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The key to unlocking an agroecological revolution? Foster a culture of co-innovation

The key to unlocking an agroecological revolution? Foster a culture of co-innovation

The climate, nature and health crises necessitate a seismic change in the way we produce food and manage land. Tackling such major societal challenges requires a sophisticated approach involving a diverse range of collaborators to address multiple goals.

Bringing farmers and growers into innovation is central to LIAISON

To create new systems and approaches we require new innovation models.

Farmers and grower must be at the heart of projects bringing stakeholders together from across value chains to collaborate to find robust, evidenced and scalable solutions. Understanding the keys to success when working in this way is what the EU H2020 funded project LIAISON set out to understand and promote. As a partner in the project the Soil Association has, and will continue to use, the findings to help us plan and deliver an ambitious programme of activity to support a transition to agroecology by 2030 and in this article we share our key take out messages.

wheat field

Wheat field

The role of farming in the climate, nature, and health crises

Intensive farming practices have been recognised as key drivers of the climate emergency and biodiversity crises. However, food production and farming systems can change and, rather than contribute to these global problems, help tackle the climate, nature, and health crises while still supporting thriving economies. But to do so by 2030 requires a fast-paced transition towards agroecology and sustainable diets, which must include collaboration a central driver.

‘Multi-actor’ collaboration drives innovation

For such a complex shift to happen we need to innovative differently. We need to move away from models where “research is the source of knowledge, together with ‘top down’ extension and education”, with end-users (farmers and growers) the passive recipients of the solutions. Instead, we need to embrace innovation developed by groups of collaborators from different backgrounds and disciplines (farmers and growers, policymakers, researchers, citizens and any interested stakeholders) working together, exploring complex problems and developing wide-ranging solutions collaboratively that support a systemic change.

This model (known as interactive innovation through multi-actor partnerships) is ideal to find the solutions that characterise agroecological systems

LIAISON’s research …

The multi-actor LIAISON project (Better Rural Innovation: Linking Actors, Instruments and Policies through Networks) has been studying ways of speeding up innovation in agriculture, forestry and related sectors by “unlocking the potential of ‘working in partnership for innovation’”[1]. The focus has been on examining why some partnerships manage to effectively organise themselves, capture and nurture new ideas and create new solutions, while others struggle to fully realise their ambitions.

… Soil Association’s experience

Through its own programmatic activity, the Soil Association has seen the difference that good participation, effective listening, trust and openness can make. We know how rewarding it can be when the right people come together in collaborative projects - for example, through the Innovative Farmers network which this year marks its 10th anniversary and the Rural Innovation Support Service funded by the Scottish Government which features as a LIAISON case study.

Here we share some of the main lessons learnt from LIAISON, as well as highlighting useful resources for those engaging in these new innovation models.

farm visit

Sharing experiences on-farm

From idea to implementation: who needs to be involved?

New innovations need adopters, but agroecological propositions will not be implemented if they don’t respond to the needs of final users - in this case, farmers and growers. Through the analysis of a variety of projects – of different sizes, located across a diverse range of geographies and focusing on different topics – LIAISON identified that to ensure solutions make sense and are implemented, its users have to have a preeminent position in the project from start to end, providing a reality check throughout. If farmers are involved in exploring ideas and creating and implementing solutions, the groups’ results are more likely to address the challenges experienced by those in the frontline of agriculture. Through the ALL-Ready project, a growing network of Living Laboratories in Europe[2] and globally recognises that this approach is ideal for tackling such significant problems. Learning from the Living Labs initiative in Canada through LIAISON also showcased how important it is to scope out who needs to be involved from the beginning and give careful consideration to the effective engagement of stakeholders throughout.

Measuring impact - when and how to evaluate progress

The agricultural environment is very complex. Each season’s outcomes are affected by a multitude of factors, including weather and productive conditions, processing availability, market trends, political and market conditions etc. Therefore, effective solutions are better developed under innovation models that imagine the process as a journey fluctuating continuously, rather than as a single event developed in a linear way. This refreshed conceptualising of the process by LIAISON suggests that projects need to develop and implement evaluation strategies for every stage of the process, from idea inception to planning, coordination, analysis, communication and solution uptake stages; and that the project’s developments should be constantly revised as the process evolves to undertake corrections, adjust to unforeseen developments and correct mistakes. It’s a journey to go on together but you may have to adjust your route as you go to finally get to the end destination, as unforeseen events and opportunities are encountered along the way.

To assess progress, revising relationships and sense checking goal setting at each stage will require skills and the use of tools. To help, LIAISON has developed a toolbox to appraise groups’ internal and external relations, results setting, the journey so far, risk mitigation, economic performance and other conventional indicators. It is downloadable in PDF form as the Impact and Assessment toolbox.

Making the most of existing and new networks

For innovation projects, the goal is to tackle a significant problem that could have wider impact through behaviour change. This is why it is always important to consider those stakeholders around the group. However, communicating the process and results to a variety of audiences can be a challenge. Innovation support services, organisations like the Soil Association or farmer associations can play a key role. By developing strong communication channels and leveraging their networks and communications channels to reach varied audiences, it is possible to translate results in a way that is relevant and maximises impact. When communicating ideas and solutions, group members - and especially end users - should take ownership and share their voice, as it creates a ‘fast track’ to engage with relevant stakeholders. They will be more likely to be favourably disposed to accepting the project outputs.

