Supporting Food Security and Livelihoods through strategic foresight

Ben HoltAs the Global Lead for Strategic Foresight at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Ben Holt (MSc Innovation, Creativity and Leadership (MICL), 2018) works on numerous humanitarian challenges and supports teams around the world who are facing different types of crises.

We recently spoke to Ben about one particular project he’s supporting, which focuses on Food Security and Livelihoods (FSL) and aims to provide reliable access to nutritious food for people around the world.

While the IFRC network has run many effective projects under the FSL workstream which supports millions of people, it is aware that there are new challenges and also opportunities that should be considered to continue making a positive impact. To develop this important work, Ben is providing his foresight and innovation expertise.

“The world is changing – from climate and environmental issues through to new opportunities emerging in technology and science – and so we need to adapt too,” explained Ben.

The IFRC is a global network of 191 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies delivering humanitarian aid and services for people in crises in their country, so it came as no surprise when three Red Cross societies – Zambia, Malawi and Kenya – wanted to explore possible futures and identify space for innovative approaches.

Ben shared: “As the Global Lead for Strategic Foresight at the IFRC Solferino Academy, and with my innovation background thanks to the MICL, I was asked to develop a project to support this ambition.

“We broke it down into three phases. First, we created a system map to understand the complex interplay of forces which drive food security issues. We then used this to map our current capabilities and gaps, identifying priority areas where we thought we could have more impact. This then fuelled the strategic foresight phase, during which we researched emerging trends and created possible future scenarios.

“Finally, we used these scenarios to trigger an innovation phase, considering what new opportunities and challenges the future might hold and how we might act now to meet them.

“It was a great process, and I am excited about some of the ideas that came out of it.”

As part of this project, known as the Food Security Livelihoods – Strategic Innovation Initiative, Ben hosted a workshop at Bayes Business School in collaboration with the Centre for Creativity, to broaden its inputs and accelerate the discovery of emerging trends that could impact FSL programmes and priorities.

Attendees at the workshop at Bayes“The Bayes Business School workshop was a critical part of the journey. We had drafted the systems map, drawing on desk research and the expertise of our colleagues in Africa, and we wanted an external group of experts to help us test and refine it.

“Bayes showed its amazing ability to convene world-leading experts from across a range of disciplines and different countries. We were really grateful for their scrutiny, questions and suggestions; their input really helped strengthen the systems map.

“It was also really good to get positive feedback and encouragement from such a brilliant group! Knowing that what we were producing could be useful to them too was amazing. We were even asked if the systems map could be used with their students, which I think is a great example of the connection Bayes students get right to the frontline of some of the world’s most complex challenges.”

The workshops haven’t stopped there either. Ben and his team recently spent a week in Zambia, visiting rural communities and running innovation workshops, which were a great success.

Ben told us: “Some really promising concepts emerged, which we are confident could have a positive impact on the FSL system and open up some really interesting space for the Red Cross Red Crescent to work.

“Next steps are turning these into a set of testable assumptions and to get out there and run some experiments. We are aiming to turn the most promising into scalable projects in the longer-term, backed by this evidence.”

Appreciating how Bayes has supported his career, including with this FSL project, Ben shared an insight into the skills that he had developed during his studies: “The MICL was a life-changer for me. It allowed me to unlock my creativity and focus it on real-world issues, backed up by serious academic theory and all the insights that side of things opened for me.

“I constantly apply what I learnt, new approaches I experimented with, and ways of thinking that I developed over the course of the Master’s. It is with me every day and it makes a huge difference to my work.

“I definitely would not be where I am today without the MICL.”

With the combination of academic rigour, creativity and experimentation, Ben thoroughly enjoyed the learning experience at Bayes on a personal and professional level. He recalls how exciting it was to be in a room with so many smart and inspiring people each week and especially enjoyed the fact that he and his peers could focus their studies on whatever they wanted, meaning it could be applied directly to problems they were tackling in their day jobs.

When asked about standout memories from his studies, Ben fortunately has many and continues to make them whenever he can catchup with his fellow MICL alumni.

“I have so many positive and powerful memories from that time, and I genuinely miss it. I would love to spend time studying there again.

“I remember sketching lessons with a self-described Viking architect, blizzards of post-it notes as we prepared business pitches for a real client looking to turn London into a National Park, the terror then elation of a solo drama performance, and the mind-altering insights I unlocked reading about neuroscience and the evolution of consciousness. It was such a good mixture of work.

“We also got access to some incredible opportunities outside the course. Getting to see Clayton Christensen, the original disruptive innovator, speak to a small group was a massive privilege.

“I am still in touch with many of the people I studied with. We help each other out, share ideas, meet for a coffee if we’re in the same city. A genuinely brilliant group of people I am incredibly lucky to know.”

Finally, Ben left us with some words of wisdom: “Follow your instincts, don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions, and if someone is telling you your idea is impossible then you are probably on the right tracks.”