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The need for NEFKE was initially identified through conversations over several years within the Research and Assessment Working Group of NESAWG. Members voiced common challenges in accessing, using and sharing data and information supporting and assessing food systems work. And because it was hard to know who else was doing what across the region (with new initiatives constantly emerging or fading), there appeared to be unnecessary duplication of effort and competition for resources.

With generous support from the John Merck Fund Regional Food Systems program, a pilot project was initiated to explore and develop this audacious and evolving vision for linking people, technology and information in support of food system goals. Our initial focus has been on Farm to Institution value chains in New England. A team of collaborators and technicians have researched, explored, and tested tools and methods, developing prototype tools and resources, including this site.

The Northeast Food Knowledge Ecosystem (NEFKE) is collaborative effort supported by multiple organizations seeking to make food system related information more discoverable, usable and easier to exchange in support of shared food system goals across the Northeast US and beyond. They have agreed to share information with each other as part of a "federated network", supporting the seamless discovery of useful resources and expertise on their sites or wherever you see the "Powered by NEFKE" logo. Learn more about NEFKE here:

The Northeast Food Knowledge Ecosystem (NEFKE) is collaborative effort supported by multiple organizations seeking to make food system related information more discoverable, usable and easier to exchange in support of shared food system goals across the Northeast US and beyond. By upgrading our regional information infrastructure, this evolving knowledge ecosystem is helping link and align the assets and efforts of a broad range of practitioners, researchers, educators and advocates.

Sharing information about you, your project or organization in our registry will enable others to more easily find you and your resources, enhancing opportunities for collaboration, while helping reduce unnecessary duplication of effort and competition. Our work parallels and is modeled after similar work in science and academia like the VIVO/AgriVIVO projects. One way of contributing information to the NEFKE registry is through this Google form:

You can learn more about NEFKE here:


The capacity of a system to adapt if the environment where the system exists is changing. As applied to human social systems, the adaptive capacity is determined by: the ability of institutions and networks to learn and store knowledge and experience; creative flexibility in decision making and problem solving; and the existence of power structures that are responsive and consider the needs of all stakeholders. (Wikipedia)

Complex, adaptive problems are ones where a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach cannot be applied, where conditions vary unpredictably over time, circumstance or space. Unlike “technical problems” which can be well defined, whose solutions are known and where the necessary individual or organizational expertise and capacity is available to solve them, adaptive problems are complex, requiring ongoing assessment, readjustment and coordination between multiple parties. Due to the complex and dynamic nature of agri-food systems and their interrelated social, economic and environmental dimensions, in some sense all “good” food system solutions are or should be adaptive to some degree, suited to local needs, assets and conditions. 

Collective Impact is the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem, using a structured form of collaboration. The concept was first articulated in the 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article Collective Impact by John Kania and Mark Kramer. The concept of collective impact hinges on the idea that in order for organizations to create lasting solutions to social problems on a large-scale, they need to coordinate their efforts and work together around a clearly defined goal. (Wikipedia)

Kania and Kramer identify "Five Conditions of Collective Impact Success":

  1. Common Agenda
  2. Shared Measurement
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities
  4. Continuous Communication
  5. Backbone Support

There is a growing recognition amongst some practitioners that the last factor, backbone support, may be best viewed as a function in some cases shared by multiple entities. NEFKE seeks to serve as a sort of regional backbone for backbones, helping food system related CI initiatives across the Northeast U.S. find and connect with each other and the information resources they need to be effective.


The sharing of information and resources with others without expecting a return from those you specifically help, trusting that others in the network will share with you (Network Weaver Handbook). Similar to benefits realized through restoring soil health and resultant "mycorhizzal associations", there is a growing awareness that cultivating social networks based on these type of complex trust-based relationships can also support people and organizations engaged in food systems work.

An approach to the coordinated sharing and exchange of information among autonomous components adhering to common models, standards and protocols. Though complex and potentially hard to manage (requiring management of common architectural components and relations between federated components), this approach can better support emergent, collaborative solutions addressing complex, adaptive problems.

Because of an emphasis on shared models, and the simultaneous but sometimes conflicting goals of maximizing autonomy and information sharing, a federated architecture requires strong network governance. These principles are relevant to the need/role of backbone functions in supporting collective impact.

Unlike simple “hub and spoke” networks where information flow can be impeded by bottlenecks, federated or distributed networks support multiple pathways of information flow to and from members, illustrated in the images below.

