Fighting Food Waste Together

How an ongoing community helped support food waste innovators worldwide.

The Challenge

How might we dramatically reduce food waste by transforming our relationship with food?

The Outcome

An accelerator-style community - called an Alliance - that helps food waste innovators build out their ideas.

Many of us have let vegetables wither in the crisper drawer, or thrown out a child’s half-eaten restaurant meal, but the sheer scale of food waste around the globe is hard to grasp. According to the United Nations, about a third of the food the world produces every year—1.3 billion tons—is lost during production or tossed by consumers, with North Americans throwing out the most food per capita. The average American wastes enough food each month to feed another person for 19 days.

IDEO received a series of grants to find solutions to food waste, leveraging the human-centered design approach and its role in helping to address systemic challenges. Through a number of projects with sponsors and other organizations, IDEO designers from around the world devised novel ways to tackle food waste.

OpenIDEO’s Food Waste Challenge engaged over 20,000 people around the world to design solutions to reduce food waste.

For IDEO’s first initiative, OpenIDEO launched the Food Waste Challenge, asking how people might curtail waste by rethinking their relationship with food and leveraging the potential of circular models. Between June and October of 2016, more than 20,000 people from 113 countries took part in the Challenge, tracking their personal waste and brainstorming solutions. 80 waste-conscious events were hosted in over 30 countries, from Saudi Arabia to Peru, where participants shared their experiences tracking their food habits and were able to learn from one another and discuss food waste in real time.  Through the Challenge, over 450 ideas were generated, including a zero waste grocery store in New York and a pop-up art experience in Vienna. In the end, 12 Top Ideas were selected that were seen to be the most innovative, collaborative and greatest potential for impact. As Top Ideas, each received ongoing support, visibility and first access to OpenIDEO’s ongoing food waste innovation community.

Knowing that it takes committed and active communities to drive lasting change, OpenIDEO launched a network of 80 partners representing organizations including Feeding America, USDA, Google and Whole Foods and created a new model for longer term impact called Alliances. The Food Waste Alliance was the first of its kind: a dedicated network of targeted support and mentorship to help food waste innovators push their ideas forward even after the Challenge had ended.

The Food Waste Alliance provided innovators like Marcos of FeedTruck with tailored support, a community of peers, and mentorship from leaders in the field.

The Alliance worked as a virtual accelerator, helping participants build new connections and partnerships, increase the visibility of their ideas, and share what they learned. Members connected through virtual and in-person events, shared resources and received mentorship from a multi-disciplinary network of leaders in the field. Devon Klatell, Senior Associate Director of The Rockefeller Foundation's Food Initiative said:

“At Rockefeller, we know there is no silver bullet to solving complex, systemic issues like food waste – we need to engage diverse audiences, a range of innovative solutions, and above all, collaboration. The Food Waste Alliance is a platform that can turn ideas into global solutions.”

The Alliance as a dedicated network was a catalyst for the team behind RISE, who built their first prototype and received initial seed funding during the Food Waste Challenge. After being named one of the Challenge’s Top Ideas, the team behind RISE joined the Food Waste Alliance to help further their idea of turning organic by-products into healthy and sustainable food ingredients (think transforming leftover hops from breweries into flour). Through the Alliance, RISE forged a connection with the prestigious Food-X accelerator, which invited the team to join their cohort. RISE pulled in additional funding shortly after, allowing the team to grow their staff and build new industry partnerships.

‍RISE, a marketplace for transforming organic leftovers into food ingredients, first prototyped their idea during OpenIDEO’s Food Waste Challenge.‍‍‍

One year later, RISE had doubled their team size, and established partnerships with more than 10 breweries. Through their work, they’ve reduced spent grain waste by over 3,000 lbs. Bertha Jimenez, a co-founder of RISE, says that the Alliance was key to their continuing success:

“Through the Alliance, we’ve found a community of support, which has included connections with our first Accelerator program, strategic partnerships, expert mentors and even new customers.”

The Food Waste Alliance is currently by invitation-only, with a targeted community of 150 Innovators, Entrepreneurs and Community Organizers. OpenIDEO continues to design Alliances for new Challenges, to make sure that the innovative teams working on everything from reducing food waste to reimagining end of life care to delivering education in emergencies get the support to make real change. Food waste was the first of several topics explored in this way to support innovation for a circular economy. 

There’s never been more momentum for change. As millions of young people flood the streets around the globe to demand urgent climate action, cities and social entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands. Feeling this rising bottom-up pressure, governments, corporations, and multilateral organizations, like the UN, are accelerating their efforts to address massive global issues. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have provided a clear framework for action, and they’re helping align more actors than ever in the systems change we need.

OpenIDEO’s leaders, Jason Rissman and Luisa Covaria, spent the week diving into events and conversations, and came back to our team (and now you, our community) with three main themes they wanted to share as we work together to build a better world:

1. Ownership.

Since kicking off the Climate Strike a year ago, 16-year-old Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg has been extraordinarily influential in striking up fierce conversations around climate change and inspiring millions of young people to start taking action. She delivered an unforgettable message at the UN Climate Action Summit, telling world leaders: 

"You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you." 

There’s a new urgency and commitment to addressing the climate emergency, and it’s translating into actors at all levels—from individual young people to national governments—starting to take more ownership. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “We have been losing the race against the climate crisis. But the world is waking up. Pressure is building. Momentum is growing. And—action by action—the tide is turning.”

Countries have moved past negotiation and toward ownership, showing up with their own commitments in unison with this year’s theme for UNGA: "Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action, and inclusion." During the week, 77 countries committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and 139 banks—representing a third of the industry—signed up to align with the Paris agreement objectives. The UN member states also adopted a landmark declaration on universal health coverage. These are just a few of many examples of stakeholders proactively bringing forward their solutions. 


