Asking why doesn’t all technology ‘stick’?
In the agricultural sector, it seems there’s not just one, but two ‘valleys of death’ for innovations to overcome. This term refers to certain points in a technology’s development and journey to commercialisation. From inception through to validation, scale-up and customer adoption, innovations are particularly likely to stall or become unable to cut through when the level of investment needed increases or the nature of the next challenge to overcome changes.
For the agriculture sector, our first valley of death is migrating from a laboratory scenario to the field, where the context gets ‘messier’. The second is translating this from ‘a’ field to ‘many’ fields and farms – when the scale and complexity increases again.
So one way to enable more technologies to ‘stick’ is to create successful bridges between the technology or science, and its real-life on-farm application.
A key component of one bridge is increasing the engagement between technologists and end users. On some level this is self-evident, but it really doesn’t happen enough, and we cannot rely solely on it occurring organically. We also need to engineer ways to achieve this.
Bringing innovators and potential users together, early on, benefits innovators because it both helps to ensure that technologies are built upon actual needs, and increases the chances of adoption. For farmers and growers, this cooperation makes it easier to anticipate what technology is enabling and to identify which opportunities they might want to get involved with, depending on where they are on their adoption journey.
Of course, not all farmers are equal in their willingness to adopt technology so it’s critical to understand who specifically to get on board.
To continue to build these bridges, we have to accept that early trials especially, are very different to ‘real-life’. For instance, technology almost by definition will have bugs, and the trial will not reflect every possible setting for use. A point to note, especially for those with an academic background, is that on-farm trials don’t need to be designed to academic standards to be valuable. Which is good, as it’s often very difficult to produce perfectly replicated scenarios across a number of farms or years!
Instead, we should be asking, does the trial test the technology in a way which actually matters to the end user, and in a setting which has at least some of the challenges will occur in normal use? There is real opportunity in learning how to effectively trial an innovation and run trials a way that ensures everyone’s expectations are aligned.
But most importantly, the risks of on-farm trials aren’t always shared equitably, and we should be mindful of this. Finding ways to coordinate them so that the risks are anticipated and managed will really help to foster a willingness among farmers to make that leap of faith to try a new way of doing things.
A lot of technologies are developed or demonstrated in a research or academic setting. Here, the goal is to publish a paper, an end point which is very far from the field. Academia often gives little incentive to push the research further into a messier, real-world context. It would be really valuable to incentivise them to move further down this road, and explore how their research performs in closer-to-real-life applications. After all, farmers really can’t take the learning from an academic piece of research if it is demonstrated in an over-simplified or highly abstract way.
A different challenge we sometimes see arises when there is a battle over intellectual property and commercialisation. This is a huge hinderance to the development of innovation and adoption. Anxieties over potential intellectual property concerns or potential value often ends up killing the development of an idea before it’s had any chance to be used. This is where we need an environment appropriate for pragmatism and flexibility.
During the Advisory Group we also talked a lot about ‘water cooler moments’ – something that was identified as an opportunity to improve translation of ideas from research into clinical practice in the healthcare sector. So for us, this would mean bringing farmers and academics together so they become familiar with each other and find relaxed opportunities to discuss their challenges and be creative about solutions.
Not all problems need a shiny new technology. We can be easily blindsided by gadgets when really, technology sits inside part of a much broader network of change that might come from people, structures or systems performing differently.
What makes CHAP great is its ability to take an impartial aerial view on a problem and identify the most viable solution with the greatest chance of adoption. This is demonstrated through the work of the New Innovations Programme, where we coordinate respected voices from industry to devise strategic business cases to address gaps in the market. Also, of course, the Advisory Group provides an open forum to discuss what matters right now for our sector.
Ms Senior is a passionate advocate for Agri-Tech entrepreneurship. Her recent podcast documentary ‘Innovating AgTech’ is available on all podcasting platforms. She runs PBS International Ltd, working with plant breeders and seed producers globally to design and manufacture solutions for pollination control.