If you were born in the 1800s, your career prospects began and ended on the farm. Over 75 percent of Americans made their living in agriculture. Today, less than 2 percent of us do. The average American farmer in the 1940s fed 19 people. Today, s/he feeds 155. That’s a growth in productivity nine times greater than the average of all other industries.

That’s the good news that greeted the nearly 100 student leaders who assembled on the campus of the University of California at Davis on the morning of May 29. Here’s the bad news: if it’s easy to do in agriculture, it’s already been done. Getting from here to feeding 9 billion people will take some pretty sophisticated thinking—and that’s precisely what these folks came to do.

As the future leaders who will take up this challenge, the students at UC Davis and an earlier cohort at Tufts University explored this complex issue at our recent Nourishing 9 Billion SolutionLabs – a joint initiative between CollaborateUp and Net Impact.

SolutionLabs connect students and food system experts, giving the students a chance to take on real problems they identify in the current system and try to quickly develop plans for how to address them. Experts shared insights from their work related to the global nutrition challenge with students, including representatives of government agencies, like the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the US Agency for International Development; academia from Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition and the World Food Center at UC Davis; food production from Monsanto; and non-governmental organizations, like Conservation International and Freedom from Hunger. Then, the students teamed up in working groups to address the various problems they brainstormed.

Collaboration is key to the process; both between individual students, and with the food system experts who then served as advisors to the working groups. CollaborateUp’s Partner Model Canvas helps guide student discussions through 12 essential questions to think through the issue that will provide the minimum information needed to start collaborating and building ideas.

Often when we approach a challenge, we try to make the solution really big and completely upend how everything is operating. By contrast, the Partner Model Canvas showcases how to work within the system that exists to identify the specific pieces of the problem that can be tweaked to have the biggest impacts, and what value they can bring beyond what others may already be doing.

Another key piece of the model is understanding and engaging stakeholders. The Nourishing 9 Billion SolutionLab itself is a part of stakeholder engagement as the students work with their mentors from across the food system. I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and willingness of both the students and the experts to participate, and the constructive conversation about the complexities of modern food production that developed.

At the end of our four hours together, the student groups presented their ideas. It was motivating to hear these future leaders share the start of practical and potentially impactful solutions to our complex challenge of nourishing 9 billion.

Want to help tackle this tough problem? Here are three things you can do to make a difference:

  • Get smart. Learn more about the social innovations students have developed at our SolutionLabs here. And stay part of the conversation by following #Nourish9B.
  • Bring SolutionLabs to your campus! Send us a note at info@collaborateup.com to let us know where you would like to see this program and why.
  • Have your own solution? Perhaps you already have an idea about how to address the challenge of nourishing 9 billion. Check out the CollaborateUp Toolkit for a step-by-step guideline on how to comprehensively develop social innovations.

This blog originally published on Just Means. Click here to view.