Uber, self-driving cars and how to end hunger

Uber, self-driving cars, commercial drones and how to end hunger by solving the problem of food deserts

Recycle lost opportunities for social innovation. A theme I chose for redesigning and publishing my solutions to various problems I solved through open innovation marketplace in the last 7 years.

Years before Uber, self-driving cars and commercial drones factual realities were something to talk about on a daily basis, there was a challenge launched by AARP Foundation through crowdsourcing and open innovation platform Innocentive themed Drive to End Hunger. Under this common good message the NGO launched a short series of specific problems to solve. One of the episodes was about elimination/reduction of food deserts in the United States of America, and the target population was 50+ which is also the most affected not only when it comes to food, but in a majority of life aspects.

At the time of the challenge, there was the worst period of recession and unemployment born from 2007/2008 world’s painful fall from grace. It was also the time when venues like open innovation and crowdsourcing became more popular as low cost business solutions were a way out of bankruptcy and leadership crisis, but also a complementary solution to R&D challenges and a booster for innovation and creativity. Overall, an answer to business continuity in a more and more complex and challenging world.

There are a lot of organizations out there that struggle to find solutions for this particular problem and my opinion is there are plenty of solutions, plenty of funding for these problems, but also a low capacity for implementation. We will never manage to solve real problems in theoretical ways.

I immediately said Yes to this challenge and I enrolled in its solving by designing my own solution. It was an operational dynamic, flexible and self-sustainable model I themed Rewire Realities.

Rewire Realities

The realities I had in mind to rewire at the time were the unemployed and underpaid social categories of all ages who owned a car (called Food Taxi Drivers in my design – the operational food players), food industry business owners (the food resource) and local strategic delivery points (i.e. church, city hall, police, station, school, other public places).

I didn’t and I still don’t believe that an NGO legal form of organization is the right choice to implement and grow this program, so I proposed a social enterprise model to run this program for sustainability reasons.

The core vision of my proposal was to create a very dynamic and flexible network of independent “food taxi drivers”, to design a low cost supply chain (alternative / unconventional distribution channel) – a core service able to:

1. Offer food suppliers the opportunity to penetrate food deserts markets at lower costs – on one side

2. Provide and deliver beneficiaries food at the lowest cost possible – on the other side


I broke down the mechanism of my strategic program proposal to a few main key areas:

Legal entity: incorporating a social enterprise

Technical (IT) Overview: implementing a customized IT platform in order to best incorporate our core service and to respond to the proposed economic / business model’s requirements.

Operational Overview
People in charge living in food deserts will be designated to collect food orders and to place the orders in the IT
platform (our social enterprise operational instrument) and/or by contacting our commercial representatives on a
regular basis (weekly, twice a month, etc – based on economic calculations).

The orders are taken over by our head office / operations unit and based on a supplying system they are communicated further to the closest located food producers and providers to the food deserts in order to prepare them for delivery.

Based on our IT platform, the closest food taxi drivers are mapped and sent to the indicated food suppliers to pick-up the food and to deliver it to its beneficiaries.

An operational system will be designed in such way that cars of all sizes to be engaged in the program, so different quantities of food to be able to be provided at optimum cost in terms of money, material and human

Around a food desert area we will have mapped all food providers/producers and as many car owners & drivers as we can manage to engage – categorized on size, distances, registered working hours intervals, threats and risks on the way, and other factors of importance to our program.

Commercial Overview
Food providers / producers deliver the food ordered at production costs to our social enterprise. We place the food further with a low profit margin to cover overhead and operational costs, but mostly the program’s further development.

Based on a scale of revenues target beneficiaries buy the same food at a different price: the ones who have bigger incomes pay a little more and the ones who have smaller incomes pay less.

The situation of each person may be seen in the IT system based on data collection and processing. Beneficiaries can receive a Food Passport to keep the data flowing. Once people change their status in worse or better the price they pay for the food changes according to their new status/context (monitoring features).

Human Resources Overview
Food taxi drivers may be engaged from other vulnerable social categories or from categories that want to be part of this program (like social sciences students, volunteers, etc).

They will be paid low but reasonable fees for the food taxi service and also non-monetary benefits may be added to their hiring package (i.e. they can also buy food at low cost based on the same principles).

Operational and administrative personnel should be mainly attracted from other vulnerable communities, and where possible also from 50+ active and educated target population.

Developing Overview
For further developing and scaling/replicating the model, a franchise type of program could be designed and a campaign of empowering young, women and social entrepreneurs may be started.

Regarding its scalability, it may start with one small region known as food desert and expended progressively to more regions, one by one based on well defined financial and operational performances in the field and on execution plans. This way, we can identify its weaknesses and design it better according to field realities.

