Seeding ideas: knowledge brokering and recombination for agricultural transformations

Tomato seeds growing

by Adrian Ely, Paddy Van Zwanenberg, Elise Wach, Martin Obaya and Almendra Cremaschi

Straight after the ‘Transformations 2017’ conference, the ‘Pathways’ network gathered at the mid-point in our three year project to take stock. This included discussions in ‘pairs’ of hubs, including reflecting on our ‘theories of change’.

In our case, the UK and Argentina hubs have been working on different parts of the food system in each country. We noticed a striking similarity in where we look for ways to explore systemic change: in both hubs, we have ended up drawing on ideas from outside the systems in which we are working.

Both hubs in the network conducted co-design events in the early stages of the projects. At these events, we worked together with our knowledge partners to identify focal areas for our research, and explore what new possible sources of social innovation might exist. The co-design events were critical in bringing in ideas to our projects that we might otherwise have overlooked.

The UK event focused on sustainability challenges around agriculture and food at a city level. It asked what innovations would contribute to city-wide sustainable agri-food systems, with the realities of small to medium-sized farms at the heart of the inquiry.

The Argentinean event focused on sustainability challenges in a different part of the food system: the seed sector. Seeds are subject to intellectual property law, and there is a growing market concentration in the seed sector, with a few companies controlling large parts of the market. Open source systems could be one way to address the challenges this presents to farmers and consumers.

Research and recombination

Research is usually associated with producing ‘new knowledge’. But much innovation results in novel recombinations of existing knowledge (or resources).  As a project that aims to use the STEPS ‘pathways’ approach not just to understand potential pathways, but to actively contribute to system change, we are doing more than just producing new knowledge.

Both the Argentina and UK hubs are attempting to introduce ideas from elsewhere which may not have ‘worked’ or ‘succeeded’ in their entirety yet, but which offer the promise of transformative innovations. In innovation studies terms, these are not ‘new to the world’ but ‘new to the locality’.  Other projects elsewhere can be seen as following a similar approach, though without our focus on embedding and putting new ideas into practice locally. For example, the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene project is identifying ideas from around the world which could be applied in other contexts:

“Seeds are existing initiatives that are not widespread or well-known. They can be social initiatives, new technologies, economic tools, or social-ecological projects, or organisations, movements or new ways of acting that have that appear to be making a substantial contribution towards creating a future that is just, prosperous, and sustainable.”

The UK and Argentina hubs have – to some extent – adopted a similar approach in their contributions to the ‘Pathways’ network.

UK: connecting local farms with a city’s food system

The UK group’s second workshop in December 2016 discussed the challenges to local food supply to Brighton and Hove, gathering growers, retailers, restauranteurs and researchers together to identify potential areas for intervention.  They identified two: making land available for sustainable agriculture (covered in a blog post by our colleague Rachael Taylor), and market co-ordination (linking producers and consumers of agro-ecological food).

Rather than doing more research around Brighton and Hove (following the interviews with farmers conducted in 2016), we decided to cast our net more widely to other parts of the UK. The project is now working on two briefings that summarise innovative ways in which other cities in the UK are addressing the challenges identified in the workshop. Through engagement with local decision-makers, we hope to see how these solutions could inspire action around Brighton and Hove, recombining with other existing initiatives in the city.

Argentina: How could open source seeds help?

The Argentinean group discussed a range of problems linked with the concentration of the seed market, in discussions with farmers, public and private sector breeders, seed firms, regulators and NGOs. We then decided to focus on potential solutions to the ongoing loss of agricultural biodiversity in Argentina. One proposal was to experiment with initiatives that could support participatory breeding – such as capacity building, product certification and the creation of an open source licence.

Open source licences for seeds have been pioneered in the USA. They aim to create a ‘protected commons’ around seed innovation, to ensure that diverse breeders can experiment with seeds, and improve germplasm, unimpeded by legal restrictions, thus enhancing agrobiodiversity. New germplasm released under such a scheme, as well as all subsequent developments of the seed, cannot be ‘owned’ by any one person or entity. This protects biological material from enclosure by patents and other forms of property rights. The initiative is inspired by the free/libre and open source software movement which, by developing open source licences, has created a hugely successful commons-based approach to software development.