When getting together, diverse groups have a unique resource at their disposal to sense check the process and, eventually, communicate their results and drive implementation, i.e., its members’ networks. Time and time again LIAISON case studies showed the relevance of accessing these networks across the life of the project: to explore topics “drawing on diverse knowledge and experience and creating ownership over not just the outcome but also the process” (RISS project); helping “the partnership stay anchored in reality” by interacting with external stakeholders (Nod Verde); sourcing local knowledge (Fairway), establishing contact with other clusters (Arena Skog) and even sourcing support from further afield (Nod Verde); sharing know-how on engaging with users (Organic +); and appropriately pitching activities for wider engagement (Living Labs).

Farmer and researcher working together

Farmer and researcher working together

Making your solutions meaningful to a wider network

Once solutions are found, the challenge is to drive uptake. This is where the support of the group participants’ wider networks is crucial. Solutions need to make sense to a variety of stakeholders within the food and farming systems, and members of wider networks “can act as a reference group, suggesting adjustments to be made to the innovation to better fit the external expectations”. They can also bring in ideas, support the creation of effective communication strategies in order to lead to widespread uptake and become the channels through which results are disseminated (Sparkle). By effectively involving networks it is possible to significantly improve the chance of the solutions being valued and embraced by other members of society during the dissemination process.

Well-connected organisations such as the Soil Association can serve as nodes between networks/participants, reaching members that had either not been considered, are hard to reach or might hesitate to come along - be it because of lack of trust, time limitations, fear of administrative processes or lack of awareness of potential benefits. Support services can also be a space to develop networks like ‘farmer innovation groups’ and foster co-innovation between groups and the larger periphery all along the project.

When combined with farmers communicating their experience and championing solutions across their networks, the chances of uptake of new agroecological practices across the industry increase. Because while innovation-minded farmers are usually the first to engage with these projects, their networks’ members will “look (at what they are doing) and they’ll want to know more, … (and) you’ll get the exposure to those more sceptical producers”.

Working together effectively and why good ‘neutral’ facilitation matters

Co-innovation projects are usually formed of members from different areas and disciplines working together. This is necessary to find well-rounded solutions that address complex challenges like food production, food accessibility, environmental and human health, and thriving economies. The caveat is that the same diversity of points of view, know-how, capacities, and cultural and motivation drivers that can result in great benefits, can also lead to miscommunication, lack of trust and ineffectiveness that hinder effective working. That is why a “neutral” guide, the facilitator, is central to the group’s success. Effective facilitators are often the key to guiding the process and unlocking trust and collaboration across truly diverse sets of knowledge, perspectives and cultures.

The importance of facilitators is one of the conclusions that can be derived from LIAISON’s light-touch review of some 200 “multi-actor partnerships” and detailed evaluation of 32 projects (which can be found as case study portraits), which shine a light on the real-world intricacies of working together in diverse partnerships.

Building trust

LIAISON identified that, while cooperation and trust cannot be forced, they can be facilitated. Facilitators coordinate, bring people together (within and outside the group), and create safe spaces to share ideas. They also help the group develop their “ground rules” and guide them through the evaluation processes at a variety of stages. Participants succinctly identified why they are so relevant: “It’s invaluable having [the facilitator] to lead the group, because we are all coming from our own little places, our own little bubbles. [The facilitator] asks the right questions and they really identify how the group could benefit from each other, and the main goals that come out in the discussions”.

Given their importance, LIAISON has developed a handbook to support facilitators, including a range of helpful participatory methods. Some of these tools can be accessed in the Impact Assessment and Evaluation Tools PDF document, while others will soon be available in LIAISON’s Interactive guide to facilitating participatory projects.

LIAISON toolkit graphic

LIAISON toolkit components

Fostering an inclusive approach

Change in favour of agroecological farming will take place primarily on-farm, but we need to recognise that it is not the exclusive responsibility of farmers to find solutions: agriculture affects us all. Finding the right solutions will require stakeholders from across society to work together with those in the frontline such as advisors, agronomists, researchers and NGOs to support agricultural solutions that enhance biodiversity, provide healthy food and help address the climate emergency.

While we understand the importance of diverse working groups, their strength – a variety of points of view, knowledge and ideas – can also be their weakness. Their diversity needs to be effectively led and facilitated to make sure everyone shares a common purpose; cultural and background differences are understood and valued; and diverse individual goals can be streamlined in complex but unified solutions.

The complexity of the challenges we face mean none will be solved by silver bullets in one area.  We need to work together bridging professional, cultural and personal differences to find complex solutions that appeal to different areas of society, supporting change across systems. Working together as part of LIAISON has enabled the Soil Association and its partners to experience the benefits and challenges that multi-actor partnerships can bring.

Make the most of LIAISON’s tools and findings

LIAISON has published a range of resources including a handbook on effective participatory methods, five ‘How to’ guides and a toolbox of useful monitoring and evaluation tools and frameworks.

Got an idea you’d like to work on with us?

The Soil Association is committed to collaboration and co-design and encouraging innovation from the ground up. To do this effectively we seek collaborations with a wide range of individuals and organisations. If you have an idea that you would like to work with us together on to support a transition to agroecology by 2030 please contact the Farming and Land Use team:

 LIAISON 2020 logo

EU flagLIAISON receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 773418. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this document lies entirely with the authors and cannot be considered to reflect the views of any body of the European Union.



[2] ALL-Ready programme