Agropolis Fondation
Cariplo Foundation

The URBAL project aims to provide urban policy makers and innovators with a low-cost, easy to implement and context-adaptable methodology that makes the innovation impact pathways across all sustainability food systems dimensions more explicit.  The goal is to identify how short, medium and long-term changes created by the innovations are articulated. Importantly, while not the exclusive focus, social innovation is a key innovation driver lens. While the intent is not to provide evaluation per se, the Urbal methodology will help unfold how innovations link with sustainability.

URBAL builds from existing work on different topics including: impact pathway mapping; innovation with an emphasis on social innovation; participatory research and sustainable food system assessment. Recently, FAO and RUAF Foundation (Holland), associated with the Center for Sustainable Food System at Wilfrid Laurier University (Canada), have developed a set of indicators for mapping and assessing city region food system sustainability that will be very useful for URBAL project. This tool has been tested on several city regions in the world.

More generally, In the field of food system assessment, a lot of projects and researches aimed at identifying relevant indicators to assess food system sustainability propose from a few to more than one hundred indicators to address all the dimensions of sustainability (Singh et al., 2012, Blay-Palmer et al. 2019). However, these are frequently time and money intensive methodologies that cannot be used easily by local authorities or innovators to better inform their decisions and actions. Given current realities that typically include tighter budgets, policy makers plan without a clear idea of the impact they can expect.  For these reasons, it is necessary to explore simpler and participatory methodologies that can help social learning in the context of public policy.

Address all dimensions of sustainability

A key goal for Urbal is to consider all dimensions of food system sustainability across the initiative and to address at least two dimensions in each pilot project. It is important to think in terms of systems as we want to make sure we capture interconnections and synergies.


The sustainability dimensions encompass six main areas:

  • Social dimensions including social cohesion, inequality, identity and culture, and confidence in the system
  • Economic dimensions include decent jobs, equity and resilience considerations
  • Food security related to food access, availability, regularity and quality
  • Very close, the Nutrition dimension including physical activity, health and care
  • The environmental dimension includes pollution, biodiversity, and non-renewable resources flows.
  • The final dimension is governance including participation, transparency and accountability.

For whom? Urban innovators, urban policy makers and funders

Ultimately, Urbal offers the opportunity to create links between innovators, policy-makers, researchers and funders.
For stakeholders in urban-driven innovations – whether you are a producer, processor, trader, consumer, citizen, environmentalist, or working in the city council – the Urbal process will help develop valuable insights into what you are doing. And, it will give you resources including reports and diagrams you can use to be more strategic about your innovation pathway for your organization, for communications and for investors. As well, by helping to map the innovation you will become aware of and more integrated into the local food system sustainability network that can support the innovation in its next phases. This provides additional capacity that can continue after the Urbal research. In our pilot phase, participants are finding that the Urbal data gathering, mapping and workshop helps build capacity and dialogues that strengthen organizations and networks.

If you are a policy-maker, the method will give you a process and tools to help understand more about existing and proposed urban food innovations. This better understanding of the actual contribution of innovations to food systems sustainability can be a valuable asset in the conceptual development of local food policies that promote and foster innovations in an integrated way.

For researchers, Urbal expands what is understood about the results of urban food systems on sustainability dimensions and the extent to which innovations are building towards increasingly sustainable food systems.

For funders, Urbal offers a methodology you can use to assess projects and the extent to which and how they create sustainable changes providing information to make more strategic decisions.

A methodology in progress

The aim of the URBAL methodology is to help disentangle the goals and strategies that lead an innovation to sustainability, not necessarily to measure its impact. That is why we chose to work with impact pathway mapping. While the identification of impacts can give clues about the effects and implications of a program, project or other initiative, it cannot answer the question of how and why an impact has occurred. Impact pathway analysis can.

URBAL is building, testing and refining a tool that can help various actors identify the potential and risks for different sustainability dimensions for urban food system innovations. Building from assumptions of participatory engagement, we focus on policy makers and practitioners, to build a cognitive map or logical frame that makes explicit the impact of innovations on sustainability, i.e. to identify the actual changes produced by the innovation on sustainability, the ways they are induced by the activities performed by the innovation, and the ways they interrelate, from short-term changes (outputs) to medium-term (outcomes) and to long-term changes (usually referred to as impacts). The chosen approach will therefore assess not only the intended and unintended impacts on all sustainability dimensions, but also the pathways that led to these changes.

The central question is ‘How have ideas and/or practices changed because of what we do?’ In order to address this question, Step 1 is dedicated to the collection of background information through interviews that will help to raise awareness about the innovation, document the context and understand the motivation of the practitioners for the innovation.

In Step 2 a workshop is organized involving stakeholders (practitioners, partners, users) to map Impact Pathways and discuss comments and improvements to the various pathways leading from the innovation to related changes.

It is based on a simple question: how do we get from what we do to what we change or could change? After identifying all the activities performed by the innovation, we select the most relevant activities to work on regarding to sustainability or regarding their innovative dimensions, then we map the impact pathways for each activity on the six food system sustainability dimensions.


Step 3 is a meeting or a workshop to reflect on the results and the project as a whole with innovators, stakeholders, policy-makers and/or funders. This final step may also be used to identify indicators for benchmarking and actually measuring changes and impacts.