Co- Inquiry for Food Systems Transformation

A Co-Inquiry to accelerate Food Systems Transformation

Agriculture and food systems face multiple challenges, such as land degradation and deforestation, climate change and deterioration of farmers’ livelihoods, to name a few. To respond to these challenges, the FACS team is facilitating a co-inquiry exploring how we can accelerate systemic change in global food and agricultural systems. Through different cycles and together with leading systems thinkers and practitioners the co-inquiry process have generated powerful individual and collective learning and insights.

The co-inquiry originally convened 40 participants around the question “how can we work more systemically to accelerate progress towards a more sustainable food system.” 

The insights from Cycle 1 were synthesized into ten key insights:

  1. Systemic approaches require more flexibility and room for adaptation
  2. Systemic change is actively resisted in the field, as are systemic approaches
  3. At the same time, there is an opening to strengthen field-wide capacity for systemic approaches to change
  4. We can learn from current examples of small and large scale systemic approaches that work
  5. There is still a need to provide further proof for the efficacy of systemic approaches
  6. Greater inclusion of stakeholders from across the system strengthens systemic change but often doesn’t happen for various reasons
  7. Shared vision can be a strength or a hindrance
  8. Shared mental models can be a strength or a hindrance
  9. The sustainable development profession itself creates a limiting condition regarding systems change

10.  Paying attention to a process that invites people to engage with heart, mind and soul

The full report can be found here: How can we work more systemically to accelerate progress toward a more sustainable food system? A Co-Inquiry Process.


A second cycle of the co-inquiry took place in 2021 around three sub-themes:

i) Systems change in practice: “How can we apply systems change in practice in the field of food, agriculture and commodities? What do we identify as the enablers and scale factors from positive experiences of systems change?”

ii) Systems leadership: “How can we support the emergence of systems leadership in the field? How can we identify, engage and uplift change agents, local to global?”

iii) Documenting systems change: “How can we capture and share the results and impact of systems change approaches?”


The insights from cycle 2 were synthesized into ten key recommended steps to integrate systems thinking into international development programmes working on food and agricultural systems:

1.  Programme design: use adaptive and participatory processes that are more effective in conditions of complexity and uncertainty

2.  Stakeholder participation: shift from telling to listening, using collaborative approaches to designing and implementing solutions

3. Trust and relationships: focus on building stronger trust and relationships as the foundation of effective collaboration

4. Hearts as well as minds: pay greater attention to the psychological and behavioural dimensions of change

5. Politics, power and conflict: acknowledge and work with the realities of power, politics and conflicting perspectives

6. Institutional change: identify and remove institutional barriers to systemic ways of working

7. Systems leadership: identify, connect and build the leadership capacity of leaders and champions from across the system

8. Learning: put deep learning at the heart of programmes to enable improved sense-making and adaptation

9. Facilitation: build and strengthen local facilitation capacity to support effective collaborative action in the longer term

10. Measurement: measure indicators and enablers of systemic change and engage stakeholders in participatory evaluation processes

The full report can be found here: Changing Food Systems: What Systems thinking means for designing and implementing development programmes to catalyze change in food and agricultural systems.


In 2023, these recommendations served to further proceed with a third cycle of the co-inquiry around the following themes:

i) Programme Design for Systems Change: “How can we design international development programmes to be more effective in accelerating systemic change in food and agriculture?”

ii) Working with Power and Conflict: “How can we work more effectively with power and conflict in multi-stakeholder processes for changing food and agriculture systems?”. The full report can be found here.

In addition, we launched peer learning groups for practitioners working on systemic change initiatives in food and agriculture and national level co-inquiries.

Navigating Complexity in Food Systems: From Clockwork To Cloudwork

Wrapping up the three-year co-inquiry process, in March 2024 we published “Navigating Complexity in Food Systems: From Clockwork to Cloudwork‘’. The latest report is a call to action for international development organizations and all stakeholders committed to transform food systems, to shape a new vision that embraces complexity to deal with today’s growing challenges. You can read the report here.

If you are interested in the initiative and in future collaboration opportunities, please contact Charles O’Malley, UNDP Senior Systems Change Advisor, at