Greenhouse Canada

Greenhouse automation: we need ‘all hands on deck’

November 20, 2023  By Rita Sterne, PhD

I’ve always been interested in what underpins business success. How do managers make the best decisions? What tools help them make decisions that support business competitiveness despite changes in the industry?  The answers to these questions are usually messy because running a business is hard work, studying human behaviour is challenging, and the context behind decision making is changing. 

Many managers learn about Michael Porter, competitive advantage, and how to defend this advantage when factors in the environment shift. The recent pandemic was caused by COVID-19, however, there was a massive and concurrent shift of many factors in the competitive environment at once. Agri-food businesses found themselves facing public scrutiny. Many managers realized the competitive environment was unpredictable in a way they’d never seen before.

A report released on September 13, 2023, by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, entitled ‘Canadian Agro-Food Resilience: A Toolbox for Managing Crises,’ may offer some assistance to managers. The report dove into the resilience of agri-food supply chains in Canada and shares strategic planning tools that could help industry managers succeed despite “converging crises”.   


I believe we’re fortunate that the project team selected the Canadian greenhouse vegetable industry as one of the two case studies for their work. Several new tools for scenario planning (described as forward-looking instruments that assess layers of risk and vulnerability) are introduced and applied as part of a Crisis Management Toolbox for managers. I was eager to share this because I’ve had the same basic toolbox, as other managers have, for decades now. I would like to highlight three ideas prompted by this report related to decision making and innovation: 

Firstly, the report suggests managers may need to approach investments differently than they did pre-pandemic with investments in “resilience building” increasingly needed in the future. The way we calculate return-on-investment (ROI) is also changing over time. Eventually, we may see policies that encourage, support, and reward these changes. I remind myself everyday to consider how else I can provide support to businesses in the industry faced with investment challenges, particularly when it relates to the development and adoption of complex and expensive technologies like, for example, automation. 

Additionally, I appreciated the reminder that feeling overwhelmed by converging crises can cause our thinking to “freeze.” We know this happens because we’re all human and crises will often provoke fear or cause us to switch to default (if it worked once, it will work again, right?). If you’re a greenhouse industry cheerleader as I am, let’s keep talking openly and honestly about ways we can enable and support massive investments in innovation and greenhouse-related technologies.  

Finally, the report authors ask us to consider colleagues in government and on boards of directors facing tough decisions about how to support industry and business: “…there may not be enough qualified foresight experts anywhere in the world with the ability to credibly address issues related to a convergence of crises across industry sectors and society.” (p.29) If you happen to know someone who’s interested in systems thinking and complex problem solving, let’s get them engaged in the industry.

I’ve heard it said the easy problems have all been solved, but there will be no quick solutions in complex and interesting times. 

The next time we discuss business success, competitive advantage, or adoption of innovation, let’s remember how complex and pressing this world has become. Let’s show up every day for greenhouse industry colleagues because, we really do need all hands on deck. 

Rita Sterne, PhD (mgmt.), is the manager of the Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN). The GTN, a Niagara-College led consortium of research institutions, can help bring together greenhouse and technology businesses with research institutions to advance development and adoption of new technologies.

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