Notes from my recent visit to Cambridge – by David Farrell

I’ve had the immense privilege of working with the University of Cambridge over the last ten or so years as a contributor to the sustainability programmes they run through their Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). For many years this was limited to their programmes in South Africa, but in 2022 I  was asked to co-convene their Sustainable Food eight-week online course, an education format with the potential to bring the food system transformation agenda to a very large audience. This year CISL have asked me to contribute as a Tutor to an executive programme they are running with a very large international retail group. Held over four cohorts of four days each, this format of executive education immerses participants in the full Cambridge experience. It is a beautiful city steeped in history and great human endeavour, providing an inspirational backdrop to each cohort of senior leaders as they are confronted with, and develop solutions to, the pressing challenges facing our food systems. This immersion includes conducting a debate in the Cambridge Union – the oldest continuously running debating society in the world – and a gala dinner in one of the colleges. Our first two cohorts took us to the ancient and spectacular halls of Magdalene and Queens’ colleges respectively.

I have been given the space to share insights from working practically in this field and to bring the thinking that underpins our approach at Blue North to bear, including: The distinction between Strong and Weak sustainability, the importance of a system-wide and holistic view, addressing the growth enigma and developing change strategies that can enable the transitions towards ecologically regenerative forms of primary food production.

With the first two cohorts done, it has been eye-opening to see the most senior decision-makers in this organisation engage so constructively with subject matter that directly confronts the growth-first mindset that dominates retail businesses. It gives me hope that the potential for large-scale change is very much there, and that the message is getting through to the people who wield such significant influence over their businesses and supply-chains. Ultimately this is a leadership challenge, and the signs are positive that this leadership team is willing to “grasp the nettle”. I’m very much looking forward to getting back to Cambridge to conclude this programme with the next two groups of their senior team.