What is Co-innovation?

The operating environment for agri-businesses is becoming increasingly complex, and to remain successful and resilient farming businesses need to be able to respond to change. This increasing complexity means knowledge specific to a particular problem is needed. Usually, no one individual holds all of the relevant knowledge, and the knowledge may not be readily accessible (i.e. participants don’t necessarily know what they know from their own experience). As a result, creating new knowledge and applying it to address complex challenges needs more than a linear transfer from “experts” to “end-users”.



Klerkx, et al (2012) In: Farming Systems Research into the 21st CenturyL 457-483; Vicki Compton MPI (pers comm.)

Historically linear technology/information transfer, or a one-sided contribution (e.g. “give me your ideas and we will figure out what to do”) has been used to achieve practice change.

This has been most effective where the issues being tackled are relatively simple, such as safe use of agrichemicals, how to set up a mating programme for the dairy herd, or how to establish a crop. However, the approach has been less effective where the issues are more complex such as nutrient management and climate change. These issues involve multiple interacting drivers, conflicting goals, trade-offs, feedbacks, non-linear responses and unintended consequences. Complex issues do not have simple solutions and linear technology transfer does not work for them. Co-innovation is an alternative approach.

Co-innovation is a systemic approach to facilitating practice change, and more broadly innovation, when addressing complex challenges. Taking a systemic approach means considering as a whole, the wider system in which a problem is situated. The interactions among the parts of the system then become as important as the individual parts.

If you are interested in tools to help you identify an approach that might be best suited to the issues and opportunities you are tackling, there is a useful tool for you developed by the Red Meat Profit Partnership. This website provides a description of 9 extension approaches (from technology transfer which they refer to as technology push to co-innovation, which they refer to as co-development) and takes you through 3 steps to help select the best approach for your particular issue or opportunity. The website also has a table of extension activities to help you identify activities that will support the approach you identify. You can find this website here: https://www.rmpp.co.nz/.

Co-innovation in Practice: An Example in the Dutch Poultry Sector

A good example of co-innovation is the development of the Roundel poultry farming system. It was developed ahead of an EU-wide ban on the use of conventional poultry cages in 2012. The ban followed years of concerns and debate around overproduction, animal welfare and environmental emissions in the Dutch agricultural sector.

Public pressure meant the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries, as well as the research organisations involved in agriculture, had to change tactics to develop a more sustainable and socially acceptable method of poultry farming.

To enable the development of this innovative system various elements were put in place. First of all, it was key to understand the problem, including the need for sustainable hen housing, the policy requirements, and the perceptions, opinions, beliefs and wishes of those involved in the value chain (from the farmer to processors, retailers and consumers). A thorough analysis of the problems was undertaken before the design was started. Another key element was the interdisciplinary nature in which both scientific and tacit knowledge were valued, combined and used. Communication was also a major part of the process as the relationships and interactions between the egg production sector and different societal groups were very important.

The Roundel is the result: a new hen housing system, shaped like a flying saucer, with considerably improved animal welfare, environmental performance, profitability and consumer acceptance of eggs. In both the Netherlands and Germany people can visit Roundels and buy eggs in their distinctive round sustainable boxes in major supermarkets.

What does Co-innovation look like?

The practical application of a co-innovation approach includes:

  • Multiple participants from on-farm (farm owners, managers, staff) and off-farm, e.g. processing companies, researchers, policy and regulatory agencies, farm input suppliers, consultants, veterinarians and other rural professionals, and non-government agencies.
  • Formation of groups of relevant participants to jointly identify key questions associated with important issues, to learn together and co-create knowledge to address the question and to develop and refine potential solutions. This acknowledges that innovation emerges as a result of a co-innovation process i.e., the outcome is not known at the start of the process.
  • Active cooperation and coordination by all participants, which requires participants to partially give up their independent positions to develop and co-ordinate change with others.
  • A process that values alternative views and knowledge (e.g. local knowledge and science) as legitimate and relevant to developing potential solutions. Managing power relationships to ensure all stakeholders are active participants is important to achieving this.
  • Involvement of roles that have not traditionally been identified e.g. innovation brokers who are independent individuals or organisations focused on enabling all stakeholders involved to actively participate in co-innovation; and mechanisms for observing group processes and suggest appropriate changes to facilitate effective interaction and learning to optimise opportunities for innovation.
  • Innovations that are a complementary mix of technological, practice, market, social and policy changes. These changes evolve together through an iterative process of practical actions and experiments that challenge the current way of doing things.

Click here for more on the principles of co-innovation.


The Underpinning Principles of Co-innovation

The practice of co-innovation described above is underpinned by nine foundation principles:

  • The focus should be on innovation as an outcome of an interactive process (i.e. putting ideas into practice through interactive learning) rather than linear technology transfer from “experts” to “end-users”. In the latter, the technology alone is described as the innovation and seen as a finished product.
  • Linkages among stakeholders should be established for joint learning, as well as accessing information and other resources for innovation (funding, political support, new ideas).
  • “Sticky” information will need to be utilised, i.e. information that cannot be readily accessed, transmitted or applied, such as farmers’ experiential knowledge.
  • Knowledge from all sources (farmers, agribusiness, science) is equally important.
  • In contrast with a technology transfer approach, new participants such as local government, NGOs, entrepreneurs and businesses, will be involved. There will be new roles for participants in innovation, e.g. as co-developers of knowledge, champions of institutional change, entrepreneurs experimenting with new business models. Science becomes a facilitator, sparring partner, fact checker, options and visions generator, as opposed to just a generator of new knowledge to solve current problems.
  • Participants’ embedded attitudes, practices and behaviour will influence the tendency to innovate and are an integral part of a co-innovation process.
  • Those participating in the co-innovation process may need to change in order to cope with changes external to the process, e.g. a change in regulations.
  • The demand side (the different goals and agendas of stakeholders such as farmers, growers, consultants, banks, agri-businesses, entrepreneurs, government) must be included in the innovation process; as opposed to solely technology push.
  • External policies, such as the Resource Management Act, Clean Streams Accord or marketing policies are important in influencing innovation, and sometimes need to change to enable co-innovation – they are not just external but are often part of innovation.


Developing a Co-innovation Approach for New Zealand’s Agricultural Industries

While co-innovation type approaches have been applied in New Zealand agricultural industries, co-innovation practices have not been formally evaluated and refined for New Zealand. As part of the Primary Innovation programme, co-innovation will be tested in and refined for the agricultural industries, i.e. dairy, sheep and beef, forestry and cropping in six innovation projects. These projects will address complex issues such as water management in the Waimakariri Irrigation Scheme, management of nutrients on dairy farms, and the management of an invasive pest of potato crops. These innovation projects are seen as complex issues involving on- and off-farm drivers, the influence of multiple stakeholders, and consideration of a range of factors in addition to farm profitability.

i Groot Koerkamp, P.W.G., Bos, A.P., 2008. Designing complex and sustainable agricultural production systems: an integrated and reflexive approach for the case of table egg production in the Netherlands. NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences 55, 113–138.
ii Nederlof, S., & Wongtschowski, M. (2011). Putting heads together: agricultural innovation platforms in practice. F. van der Lee (Ed.). The Netherlands: KIT publishers.