The nature of innovations, knowledge exchange and practices

Reflective Activity 3

Spend five minutes writing down in the text box below what words have been used alongside innovation that you have heard or read about and that may be relevant to agriculture. Also note where you think these innovations come from and how they relate to knowledge and practices as described in Box 1.1.

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My list came out with product innovation, process innovation, user innovation, open innovation, radical innovation, and incremental innovation. There are others. Indeed, I have just remembered eco-innovation as well. The point to note here is that some refer to what is being innovated and others refer to how the innovation happens; any innovation has many different aspects to it and many different people involved.

Farming is a complex human activity system with many actors and many components. Farming is also an activity that has, in recent decades, been ascribed two major, but potentially conflicting, objectives: the short to medium term production of sufficient food to support socio-economic driven needs of security and stability, and the medium to long term philosophical and aesthetic desire to manage and conserve the ‘natural world’.

While there have been attempts to reconcile these different objectives both theoretically, as with the concept of ecosystem services, and practically, through agri-environment schemes, all too often these innovations have been developed through explicit knowledge and been provided for farmers by others without enough regard to the farmers’ own practices and contexts.

This contrasts with innovations and practices being developed with farmers, using their tacit or experiential knowledge to shape those innovations and practices both before and after adoption and implementation.

If external knowledge and innovations are to support more sustainable forms of agriculture, then they must also be matched with an understanding of the practices and contexts in which they are to be deployed.

This includes the way in which an innovation can spread amongst farming communities as explained by Boelie Elzen from Wageningen Research in the Netherlands (see Box 1.3 below).

Box 1.3 Anchoring and scaling

AgriLink Practice Abstract 16: Anchoring and scaling of innovations in agriculture [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  

To spread an innovation to more farmers beyond the few who already adopt it, one needs to understand in which stage the innovation is. Two such stages are called ‘anchoring’ and ‘scaling’.

Anchoring: in this stage an innovation is still under development and applied by a small number of ‘innovator-farmers’. Although innovation still has uncertainties and/or drawbacks, these farmers do not see this as a barrier, but rather as a challenge to tackle. The main objective in this stage is to develop the innovation further based on learning experiences from practice.

Scaling: in this stage an innovation has been demonstrated to work in practice by a significant number of farmers. It is considered ‘ripe’ for further application by ‘follower-farmers’. Yet, there may still be significant challenges to achieve this, e.g. need to invest, need to adapt farming practices, etc.

The practical relevance of this distinction is that, when considering an innovation, a farmer should assess whether it is in the anchoring or the scaling stage and whether the farmer sees her- or himself more as an innovator or as a follower. This can help to decide whether or not to start applying the innovation. The distinction should also be taken into account by advisors when advising a farmer.

Such an assessment is also of relevance for other stakeholders, including suppliers (to identify needs for further development), investors (to realise whether they invest primarily in ‘learning and development’ or in ‘marketing'), and policy makers (as different policy instruments are needed to stimulate either anchoring or scaling).

More information on this topic can be found in this AgriLink Theory Primer on Multi Level Perspectives (MLP) – Anchoring and scaling.

It is this interplay between innovations, knowledge exchange and practices and how they can be facilitated that lies at the heart of Living Labs, which we will look at in more detail in the next session.

However, you may also want to watch this video on Living Labs in AgriLink that was produced during the project that provides another overview of the processes involved.

The key elements of Living labs

Summary of Session 1