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Agricultural Knowledge Systems in Transition: Towards a more effective and efficient support of Learning and Innovation Networks for Sustainable Agriculture

Final Report Summary - SOLINSA (Agricultural Knowledge Systems in Transition: Towards a more effective and efficient support of Learning and Innovation Networks for Sustainable Agriculture)

Executive Summary:
The overall objective of SOLINSA was to identify effective and efficient approaches for the support of successful LINSA (Learning and Innovation Networks for Sustainable Agriculture) as drivers of transition towards Agricultural Innovation Systems for sustainable agriculture and rural development. Specifically, the project explored 17 LINSA and analyzed how policy instruments, financial arrangements, research, education and advisory services might support LINSA in cost-efficient and effective ways. The consortium was comprised of 11 research institutions from 8 European countries.
All countries studied report a fragmented Agricultural Knowledge System (AKS) that includes a diversified landscape of both formal and newly emerging informal organisations that each cover an overlapping part of the AKS. The role of research institutes and universities as the dominant sources of knowledge and innovation is rapidly replaced as organizational boundaries become diffuse. Agricultural education is in a difficult structural position. New actors have emerged and new coalitions of actors have started to pursue different, sometimes competing goals. Networking, knowledge co-creation and collaboration between different partners is very popular across the different countries.

SOLINSA researchers were able to propose theoretical advancements by developing the LINSA concept, models of LINSA interaction with AKS, characteristics of learning and innovation processes in LINSA, the range of sustainability discourses used by LINSA, the links between learning, innovation and sustainability in LINSA, importance of boundary objects and boundary work. A particular methodological framework; the Reflective Learning Methodology, was developed to link local-level fieldwork with LINSA and project-level reflection among the researchers.
The analysis of the LINSA focused on 8 characteristics (Degree of Integration; Level of Innovation; Scale; Origin and Function; Links between AKIS and LINSA; Level of Learning; Governance; Efficiency and Effectiveness of Support), and resulted in the following six qualities for LINSA: a dynamic balance of diversity and commonality; a shared goal of innovation; mutual engagement (participation, commitment (although not all actors participate to equal extent); a minimum level of governance and organization of network; reflexivity: network participants have to steward learning activities, reassess innovation objectives and evaluate sustainability performance; innovation and sustainability are to be connected and embodied in LINSA activities and practices of their members.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to supporting LINSA. Yet the project developed recommendations for education and training, advisory services and extension, researchers and research policy taking into account the current EU research and innovation policy context (Horizon 2020; EIP Agricultural Production and Sustainability).
We conclude that: 1. LINSA are networks of producers, consumers, experts, NGOs, SMEs, local administrations as well as official researchers and extensionists, that are engaged in sustainable agriculture and rural development - cooperating, sharing resources and co-producing new knowledge by creating conditions for communication; 2. There are different forms of LINSA. LINSA can have a strong relationship with the AKS or not be connected to the AKS at all, or a relationship that lies between these extremes; 3. There is a need for opening spaces and creating an environment in which LINSA can develop their full potential to contribute to innovation for sustainable agriculture – beyond traditional AKS; 4. The role of AKS as partners for LINSA needs to be strengthened; 5. In this situation, transition partners emerge as new kind of actors, with particular roles and functions. These are various kinds of networkers, facilitators, participatory researchers, boundary persons, or experts who engage with LINSA in joint learning and innovation for sustainability.

