A cheese selection on a slate

The COVID-19 pandemic shook everything that seemed certain, Brexit disrupted access to markets, and the impacts of climate change on the environment and food systems cannot be ignored. Amidst great uncertainties, there is an opportunity for the Highlands and Islands to lead the way towards long term green growth through collaboration, innovation and agility.

At HIE we find ourselves in a privileged position; business leaders frankly share their experiences and future plans with us, and in turn we use these valuable insights to inform initiatives and actions that aim to mitigate challenges and create new opportunities. I am very grateful for these local insights, as it gives me confidence in national discussions to express a view that is representative of the circumstances in our region, to broaden the understanding of issues and find solutions that are responsive to businesses’ needs. 

The challenges experienced since the start of this decade have been complex, often very technical and at times knotted up in legal agreements. I am under no illusion; we cannot fix all the problems. What we can do though, is support businesses to prepare for change, to adapt their business models, to embed new processes, to minimise their carbon footprint, to find new commercial opportunities and to become more resilient.

An inspiring example comes from the Highland Food & Drink Innovation Network which supports food and drink companies across the region to promote and develop new collaborations, identify opportunities for growth, improve productivity and access new markets. With their members doing increasing trade online during the lockdown, the Network asked HIE to help them investigate if there was a more time, costs and carbon efficient way to transport goods to customers.  

The result is the Highland Food and Drink Open Logistics Platform (HiPlan). This is a pilot project which aims to test if a data driven open logistics platform can be created to boost order fulfilment and reduce the time to market, to lower distribution costs by maximising load efficiencies, and to build supply chain resilience. Whilst this is a formidable innovation challenge, a problem-solving collaboration between businesses, the DataLab and Robert Gordon University means there is an advantageous mix of knowledge and expertise examining how new technologies can address longstanding issues.   

Businesses supplied information on the movement of goods which was augmented to be a more representative full dataset for the region, and this was run through an artificial intelligence simulation. Initial results indicate that it is possible to meet the delivery requirements and deadlines of food and drink businesses and at the same time organise movements into high-utilisation truckloads that would be profitable to handle. The project is moving into a second phase, which investigates how such a platform could be developed, made operational and managed.

Whilst food and drink businesses have faced strong headwinds during the past 18 months, their determination to find a silver lining and to seek opportunities where they might not have been before is why supporting this sector is so exciting.   

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