This month saw the passing of Steve Jobs, mourned by people around the world. Few had met him, but many felt he had improved their lives by making technology cheaper, simpler and more aesthetically pleasing.
There are few industries that touch individuals in the same way as computing, but food and grocery is one of them. Every day, billions of people use our products to make their lives healthier, tastier, greener and, I would argue, happier.
They use them in creative and original ways. Every meal, every recipe, is a tiny burst of inspiration, invention and joy. For many, it is the only moment of creativity in a typical day. But I worry that, as industry professionals, we do not do enough to celebrate imagination, invention and future-thinking. In these difficult and challenging times, we need to manage the quarter and keep an eye on the future at the same time. It’s right to focus on today’s problems, but the problems of tomorrow must not creep up unaddressed or, worse, unnoticed.
The grocery industry today in the UK and globally faces two critical challenges: system durability and revitalising growth.
Of these, system durability is the most urgent. Food production in the developed world is built on a platform of interconnected technologies and assumptions: intensive agriculture, inexpensive road transport, globalised production and so on. Changes such as soil degradation, water shortages, exhaustion of fossil fuels and population growth threaten many such assumptions.
Our first priority must therefore be to re-imagine our approach to food production, boosting output while reducing resource intensity and environmental loading. Minor tweaks will not be enough our next leap forward must be every bit as dramatic as the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s.
Our second priority is to revitalise growth. As in any industry, coming up with great ideas using technology and science is a good solution to mature categories, margin pressures and jaded shoppers. But growth won’t be achieved just through NPD. We also need to think about how we tackle everyday tasks doing the ordinary extraordinarily well is what delivers real payback.
Invention, design and new ideas are good for businesses, categories and the industry as a whole but the benefits go further. Inventiveness and doing things differently are drivers of macro-economic change. Right now, the economies of most developed countries are stalled, going nowhere in spite of massive efforts to support demand and reassure investors. It is time for something new and there is no reason why grocery businesses should not be in the vanguard of economic change. We have a tradition of innovation now we must raise our game.
Sadly, individual rock star innovators like Steve Jobs are a rarity. Businesses are more likely to succeed by harnessing the creative power of groups, unleashing the potential in employees and in consumers. This means allocating time and effort to searching out new ideas, thinking about new ways of working and taking time to do so as a regular procedure, like accurate accounting or hygiene checks.
Amid unprecedented commercial pressure, this may seem indulgent but businesses that don’t plan for the future won’t have one.
Joanne Denney-Finch OBE is chief executive of IGD