places around the world. 

Wicked challenges

At an Agtech conference in Silicon Valley, Google’s head of global food services Michiel Bakker spoke about the wicked problems in agriculture and food systems.

A wicked problem has complex, incomplete, changing and contradictory elements. There are no black and white answers but rather trade-offs. And often when a solution is found to one problem, another problem emerges.

Producing nutritious food for 7.6 billion people (rising to 9-10 billion in 2050), with less agricultural land, a smaller environmental footprint, climate change and satisfying a multiplicity of consumer demands, while improving livelihoods for rural communities is a wicked problem.

How we approach these challenges will shape our agriculture and food systems.


When faced with wicked problems we need to think differently. We need to innovate. How are we thinking about innovation? What will generate innovation in agriculture? Do we have a common understanding and language for the process?

From my travels I have observed some common principles of agri-innovation:

1. Innovation can be messy. It is not a linear process.

We need to borrow and embrace concepts from other sectors, such as the tech sector’s ‘launch and iterate’ and ‘fail fast’. By focusing and limiting time-commitment you generate energy, speed and de-risk involvement.

2. We need a farmer-driven and consumer focused approach.

I studied the Dutch design innovation model, which utilizes their smartest minds in research and business, but centres on forward thinking farmers who bring hands-on knowledge, practical minds, drive, passion and entrepreneurial skills. Farmers need to be involved in the end-to-end innovation process and they need to put their hand-up and drive the changes they want to see.

3. The innovation eco-system is critical.

Researchers, farmers, advisors, agronomists, start-ups, corporates, finance, incubators, accelerators must contribute and prosper together. Going alone results in failure, the potential for disruption, or the inability to scale and make an impact.

4. We need places, both physical and virtual to get people together regularly.

We need a diverse collision of ideas, the opportunity for serendipity to play its part in bringing ideas and people together. 

5. Innovation takes place at the intersection of different sectors and up and down the supply chain.

It might be between health care, regional development, or city development (new technology such as autonomous vehicles developed for the urban masses that can cross-over to agriculture). How can we connect the tech-consumers to producers in meaningful ways that adds value for both? 

6. Innovation must be networked.

Israeli innovation occurs in well-organised network clusters, which are strong drivers of innovation. Regions must also be networked nationally. We must partner with other hotspots of innovation around the world. The challenges we face are universal, and they require genuine collaboration and effective networks.

The New Zealand Way

The 2017 Global Innovation Index New Zealand ranks 21, just ahead of Australia and China. We have many of the building blocks for innovation. We have excellent universities and researchers, an open business environment, a growing start-up scene and highly efficient farmers. We bring all this together in a closely connected network that is relatively easily and quickly accessible.

Building on our history of creative leaders and businesses, we must focus our resources and energy and observe the principles of great innovation. And if we do that, what would success look like?

For me success would be a diverse (sectoral and by size) agriculture and food sector producing quality products supported by ‘pro-sumers’ (consumers that love our products).

It would be a thriving agri-innovation sector leading global developments.

It would be about building trust with consumers and society. It would be helping build a future for farmers and their children to make their lives better.

It would be building successful partnerships and networks in our regions, connecting them nationally, and linking internationally. 


Our programmes work in partnership with some of New Zealand’s leading agribusiness organisations – click here for more.​