A few weeks ago I participated on behalf of the Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) consortium in an online discussion about innovation capacity for food security and nutrition. This discussion was organised and moderated by the Tropical Agriculture Platform, an initiative that aims to facilitate capacity development for innovation in tropical agriculture. The conversation attracted lots of great contributions from a diverse mix of participants, leading to a stimulating exchange of experiences, views and information. You can find the background document and a useful archive of the contributions online.
What do we mean by ‘innovation’?
In my first contribution I decided to focus on what we mean when we talk about ‘innovation’. Almost everyone calls for more innovation, especially technological innovation. Innovation is celebrated as a good thing in and of itself, implying progress and improvement, leading to better outcomes. But innovation has a dark side too. For example, the guillotine was an innovation in the mechanisation of murder in a context of revolutionary terror and oppression.
Other innovations have been guided by the best of intentions but produced unexpected and unintended consequences. For instance, innovations in global agriculture and food systems have dramatically increased the supply of bulk calories while creating problems of air and water pollution, declining water tables, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, increased levels of risk through crop monocultures and uniform diets, and rising levels of metabolic disease. In short, we should be careful what kind of innovation we wish for.
Similarly, Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS) are often spoken about as if they are a sort of institutional ‘plug-and-play’ fix that will stimulate innovation and improve technological outcomes. It is sometimes implied that if we assemble a mix of public and private actors of different sizes, from different sectors and parts of the value chain, and get the policies aligned, then – hey, presto! – innovation will occur. But what if the assemblage of different actors shares a vested interest in maintaining the status quo? What if they operate more like networks of rent-seeking and corruption than innovation?
Innovation depends on practical building blocks
My point is that the scholarly work on innovation systems began from observations of empirical fact, that substantial change at scale generally requires different actors to effect change, with their different capacities and interests. But there is no special magic attached to bringing together organisations and people from public and private sectors, for example. An innovation system might spring up between a few individuals or the departments of a single corporation or ministry. Much depends on old-fashioned building blocks such as funding, leadership, incentives and rewards, institutional culture, creativity, and so on.
The helpful insight of AIS scholarship is that, if you want to bring about change at scale in agriculture, beyond the boundaries of a single organisation (such as a crop research institute), you will certainly need different types of actors to cooperate and contribute. But this is a pragmatic observation of how the real world works, not a design doctrine or template for successful and positive innovation. In other words the ‘content’ (goals, mission, strategy etc.) of the innovation system matters as much as the structural framework.
The capacity to innovate grows when individuals and communities feel motivated and empowered to change the status quo, and are equipped with information, knowledge and resources to help them create change. Some organisations and people in society are already accustomed to exercising power in this way, but if our goal is to improve nutritional outcomes among poor and marginalised people, we need to take into account those groups’ experiences of disempowerment, exclusion and deprivation.
This is a revised version of a contribution Dominic Glover made to the FAO/TAP email conference on ‘Innovation systems for food security and nutrition: understanding the capacities needed’, which was conducted from 18 April to 13 May 2016.