Sharing his observations from listening to diverse groups of Americans this past year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told the audience that he saw a “tremendous urgency and a tremendous spirit of do-it-yourself … a deep sense that it had to become a matter of personal responsibility right down to the local level.” Echoing his statement, we’re proud of OpenIDEO's globally connected innovators for taking initiative and developing a sense of ownership around local problems. They’re tackling issues related to food waste, people on the move, education, public health, circular economy, and so much more, with dedication and ingenuity.

As we move forward, how might open innovation be a conduit for increased ownership and visibility into the work different stakeholders are taking on? How might the work of so many of the incredible innovators in the OpenIDEO community inspire leaders to develop a mindset around design and prototyping in the work they are owning?

2. Technology

"We will have wonderful machines and dumb people if we don't invest more in education,” cautioned musician and entrepreneur,, during a World Economic Forum panel focused on the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—or the multiple technological revolutions that are transforming the way we live and work—to meet global development goals.

“It’s not about connectivity—it’s about access,” noted Kate Wilson, CEO of the Digital Impact Alliance at the UN Foundation. “How do we provide access to 50% of the world not connected to the internet? SMS and voice won’t do it. How do we create content and opportunities that are relevant?”

It's crucial that no one is left behind. While technological innovation is surely part of the answer, uneven access and unequal digital skills will lead to adverse effects. For tech to improve lives in a responsible and even way, and to avoid even greater increases in inequity, we'll need new models of targeted education, responsive innovation, and real cooperation between economic, political, and social systems.


Tech needs to facilitate inclusion in addressing societal problems, by involving those who are most proximate to the problems that well-intentioned new technologies are aiming to solve. We believe that collaborative thinking leads to greater innovation, and that including the voices of those with lived experiences will generate even stronger solutions. Open innovation is in its infancy, and we’re excited to help it advance to better surface and support the social innovators our future needs.

3. Collaboration

Today’s problems are interconnected, and only through systems change can we hope to make real progress. This will require more cross-sector collaboration than ever, but first, we need to improve how these collaborations are created and sustained. It’s time to introduce new models of collaboration that distribute leadership and allow all sectors to pitch in.

The SDGs have provided a powerful framework for what needs to get done, and some of the biggest players in the public and private spheres are putting their heads together to unlock the resources necessary to meet them. During UNGA, Google and the UN launched a partnership to develop real-time maps on weather patterns and SDG development activity, while the Gates Foundation and the World Bank announced a multi-million dollar commitment to support small-scale food producers in the face of mounting climate impacts.

Public-private partnerships are a necessary ingredient, as are new collaboration models that offer participants more shared ownership and flexibility.

The road to healthy collaboration is fraught with challenges, from getting past cultural differences to agreeing to common goals to making the long-term commitments needed for systemic change. Making collaborations work is hard work -- it takes empathy, grit, and a real understanding that it’s the key to sustained progress.


We’re excited for open innovation to provide a unique opportunity to rally diverse stakeholders and together explore new possibilities. By providing shared learning opportunities, clear timelines and processes, along with compelling incentives, open innovation holds the potential to mitigate against these common obstacles and to quicken the pace at which solutions are being developed by scaling the design process globally. Direct competitors collaborating in a pre-competitive space to address environmental challenges is a promising sign, but we need to go further. We all need to adopt an experimental mindset as a collective and work to continuously improve our ability to collaborate.

The NextGen Circular Business Accelerator, which culminated in a pitch event at UNGA, was one such collaboration, with leading brands, industry experts, and innovators coming together to eliminate single-use food packaging waste by developing a more sustainable cup. 

It is incredible to be in a room where you can feel a community reach a turning point. This year at UNGA we felt that shift tangibly across fields and sectors. We look forward to a year of collaborations with our partners and community that reflect this movement. 

What Do We Hope To Accomplish?

The Rockefeller Foundation has partnered with SecondMuse and OpenIDEO to amplify the discourse on the state and the future of the world’s many food systems, and to empower communities globally to develop actionable solutions and become protagonists in their own food future. Creating a compelling, concrete and actionable Vision for the future of our food system requires a culture of collaboration that rallies industry, policy, academia, and society to act as one. When we come together, we can deliver sustainable, nourishing diets for people and the planet by 2050.

Why Food Systems?

Aside from air, food (including clean water) is the most vital resource for life on Earth. And when you look at the food systems data and 2050 projections, the future does look bleak. But Humanity has more knowledge, technology, social intelligence, and human capacity than ever before—all of which can be harnessed to create a food system that nourishes all people, grows the global economy, and nurtures a thriving environment.

A Systems Approach

The Food System Vision Prize invites organizations and entities (called Visionaries) to imagine a hopeful, inspiring Vision for their chosen Place—town, state/province, region, bioregion, watershed, or country—through a systems approach. The goal for the program is to develop Visions that reflect the views of different stakeholders and that address the following six Themes:
1. Environment
2. Diets
3. Economics
4. Culture
5. Technology
6. Policy

Our Goal

Successful Food System Visions will be stories of contrast. They will illuminate the difference among food systems as they exist today and as they could be in the year 2050 “if we get it right” (science, policy, advocacy, behavior, etc.). Visions will unlock inspiration, knowledge, networks, and innovative solutions that have the potential to transform the future course of humanity and the planet. The purpose of the Food System Vision Prize is to light the way for populations across the globe to realize a more promising, nourishing, and healthy future.

Sign up to stay tuned for updates!

Learn More

Check out our Circular Design Challenge focused on reducing plastic waste, our Nike Design with Grind Challenge to create new products with existing materials, or explore IDEO’s Circular Design Guide.