“Innovative new thinking is integral to the future of agriculture and we see the digital overtaking the physical,” says David Hickie, Technology Lead for FMCG at PA Consulting and a speaker at the REAP Conference 2016 in November.
David has 20 years of experience in research and development, including senior levels in Unilever and PepsiCo, which included work across the supply chain. He now is based at PA Consulting , a global innovation, technology and consulting firm.
We interviewed David about the shift in mindset needed to tackle new challenges in the industry…
Creating a marketplace for technology
Agri-Tech East is a good meeting point for the marketplace – our observation is that there is still a big gap between the large companies involved in the food supply chain and the SMEs who are driving innovation in agriculture. PA Consulting joined Agri-Tech East to see if we could help in both the creation and delivery of the market; to look at ways of attracting big companies to invest in finding and scaling up technology to solve their challenges.
We are not here to compete with the guys who have created the latest and greatest device, but to help figure out the industrial application and turn theory into practice when it comes to delivering the next revolution in agriculture.
We have observed that over the last 10 to 20 years many industries have digitised. Telephones have gone from a thing on the wall with a cable to something in your pocket that connects to the internet. As for the financial industry, who remembers cheque books?
The rate determining step in the evolution of an industry is the ability of its innovators to build the business models to get new ideas into the marketplace.
As industries digitise, innovations come from surprising angles and many incumbents can’t keep up as a result large companies are investing huge sums in acquiring new capabilities. Monsanto has invested around $1 billion in recent years acquiring companies with promising new technologies.
Globally, the digital agriculture industry is forecast to be worth $15 billion by 2021. However, many companies in the agro-science, machinery and technology sectors are struggling to position themselves for the future.
What about the farmer?
Integrating and making sense of data is a big challenge for a farmer. All this information is designed to help, but it doesn’t come without risks; even small mistakes in interpreting the mountain of data available can lead to lost crops and profits. Compounding the data challenge, the world is changing around us. Whilst much agricultural knowledge is ‘passed down through the generations’, methods need to change not only to boost yield to feed a hungry world but also to mitigate the effects of climate change. Alongside all these risks, it seems to us that there are many piecemeal, incompatible technology solutions.
Our ‘Digitising Agriculture’ report looks at how other industries have reinvented themselves, with the result that the digital world has overtaken the analogue world – we predict that the same will happen to farming.
While some companies, particularly those focused on machinery and technology, are open to new collaborations – which undoubtedly will create new products, new services and new industries for the benefit of the whole supply chain – the agriculture industry model evolved out of the analogue world.
The challenge is that the market for digital agriculture is still nascent and there isn’t an obvious route to coalesce around new technology platforms.
It’s not yet clear where digitising agriculture will create most value, or how to overcome the many barriers to technology adoption. However, many of the required technologies exist; it’s about selection, application, proving them, prototyping them, building one, and getting it to work. This is where PA fits in: we can help reinvent industries by scaling up technologies and building markets. I haven’t yet seen why there won’t be such a revolution, but I think to create it there needs to be a bit of a push.
Physics not chemistry for crop protection
New thinking is needed; if we were to reinvent crop protection, for instance, we might consider using physics, not chemistry: perhaps we would build a drone equipped with a laser, a camera and an intelligent processor and zap the pests.
Something we are looking at for the developing world is getting greater value from mobile phone devices. On a typical large farm, there may be hundreds of farmhands out in the fields, all with a phone on them – there is no reason why their phones shouldn’t generate information that is then fed back to the business.
For instance, a microscope can be added onto a smartphone to look at leaf development. You don’t need to go to every plant in the farm, but a few plants can be chosen for a representative picture of an area. It can then be worked out what the situation is in that field and if it needs water and fertiliser for example.
This is the kind of project we are working on – creating new knowledge by making use of what’s already there.
About PA Consulting
PA Consulting is an award-winning global innovation, technology and consulting firm with over 2,600 employees operating globally. For over 70 years, it has partnered with organisations to help them innovate and grow; envisioning and delivering new businesses, brands, products and services, and helping its clients build their innovation and technology strategies and capabilities.