Social and Economic Impact
Overall, the program generates a consistent social and economic impact. Permanent watch (monitoring) functions will be implemented so we can measure the impact and design intervention operational solutions in real time.

More thoughts on main points

The proposed program aims to offer food suppliers a low cost supply chain alternative (unconventional distribution channel) but also a good theme to think about in perspective- as it is an area where commercial and social responsibility (CSR) sides of the business meet and from where new business dimensions can be created.

This unconventional alternative is the core service and it allows food business owners to provide food in those areas where is not profitable for them to open stores and other commercial points.

As a result we offer them a low cost food distribution service in the food deserts areas which is a market worthy
to take into account if we think at food deserts overall population.

In order to be able to offer them such business alternative we have to engage a large number of people of all ages who own and/or can drive a car – making them “Food Taxi Drivers” (on one side) and public delivery points in the Food Deserts areas (on the other hand).

Using existing information databases, maps, mobile and GPS technologies we can establish this service at its best.

In the Food Deserts areas there should be people in charge with collecting orders on a regular basis so food delivery to be made as targeted and cost-efficient as possible. These food orders collectors should be ideally engaged from local officials because they may have better education, a good understanding of the field needs and also access to communication resources.

The regular basis should be determined on economic estimations and based also on technical, operational and logistical possibilities in the field: once at a few days; weekly, twice a month, etc.

If, for example, there is the possibility of food depositing in proper conditions in some of the Food Deserts areas, the supplying may be done rarely (like twice a month or once a month) and this way costs may be kept lower.

With time maybe small food deposits may be built if the solutions turn to be functional and business tests show good parameters.

The food providers don’t need to invest in cars, logistic and don’t need to employ more people, engage other logistic and operational costs. All they have to do is to provide the food when Food Taxi Drivers come to their deposits/stores. In future also know-how & training services will be delivered, depending on the network evolution.

Under such circumstances we may start the program by delivering only the kind of food that doesn’t need freezing or special transporting conditions. This may be one of the start-up limitations, but it can be answered with time while program starts to shape itself.

If also CSR alliances are made with food providers, maybe the food costs may go much lower. In a concrete way, food providers may deliver a part of their production and stocks with profit zero for them (at cost price). For many it may look like a much more attractive CSR measure and project to engage in than to just give away food or money with no direct return of investment/measurable social and economic impact.

CSR Alliances may be made also with cars producers / dealers / owners. They may be engaged and convinced to offer our program new, old or second hand cars and in return we pay during many years very small renting /lease fees. These cars may help our network to expand and to attract in the program also people who don’t have a car but who can drive a car.

CSR Alliances may be also made with insurance companies for Food Taxi Drivers: low cost car insurances, medical and life insurances (especially for those who have to drive and deliver food in dangerous zones with high criminality or other suck risks).

CSR Alliances may be also made with gasoline producers (gas stations owners) to provide our program gas at lower cost, at least partially or whatever the terms are negotiated.

Other strategic alliances regarding the latest technologies that may be of help to our program may be sealed (like cheap fuels, engineering cars engine adaptations for lowering the fuels consume, etc).

Once joining the program, all cars are customized with the program’s logo & slogan (which will be designed) so cars to be safer and easy to identify when they cross dangerous zones. Other safety elements can be implemented.

Car drivers must also sign in for a minimum period of time in the program (like 6 months or 1 year minimum) so a dimension of stability and fluidity to be possible to achieve from operational point of view. Ranking system features can be also implemented and reward the most active players on all sides.

Final thoughts

Now, add to that the latest technologies that we can incorporate to better solve this problem, as in all the years in between more dots were connected. Imagine commercial drones and self-driving cars delivering food in sensitive areas. Imagine redesigning Uber model for solving this social and economic problem.

We live times when we have the best tools available to solve most of the social problems from low cost housing to end hunger. No business thrives in a world of poverty, no matter how automatized it is. On the contrary, violence and diseases arise, and these things know no border and no politics.

In this case it was all about an ideation challenge awarded with $10,000 for the chosen winning solutions if I recall correctly. The point wasn’t to deliver a consulting design, but to point out towards a sustainable model able to solve this problem or at least a part of it.

My proposed solution was not chosen by this particular seeker. I might have gone too far from what they had in mind or for their resources or capabilities at the time. I also might not have spent enough time to refine it.

Nevertheless, I believe it is necessary for us, problem solvers, to make another step forward and to broadcast our solutions to help and inspire more organizations from all over the world in their endeavour to solve painful problems like this. They will never be perfect solutions, but parts of them may be valuable enough to make a difference. From another perspective, we offer ourselves a good chance to connect with world changers and work together. It’s a good way to recycle lost opportunities for the sake of social innovation, to bring our past work about the future into the present.

I remind problem solvers who play the game in open innovation marketplace that we also have openOI and We Are Solvers for this purpose.


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