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Innovating under pressure: the influence of soft factors in the diffusion of novel technologies

14 October 2016  •  Author(s): Ariette Matser, Senior Scientist UR Food & Biobased Research, Wageningen University; Bob Mulder, Lecturer Strategic Communication, Wageningen University; Maaike Spuij, Sub-department Communication, Philosophy and Technology, Wageningen University

Novel food processing technologies have the potential to improve or replace existing processes, but the diffusion of these innovations is not straightforward. Besides obvious factors such as costs and regulations we have found that soft aspects influence the spreading of novel food processing technologies. According to stakeholders from the food industry, soft aspects such as individual behaviour as well as communication between stakeholders within the food production chain are crucial factors for the implementation of innovations.

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Valorisation and implementation of novel technologies is relevant to science, industry and also governments. The acceleration of the market introduction of innovative technologies has benefits, not only for the producing firms but for the economy at large. Nonetheless, technological innovations in the food sector are generally not easily adopted. To investigate which factors influence the diffusion process of novel technologies we looked at the mild preservation technologies of HPP and PEF (see box 1). 

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These technologies have several advantages – notably, being environmentally friendly compared to conventional heat preservation, as well as able to preserve food quality and extending the microbiological shelf life without using chemical additives1. Overall, these technologies are relatively well established yet they are not widely applied.

The question is: why?

In order to answer that question, 20 stakeholders from within and around the food production chain in the Netherlands were interviewed. Three respondents were employed in retail; three in machinery production; six in the food industry; two in governmental institutions; two in sector organisations; two in financial institutions; one in research and one respondent was employed in a consumer organisation. Interview questions were based on existing literature as well as the The Diffusion of Innovation theory by Rogers2.

High Pressure Preservation (HPP) and Pulsed Electric Fields (PEF) HPP is a mild processing technology that can be used for the preservation of food products. The product is subjected to pressures up to 700MPa that inactivate most vegetative microorganisms by damaging cell components such as cell membranes while preserving the fresh characteristics of a product. PEF too is used for preservation objectives by using electrical impulses that are sent through the product, thereby damaging cell components and inactivating most micro-organisms and keeping the fresh properties of the product. HPP for pasteurisation of fresh products is already applied in industry for high value products, while PEF for preservation has a few industrial applications, mainly for fruit juices1.

Elements influencing the diffusion of innovation

Despite the fact that each interviewee had a different starting point and perspective (given their individual background), the main characteristics of the diffusion of novel technology in the food sector emerged clearly from the data. The following four main elements influencing this diffusion process emerged:

  1. The competitiveness of the sector
  2. The uncertainty associated with innovations
  3. The role of structures and organisations
  4. The role of the individual.

These elements were often discussed in relation to both their hard and soft aspects. Hard aspects refer to factual or impersonal sides of an object, argument or process, e.g. cost-benefit considerations. While soft aspects refer more to the personal and emotional sides of the diffusion process, such as passion or fear. The four main elements will be discussed briefly. 

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Sectoral aspects

Interviewees characterise the food sector as competitive and conservative, mainly due to hard aspects such as the focus on price. In addition, the emphasis in the interviews lies on the chain structure in the food production industry, which induces interdependencies and power differences. In particular, retail is considered to play a key role in the production chain, acting as a gate keeper of innovations. These sectoral aspects put pressure on the other elements. Due to the focus on costs and benefits, hard aspects become more prominent than soft elements. The focus on price throughout the chain induces low profit margins. In turn, low margins induce a need for structures in organisations, making it more reasonable to optimise current processes than to take the risk of innovating. This is quite straight-forward, nevertheless, respondents consider the structure of the food industry to be a significant barrier to the diffusion of innovations:

“For innovation I think structures are very bad. I have never heard anything decent coming from it. Yes, a nice structure on how to stick a price-tag correctly, that level, but real innovation? Something new, something cool? Surely that does not come from structures”.

– Product Developer.

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