Reality check on Agricultural Innovation Systems


The concept of agricultural innovation systems is now widely accepted as key to improving food systems and feed the world’s 9 billion people by 2050. The seminar ‘Agricultural Innovation Systems – Reality Check’ provided a much needed space to further develop this thinking – and how it can be used in practice within an inclusive, multi-stakeholder approach to development.

With the aim of developing ‘living keynotes’ and a common agenda for the next five years in the field of agricultural innovation systems (AIS), 40 practitioners and scientists from 15 countries came together at The Dutch Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) on September 13-15 2016. The seminar was organized and facilitated by an alliance of KIT, ICRA and CDI.

AIS has now been discussed for more than a decade. But, as Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters, Head of KIT’s Sustainable Economic Development said: “We need to look into the future and become very specific about what AIS thinking has to offer”.

The family of innovation system approaches found their identity in a critique of linear technology transfer thinking. As such it also marked a break with modernization theory and technology-led approaches which have remained dominant in many, if not most, agricultural policy circles. AIS thinking offers an inclusive and multi-stakeholder approach to the development and use of innovations in agriculture, with equal attention to organizational and institutional issue. The seminar therefore also discussed how AIS contributes to the social change we are working towards.

As the name of the seminar suggests, it provided a ‘reality check’, by defining the concept in terms of how it speaks to the larger field of system analysis, and its position in cross-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder research. Furthermore, AIS principles can and need to provide guidance on how innovation can be scaled up. Richard Hawkins, director of ICRA, seemed to have support when he argued that “more important than extending a particular technology, is to improve different stakeholders’ capacity to innovate.” The seminar therefore also addressed the sticky issue of scale and explored how to strengthen capacity to innovate at different levels and in different contexts. Finally, participants gave special attention to gender, inclusion and diversity, as related to power dynamics within AIS. Recognizing social heterogeneity is a starting point in inclusive AIS.

Surprisingly for seminars these days, there were no PowerPoint presentations or stiff planning, but the seminar was based on collaboration and progressive development of ideas. Starting from the briefing papers attendees had circulate beforehand, the themes developed over the course of three days and participants gave each other constructive criticism to strengthen arguments. Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters, head KIT SED&G: “For example, we used the approach of ritual dissent to provide constructive feedback on working paper drafts. The seminar approach was hands-on and most of the time was spent in small thematic groups, discussion and co-writing. In this way, we brought together the knowledge and expertise of all attendees – from different nationalities and disciplines – to work on a joint agenda for AIS-thinking and implementation for the next five years.”

Over the next few months five working papers will be jointly published that aim to take current thinking on each of these themes a step further. They will be available on the KIT website.

The seminar Agricultural Innovation Systems – Reality Check was co-organized and facilitated by the KIT-ICRA-CDI Alliance and funded by GIZ and the Food and Business Knowledge Platform. This article is a joint publication by KIT and ICRA.