Project Context and Objectives:
As growing empirical evidence shows, the rate and direction of innovation in most of the agricultural sector is increasingly dependent on artefacts, which embody knowledge produced largely outside farming and without farmers’ participation, like fertilisers, machinery, commercial standards and codes of practices. In this context, very limited degrees of freedom are left to farmers, who are ‘locked into’ rigid socio-technical systems wherein knowledge is transferred through linear (and one-way) flows from points where knowledge is produced to points where knowledge is used.
These innovation pathways cannot prevent falling farm incomes, nor can they counter the growing vulnerability of farmers and agro-food systems. And, which is perhaps more important, these innovation pathways are largely inadequate to respond to the challenge of sustainability. In fact, they have been historically developed in response to a specific problem – how to increase production – and research, education and extension are aligned around this goal. By their history and nature, they are not able to address the demand for public goods as for private goods, and therefore cannot support farmers to provide them adequately.
But we can also observe a countertendency. It consists of the activity of networks of farmers, consumers, NGOs, experts and local administrations looking for alternative ways to produce, consume, and innovate. In order to create autonomous spaces of development, they ‘break the rules’ of dominant socio-technical systems and build up new economic spaces endowed with their own rules, actors, and artefacts. Such multi-stakeholder networks are working in a difficult environment and have historically developed a capacity to innovate based on the principles of endogenous development: autonomy from institutional pressures and formal AKS actors; capacity to get control of technical and economic processes; and consideration on how to reproduce conditions of production. The key to this approach is to give priority to: endogenous resources over exogenous ones, continuous observation and reflection, willingness to try out new practices, intensified interaction and cooperation with a large variety of outside actors. Social learning and co-creation of knowledge, as opposed to ‘transfer of knowledge’, becomes the core organising principle of these networks. Most of these learning and innovation networks develop around the principles of sustainability. To be competitive, farmers belonging to these networks apply agro-ecological principles; diversify crops or farming activities (on-farm processing, energy production, social services, etc.); participate in collective initiatives; mobilise local and traditional knowledge social capital and local biodiversity; and build new market arrangements to give differentiated products to concerned consumers. As these networks develop, differentiated tasks and roles emerge within the system so that accumulated knowledge can circulate into broader environments and contribute to enlarge the space for further innovation. These processes also have an influence on existing institutional arrangements. In our project we call such networks Learning and Innovation Networks for Sustainable Agriculture (LINSA).
Despite signs of improvement in some countries, LINSA are to a great extent still disconnected from formal Agricultural Knowledge Systems (AKS). This term is used to define a set of public and private organisations dedicated to research, education and extension, and linked to each other with strong (formal) and weak (informal) ties. In fact, AKS have been initiated and developed on the basis of a linear approach to innovation. Under the pressure of macro changes and internal contradictions, formal AKS are changing. They have been increasingly exposed to processes of privatisation and quasi-market regulation; they have diversified their supply to respond to a diversified demand, including the increasing demand for public goods emerging from society and interpreted by public administrations. However, having inherited organisation patterns, structures and mindsets from the past, and being exposed to the pressure of forces pulling into different directions, Agricultural Knowledge Systems have not undergone the necessary reforms. They lack of horizontal (with peers) and vertical (with other actors) connections and therefore suffer from inadequate communication and a lack of common cognitive frameworks. They also lack the knowledge and skills required for a changing context (especially those related to communication and facilitation of social learning processes).

The transition of European agriculture to sustainability is not independent from the transition of European Agriculture Knowledge Systems, as the latter has an important influence on how the transition to sustainability is fostered or hindered. What is needed, therefore, are knowledge systems linking together system approaches to innovation to meet the challenge of sustainability. This implies a transition from Agricultural Knowledge Systems to Agricultural Innovation Systems for Sustainability (AIS). AIS should apply the same approach to innovation of LINSA, and especially their focus on learning, to a meso level, addressing institutional learning and co-creation of knowledge. They should also apply, as LINSA do, double loop learning, which means learning to adapt (or to change) cognitive frames to changing environments.
There is a lot of literature on new approaches to innovation and on learning. Good theory has developed to indicate which direction to take. However there is an absence of research on how to concretise the scientific knowledge into practical guidelines, e.g. in terms of strategies on how to handle difficult issues related to power relations, trust and gender, or in the field of farming for sustainability. There is a substantial knowledge gap, in fact, concerning the barriers to transition towards a more flexible and innovative AIS and with respect to policy instruments and other support measures to remove these barriers. We have limited knowledge, for example, about the relations between innovation and regulation; about the implications for innovation of synergies and conflicts between policies; and about the difference that different contexts make (North / South, well-structured civil society / weak civil society, efficient / inefficient public administration, centralisation / decentralisation). We also know very little about how to motivate conventional systems of production to unlock and undertake new innovation pathways. Furthermore, more knowledge is needed on how to close gaps between the need for change and farmers’ motivation to adjust, and on how to improve the capacities of innovation agencies and advisory services to effectively support changes. Thus, capacities and resources of knowledge actors, such as advisors, have to be changed and supported, and the role of education, research and advice in supporting learning and innovation has to be rethought.
The core concept around which the project evolved is Learning and Innovation Networks for Sustainable Agriculture (LINSA). We define LINSA as networks of producers, consumers, experts, NGOs, SMEs, local administrations as well as researchers and extensionists, that are mutually engaged with common goals for sustainable agriculture and rural development - cooperating, sharing resources and co-producing new knowledge by creating conditions for communication. LINSA respond to the demand for agriculture in transition, they develop new intermediary tasks and roles and involve new actors and institutions into alliances for objectives that refer to sustainability. Acting at the boundaries of consolidated policy networks (for example, between agriculture and environment, agriculture and health, agriculture and planning, agriculture and social services) LINSA can bridge different policy authorities to create common frameworks. Consequently they can facilitate integration and adaptation of policies to given contexts. Operating in this way, they also create pressures and internal contradictions on AKS, fostering their change. It is on the basis of this understanding that we start from the hypothesis that LINSA are among major drivers for transition.
Research can play a role in supporting LINSA, and the challenge is how to organise research in a way that mutual benefit is maximised. For meaningful support of LINSA, one has to identify what their problems are. For LINSA themselves to identify their problems and challenges, they need to find a space in which they can reflect on themselves. Research can open up such a space and empower LINSA to reflect by enabling them to step out of their daily routine. The form of this space and how this space is used is a matter of continuous negotiation, and such a process needs skilful researchers who have the capacity to do so and are willing to engage in the collaboration themselves. Participatory action research is a suitable way to address these challenges for meaningful research on LINSA. It focuses on establishing mechanisms that ensure a cyclical, self-correcting process between researcher and involved stakeholders (here: LINSA members).

Project objectives
The overall objective of this project is to identify effective and efficient approaches for the support of successful LINSA (Learning and Innovation Networks for Sustainable Agriculture) as drivers of transition towards Agricultural Innovation Systems for sustainable agriculture and rural development.

The overall objective is detailed in work package specific objectives as follows:
● Develop a conceptual framework for innovation for sustainable agriculture and rural development and critically reflect and further develop it on the basis of the empirical work in order to advance theory on agricultural knowledge and innovation systems and LINSA (WP2 and WP8)
● Identify institutional determinants that enable or constrain existing AKS in supporting effective LINSA in the context of changing knowledge and innovation policies (WP3), by enhancing the understanding about
○ the main agricultural trends in their national and EU contexts;
○ specific demands of AKS emerging in the national contexts (knowledge needs);
○ characteristics, incidence and main fields of action of LINSA in the national contexts;
○ institutional determinants in AKS that enable or constrain AKS in supporting effective LINSA;
○ trends in national AKS policies for agriculture, rural development and innovation

● Explore LINSA empirically as bottom-up drivers of transition (WP4); in particular:
○ To enhance understanding about mechanisms of network development, learning and innovation processes and connections with the formal AKS systems
○ To enhance understanding tasks, roles and emerging quality needs for the knowledge and skills of actors and institutions and consequences for education and training, in particular for professional advisory systems
○ To collect empirical evidence on policy principles, policy instruments and financial arrangements for successful LINSA in different national and regional contexts
○ To develop evaluation criteria on effectiveness and cost efficiency of support arrangements exploited by LINSA and to evaluate such arrangements
○ To enhance understanding learning approaches, methods and tools used in LINSA, why they are used and if they are useful in the applied context
○ To enhance the understanding of constraints, opportunities and needs for support for successful LINSA
○ To develop operational tools for AKS actors, summarising the findings of exploration of LINSA

● Improve understanding of barriers to complex learning processes and developing recommendations on how to avoid / remove them (WP5); in particular:
○ To ensure the learning process of the involved researchers LINSA actors in the project through the implementation of a transdisciplinary learning methodology
○ To evaluate and monitor the applied methodology
○ To provide recommendations for improved transdisciplinary learning in networks, including methods and tools for intermediary actors

● Create open learning spaces for actors outside the project by sharing and disseminating project findings and test practice-oriented results of the project with potential users of the outcomes (WP6)

● Develop operational tools for relevant actors to support successful LINSA in terms of effective and efficient policy instruments, financial arrangements and a better coordinated approach of different policies (WP7)
○ by comparing and contrasting results from WP3 with results from WP4-6 and
○ by conducting a workshop with EU and national policy actors.

Project Results:
For reasons of better readability, this part is provided in the attached PDF

Potential Impact:
For reasons of better readability, this part is provided in the attached PDF

List of Websites:

Heidrun Moschitz,
Department of Socio-Economics
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL
Ackerstrasse 113
5070 Frick
Tel: +41 62 865 7214
Fax: +41 62 865 7273