Responsible innovation by learning together
To realise responsible system innovations in agriculture, diverse private partners need to collaborate. Social learning is a key to success.
This project extended the ‘Reflexive Monitoring in Action’ (RMA) methodology with the ‘Learning Mirror’ tool. The research learned that not a harmonious process, but one in which opposing views are allowed to clash, leads to most learning. And including marginalised stakeholders is neither necessary nor sufficient for integrating their viewpoints in the innovation process. The project results are expected to have value for responsible innovation in Western countries as well as in the Global South.
How can Dutch networks of agricultural parties successfully collaborate to bring about viable and responsible system innovations? Application of an action research methodology in a Dutch dairy chain and a greenhouse horticulture network led to new insights. A key driver is social learning. The Reflexive Monitoring in Action (RMA) methodology, developed by the researchers (freely available online), facilitates such learning through reflection of the innovating actors on each other’ viewpoints, internal processes and well as the wider context in which they operate.
The practical result of this project is the extension of the RMA toolkit with the ‘Learning Mirror’. This new tool structures, monitors and encourages. Its use starts with mapping what participants learn together during a meeting by registering the discussion on a whiteboard or flipchart. In essence, the tool helps to connect three dimensions of learning: new content, relations and actions. Once they have become interconnected, learning is taking place. In addition, the tool assists in placing learning outcomes in the wider societal context with the aid of reflective questions. In these ways, it stimulates social learning. The application of the tool requires little expertise and effort of the participants of the meetings.
The RMA methodology is not only suitable for Western network interventions by private partners. The researchers presented their work to professionals working on system innovations in the Global South, who showed great interest in applying it.
Learning at boundaries
The project proposes new concepts of ‘social learning’ and ‘reflexivity’ by integrating several theoretical perspectives from different disciplines. Their application led to the following important insights:
- Inclusiveness, the involvement of ‘new voices’, or marginalised stakeholders, is often mentioned as a condition for a responsible innovation process. However, including a broader range of actors does not necessarily lead to social learning and hence an integration of their viewpoints in the innovation process. At the same time, it is possible to integrate new viewpoints without including more actors.
- In contrast to prevalent assumptions, social learning does not necessarily lead to changes towards societally responsible agricultural sectors. Whether it does, depends on the ‘reflexivity alignment’: the extent to which an innovation initiative shares an orientation towards fundamental change with its institutional setting.
- Collaboration across the boundaries of organisations, value orientations and interests inevitably gives rise to tensions. Participants prefer to put these tensions on the table in an indirect manner, leaving it open what is exactly at stake. They employ three strategies to address and deal with tensions: voicing concerns, questioning as starting point and questioning as response. Active project managers and frequent bilateral contacts are key to opening up conversations and discuss tensions.
- Not a harmonious interaction, but one in which opposing views are critically discussed and allowed to clash, leads to most learning. Recognising the different interaction patterns and their outcomes is important for an effective facilitation of social learning.
Greenhouse and dairy innovation
Two concrete Dutch networks of agricultural parties were both supported and investigated by the researchers:
- STAP (STichting versterking Afzetpositie Producenten van glasgroenten). Initiated and supported by greenhouse growers and chain partners, stimulating farmers to be market oriented and innovative, and alter the relations within the value chain in order to stimulate innovation.
- DZK (Duurzame Zuivelketen). Network of dairy processing companies and regional agricultural organizations which aim to improve sustainability on four major dimensions: climate and energy; animal health and welfare; grazing; and biodiversity and environment.
The interventions of the researchers (from philosophy, sociology, economics, science and technology) served as a catalyst for learning and innovation. In the case of greenhouse horticulture they helped the actors to get more insight in the obstacles for innovation within the sector and the opportunities in the environment. In the dairy chain network assisted in improving the communication between the diverse, participating organisations.
A growing number of private partners in Dutch agriculture come together to seek new ways of connecting profit generation and economic viability with a better environment and improved animal welfare. For example, these companies and entrepreneurs want to set up an ultrashort chain through which farmers can deliver directly to consumers or they seek to close a raw materials cycle.
Such innovative network interventions typically have no clearly defined end result and are dependent on changing networks often involving new partners. It requires making choices for practices, relations and social structures that radically differ from the status quo. Working on such long-term, unpredictable system innovations is extremely challenging.
Traditional methods for project management, monitoring and evaluation – such as step-by-step plans – are not adequate for this type of initiatives. Social learning is key to system innovation. Little was known however, about learning at boundaries, the value of learning for responsible innovation and conditions for effective learning. The project filled this knowledge gap.
social learning, diary chain, greenhouse horticulture, toolkit, toolkit, inclusion, stakeholder collaboration, innovation networks, agriculture, social transition, reflexive monitoring in actionOfficial project title: