Nine Mental Models for Agritech Founders and Investors
to think deeper about Agriculture from a system thinking lens
On sunny days, I like to think of Agribusiness Matters as a gym/meditation retreat for Agritech Founders and Investors to pause, introspect, flex their thinking muscles and ponder over the hard, wicked problems they encounter in their everyday working lives.
One day, when I make millions from this newsletter and when Agribusiness Matters becomes really big, I hope to book a nice, fancy resort in some lovely part of the world, much like those who gather at Davos in Switzerland and bring together a handful of subscribers of this newsletter to facilitate intense, honest and fun conversations about the ethical dilemmas, glimmering possibilities, perplexing double-binds we encounter in our everyday work at the intersection of Climate Change, Sustainability, Food Security.
In fact, I am travelling to Switzerland to scout for the ideal location. No Seriously:) I will be vacationing around most parts of Switzerland from 15th May until 31st. If you happen to be reading this newsletter from Switzerland, I would love to join you for a cup of coffee and get some travel advice.
Until that day arrives, you will be hearing from me over emails, engaged in a hopeful sort of 1:1 dialogue with the 29K+ readers who read this newsletter over LinkedIn and Substack.
One existential question that drives my work in culture (I run a non-profit called Mandram) and agriculture is this: In doing what I am doing, what am I really doing?
Since I don’t have any formal academic credentials in either agriculture or agribusiness, I have the luxury of being that proverbial child who doesn’t have any qualms in calling the king naked and equally learning from my mistakes in understanding the beast called Agriculture.
I will write a post that lists a litany of errors I have made so far in this newsletter soon.
Now that I am kickstarting Season 3 of this newsletter with a special focus on ecosystems along with the usual suspects (drones, carbon-neutral agriculture, robotics, protein supply chains) I want to consolidate the mental models that I have built for Agritech Founders and Investors during Season 1 (2017 - Jun’20 in LinkedIn, followed by Substack) and Season 2 (June ‘21 - April’22) of Agribusiness Matters.
I am building a digital course for agritech executives on “System Thinking for Agriculture”. I will be posting an announcement for a limited numbers pilot batch in the 3rd week of June. If you would like to sign up, do reach out.
Core Mental Models
1) Pace Layers of Agriculture
I started writing Agribusiness Matters in 2017 with a simple promise: Can we have straight talk about Agritech, Digital Agriculture in the nick of technological transformation? To address this question sufficiently, we need to answer this fundamental question: How does a healthy agricultural system look like?
In a continuously evolving domain like agriculture whose history dates back to the entire human civilization, some components respond faster to change and some not so fast. The key here is to understand which is fast and which is slow.
I adapted Stewart Brand’s Pace Layers work on human civilizations in a native agricultural domain context. Here are the six significant levels of pace and size in the working structure of a robust and adaptable system of agriculture. From fast to slow the levels are:
If the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr were alive today to write a Serenity Prayer for the future of Agriculture, he would have written
God, grant me the serenity to accept the agricultural markets that I cannot change,
courage to design the agritech marketplaces that can change those markets,
and wisdom to know the difference between markets and marketplaces.
Using this framework, I spelt out the key difference between markets and marketplaces.
Marketplaces learn, Markets remember. Marketplaces proposes, Markets disposes. Marketplaces are discontinuous, Markets are continuous. Markets control marketplaces by constraint and constancy. Marketplaces get all our attention, markets have all the power.
What I have observed is that as we grow older, we start paying attention to the slower components of the continuum. I see this in my life (Before I started working in agriculture, I was a technology consultant) and also in my consulting assignments. My clients are mostly those who have made their money from fast-moving components and are now slowing down to see in what ways they can leave the planet in better shape than they came with.
When I was born in 1985, carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere (in parts per million) were 346.35. In 2021, it was 416.45.
2) Wicked Nature of Agribusiness
In order to understand agriculture as a system of living complexity, it is vital to understand agribusiness as a wicked domain.
What do I mean by that?
When design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber formally introduced the term "wicked problem" in 1973, they listed 10 important characteristics.
They do not have a definitive formulation.
They do not have a “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.
Their solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.
There is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem.
They cannot be studied through trial and error. Their solutions are irreversible so, as Rittel and Webber put it, “every trial counts.”
There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.
All wicked problems are essentially unique.
Wicked problems can always be described as the symptom of other problems.
The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.
Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions.”
In these years of working in agribusiness in the context of large smallholding farmer populations, I have found that it neatly fits all these 10 characteristics.
In fact, there are more characteristics that are unique to Agribusiness. I listed them down here while ruminating over a simple question: Is Agriculture a Business?