Federated Networks

Distributed Networks


An approach to knowledge management which claims to foster the dynamic evolution of knowledge interactions between entities to improve decision-making and innovation through improved evolutionary networks of collaboration. In contrast to purely directive management efforts that attempt either to manage or direct outcomes, knowledge ecosystems espouse that knowledge strategies should focus more on enabling self-organization in response to changing environments. (Wikipedia). Related to similar concepts such as innovation ecosystem and Collaborative Knowledge Network.

Aligning with our knowledge ecosystem goals for continuous "virtuous cycles of improvement" in regional food systems work, support for several types of inter-related and networked communities of learning is a core focus of NEFKE. These include (drawing on the work of Wengner and others):

  • Communities of Practice: a group of people that take part in a common activity, talk and share information about this activity and define themselves in relation to it.
  • Communities of Interest: a group of people that come together to address a problem of interest to all.
  • Task-Based Community: a group of people that works together to accomplish a defined task. They may or may not be from the same CoP.
  • Knowledge-Building Community: a group of people that works together to produce a body of knowledge.

Within the context of NEFKE, the term registry refers to a collaboratively maintained, multi-functional online database maintained by NESAWG. It contains information about people, projects, organizations, events, and resources directly related or relevant to food systems work in the Northeast U.S., each tagged using descriptive taxonomies. That includes food producers, distributors, processors, institutional buyers and other value chains participants, as well as those who support them. Where possible our work draws on and complements similar work elsewhere, including the USDA,, VIVO/AgriVIVO, and Data Commons Cooperative.

Data contributors/curators include network partner orgs. Individuals can contribute information to the NEFKE registry through this Google form: Registry data is shared with all partner orgs, enabling them to use that data in a variety of ways, including on their own sites (e.g. to display a map of Farm to School projects listed in the registry for a particular region, or regional event calendars like this).

NEFKE content contributors/curators use several taxonomies based on common terms or "controlled vocabularies" to categorize people, projects, organizations, events and resources within the NEFKE registry. This facilitates discovery of useful information about those entities (e.g. topical or geographic focus), and their relationships with each other (e.g shared network membership).

Interfirm coordination characterized by organic or informal social systems, in contrast to bureaucratic structures and formal contractual relationships between them (Wikipedia). Networked governance moves from vertical to horizontal approaches to decision making and is characterized by systems of communications, knowledge exchange and dialogue that lead to better informed decision making and more effective implementation. (Institute for Sustainable Development)

A process of developing and maintaining connections with people and information, and communicating in such a way so as to support one another's learning. The central term in this definition is connections. It takes a relational stance in which learning takes place both in relation to others and in relation to learning resources. (Wikipedia)

A business model based on shared economic, social, and environmental values, in which producers, processors, buyers, and others work together to create value.

"The concept “value chain” has evolved from supply chain management and encompasses not only the transactional relationships along a typical business chain but also the larger web of stakeholder relationships and “external” social and environmental impacts of any supply chain. For agriculture and other natural resource ventures, these value chains involve primary producers, intermediaries that aggregate production … and one or more businesses downstream in the chain (processor, distributor, food service or retail.)  All supply chains get goods from one place to another, but many create unintended consequences for people or nature because of financial pressures that select for short term profit at the expense of long term resilience. There are other kinds of supply chains which we differentiate by calling Healthy Value Chains which provide social and economic benefit to all players in the chain while providing greater protection for ecosystems and natural resources.” -Value Chain Best Practices: Building Knowledge for Value Chains that Contribute to the Health of Source Communities, Susan Sweitzer, Hal Hamilton, Don Seville

 "Value networks (value webs), are complex sets of social and technical resources that work together via relationships to create value in the form of knowledge, intelligence, products, services or social good. Included in a company’s value networks are research, development, design, production, marketing, sales, and distribution - working interdependently to add to the overall worth of products and services. Companies also have external facing value networks where value is created from the relationships and interactions between organizations, its customers or recipients, intermediaries, stakeholders, complementors and suppliers. Value network principles apply equally well to public agencies, civil society organizations and other purposeful networks focused on creating economic or social good." (Wikipedia)

A recurring cycle of events, the result of each one being to increase the beneficial effect of the next (Oxford Dictionaries). In terms of knowledge ecosystems, ongoing communication and exchange, and increasing trust and collaboration, can result in a virtuous cycle of increased knowledge exchange and creation, within and across an organization (e.g. research institution), enterprise, group, region or network. The overall effect is increasing collective insight and impact.

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