New guidelines refine the use of innovation platforms to support scaling

New guidelines refine the use of innovation platforms to support scaling

New guidelines are helping the agricultural research for development sector to rethink how and when to use ‘innovation platforms’ to most effectively develop and scale technologies.

Innovation platforms are increasingly used in agricultural research for development initiatives to help researchers, farmers, food processors, government officials and other actors design effective innovations. An innovation platform is a group of individuals and organizations with different backgrounds, expertise and interests who come together to diagnose problems, identify opportunities, and find ways to achieve their goals. They may design and implement activities together or as individual members.

Based on early successes, innovation platforms are now being used widely in agricultural research for development to test local innovations and take them to scale at the national level by increasing the collaboration, exchange of knowledge and influence mediation among stakeholders. However, these cases often involved highly motivated people in well-supported initiatives.

“Innovation platforms are fast becoming part of the mantra of agricultural research for development projects and programs. However, innovation platforms run the risk of being promoted as a panacea for all problems in the agricultural sector. Recent studies have shown that there are some practical limitations that must be considered, which led us to develop a set of guidelines on how to best use innovation platforms,” said Marc Schut, social scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Wageningen University, and the leader of RTB’s Flagship Project 5.

A 2017 study on the innovative capacity and scaling potential of innovation platforms in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) found that effective innovation and scaling were hampered by mismatches between collaboration, knowledge exchange and influence networks. In particular, it was found that NGOs were over-represented and the private sector was under-represented, linkages between local and higher levels were weak, and influential organizations such as high-level government actors were often not part of the platform or were weakly linked to other organizations. The platform could support the scaling of innovations between the same types of organizations, for example between NGOs, however it had limited potential to support scaling across different kinds of organizations.

A second study published in 2017 gathered data on 39 innovation platform events in Burundi, 66 in Rwanda and 20 in DRC. Events included launch meetings, platform meetings, field trials and data collection events. The innovation platforms were not always as inclusive as they were intended to be. Researchers usually made decisions and many national members were poorly aware of community level activities of the platform. The Ministries of Agriculture were often poorly integrated into the platforms.

Guidelines published in 2017 by Schut and colleagues, supported by RTB, are intended to address these shortcomings. They help funders and project developers to reflect on when to use innovation platforms, how to design them, set goals, allocate resources, and create enabling conditions for effective implementation of innovation platforms. The guidelines explain design and implementation principles, the financial and human resources, and suggest ideas for more effective monitoring, evaluation and learning to better assess the impact that the platform has.

“The guidelines provide a decision support tool for research, development and funding agencies that can enhance more critical thinking about the purposes and conditions under which innovation platforms can contribute to achieving agricultural development outcomes. The fact that 12 of the 15 CGIAR centers participated in writing the guidelines is a good sign that researchers see the need for, and have the will to use the guidelines,” Schut added.

Published in June 2017, the guidelines were accessed nearly 1,200 times in the same year.

Photo: Innovation platforms are made up of individuals with different backgrounds and interests, such as farmers, food processors, researchers and government officials. Credit: B.Seyoum and T.Girma/ILRI