Several other countries are also experimenting with open source seeds arrangements in order to encourage more diverse seed breeding activities. For example, the Association for AgriCulture & Ecology (Agrecol e.V.) in Germany has developed an OpenSourceSeeds licence. The Argentinean team is exploring whether a similar kind of licence could be developed, alongside other ideas.

How can we situate these ideas in the innovation literature?

Many of the partners in our network have drawn upon the ‘Social Innovation Lab guide’ for some inspiration in our research and workshops (see a recent blog by Laura Pereira). In the SIL Guide, Westley et al. talk about engaging with marginal voices and ideas as an approach towards “recombining elements (bricolage) in new ways”.  But ideas of recombination and innovation go back much further.

80 years ago, Joseph Schumpeter was perhaps the first economist to deeply consider the role of innovation in economic development, and it’s interesting to see his ideas relate to the much more recent ‘social innovation’ literature. Traditional economic views of innovation focus not necessarily on new knowledge, but on new combinations of resources (which may include existing knowledge) that lead to new goods, methods of production, new markets, new inputs to the production process, or new organisational forms that lead to economic change (Schumpeter, 1934).  In our project, we don’t focus purely on economic change, but could think about ecological economic change (or socio-ecological change) through transformation. The role of our transformative research can be seen as providing a space for these resources to be shared and recombined.

In terms of novelty, we are trying to bring in new resources (in the form of our initial research findings), but also to bring new combinations of people into the room for the first time.  Schumpeter’s earlier work suggests that the recombination activities that lead to innovation are usually carried out not by the well-established firms, but by new entrants; in Schumpeter’s words “in general it is not the owner of stage-coaches who builds railways”.  Therefore in trying to bring about social innovations for transformative change, it is just as (or even more) important to convene new actors, than to work through established ones.

Why are these ideas attractive in the local context?

Bringing ideas from elsewhere together with new groups of actors offers a recipe for new innovations to emerge. These can be attractive for a number of reasons. On the basis of the discussions in our two hubs, we have identified two:

  • new innovations can ‘bridge’ different (and to some extent conflicting) framings, offering the possibility of a route through an unsustainable impasse. We have previously referred to these as ‘bridging innovations’
  • they draw on the resources of different actors, and can be seen as a novel recombination between ‘bottom-up’ (or grassroots) efforts and top-down (government-led or high-tech-based) initiatives. We have previously described these as ‘hybrid innovations’.

Bridging and hybrid innovations are attractive because they offer spaces around which new alliances can be formed, and in so doing bring more resources of different kinds to the problem at hand.  Beyond creating the grassroots momentum for these new ideas to be implemented, they also draw upon wider sources of legitimacy, potentially attracting support from (more top-down) policy actors.

Germinating the ideas – what happens now?

As has been pointed out in other studies of transitions, and in our discussion of ‘hybrid innovations’, politics plays a vital role in determining what kinds (or what aspects) of innovations flourish, and who retains or exerts control over them (thus drawing benefits).

This applies to both our cases, whether the political contests are at the national level (e.g. related to sustainable agricultural priorities and framings in Argentina) or at a local level (e.g. priorities and responsibilities in Brighton and Hove). We understand that the project-based work that we are involved in represents a small, time-limited intervention in a much longer story.  It is these politics, among other factors, that will determine how the ideas drawn from outside our own contexts evolve.

At the closing session of the Transformations 2017 conference, we heard from Michael Quinn Patton that there is “no such thing as ‘best practice’”. In other words, every transformative innovation is context-specific and it is impossible to say what will work ‘best’ elsewhere.

In this blog post, we’ve described an approach to ‘seeding’ ideas that might be recombined in novel ways within a local setting. This approach avoids claims of ‘best practice’, and offers a potential theory of change in transformative research.  By the end of the project in 2018, we will be in a better position to reflect on how effective it can be.

Find out more

Visit the PATHWAYS Network project to find out more about the other cases and background to this project.