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Enabling greater practice change using co-innovation

What if we could dramatically improve the adoption of innovations produced in our projects by one small design tweak? And especially those notoriously difficult and complex projects where there are no simple answers and multiple stakeholders involved. You might have heard about innovation, but in today’s blog we’re talking all about co-innovation: what it is and when it’s most appropriate to use. 

What is co-innovation? It is a systems-based approach to facilitating practice change. Taking a systems approach means considering the wider environment around the problem. We need to identify the various influencing factors and the different people involved. This might mean that instead of just including farmers and researchers, we’d also include exporters, policy makers and of course extension officers. 

That small tweak is involving all the key stakeholders, especially end users, and involve them from the beginning of the project right through to the end. That’s what makes the difference between an ordinary project, and one that’s super-charged for industry adoption. 

A colleague of ours has described co-innovation as co-development, or co-design. We think that is a helpful picture of co-innovation and what it is actually about. It’s people working together to better define the problem and develop possible solutions.

Both Denise and John were involved in the Primary Innovation programme a few years ago now. Denise was involved in a project in that programme looking at water-use efficiency amongst irrigators. The project team included the water regulators in a workshop, which helped bring a different perspective to the discussion. 

We recall James Turner, the leader of that programme, discussing the “lost economic opportunity due to sub-optimal adoption rates” (James is a good economist!). He talked about maximising adoption by involving end-users from the beginning of the project, and that just made good sense to us.

But let’s finish off with some practical ideas for applying a co-innovation approach to a project. There’s a few things to do. 

Firstly, you need to ensure that there are multiple participants involved. We mentioned this earlier because it means involving everyone from on-farm (farm owners, managers, staff) as well as those off-farm like processing companies, researchers, government agencies (particularly those in policy and regulatory functions), farm input suppliers, consultants, veterinarians, other rural professionals, and non-government agencies.

Secondly you need to form groups of relevant participants to jointly identify key questions associated with the issues you are focusing on. This is about providing opportunities to learn together and co-create the knowledge to address these questions. Once you have questions you can then develop and work together on potential solutions. You need to be comfortable that the outcome will not be known at the start of the process.

Thirdly you need active cooperation from all participants. This means helping them to at least partially give up their independent positions in order to work with others – the co-development! 

Fourth, you need a process that values alternative views and knowledge, that acknowledges that local knowledge as well as science brings legitimate and relevant information to help develop solutions. This will mean managing power relationships to ensure all stakeholders are active participants; not always an easy task

In addition you will need to create room for some roles in the project that may not be on your usual list of suspects! Particularly you will need reflexive monitors, independent individuals or organisations focused on enabling all stakeholders are involved to actively participate in the co-innovation process. The people in these roles will be observing group processes and will suggest appropriate changes to facilitate effective interaction and learning. These roles are challenging but really useful. You can read more about reflexive monitoring from a couple of different sources – from the Netherlands which is the work of Barbara van Mierlo and others, the other source is from here in New Zealand and is the work that came out of the Primary Innovation programme. We’ll provide links to these below.

Given all this, what we think would normally take three years using a traditional approach, might take about five years using a co-innovation approach. It’s more resource hungry, but the benefit is that we can get much greater levels of adoption, since we’ve involved the end-users from the beginning of the project. 

So if co-innovation is so wonderful, should we be using it in all our practice change projects? 

No, of course not! It’s horses for courses. Co-innovation is best suited to complex projects where there are no simple answers and where there are multiple stakeholders involved. On the Primary Innovation website there’s a diagram which shows how technology transfer approaches are fine for simple problems, but for complex ones you need a co-innovation approach. We’ll put a link to this book and other material in the notes.


So in conclusion, when you have a complex problem that involves multiple stakeholders, co-innovation is a great contemporary approach to apply. In this episode we’ve explained what co-innovation is and when it’s most appropriate to use.

We’re going to do another post on co-innovation soon, and in that we’ll be exploring the principles of co-innovation and the current thinking in this space. 

So you’ve read our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below this blog post and tell us your experiences with co-innovation, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to just be a one-way conversation – join in by sharing your thoughts with us! 

Thanks for reading this Enablers of change blog post. Remember to subscribe if you’d like to know when new posts are available. 


  1. NZ Primary Innovation project
  2. Ministry for Primary Industries 2015 Over the fence: Designing extension programmes to bring about practice change
  3. Using an innovation systems approach to achieve remarkable change, YouTube video with Laurens Klerkx 
  4. Reflexive monitoring in action, a guide for monitoring system innovation projects. 
  5. Reflexive monitoring in New Zealand 
  6. Link to all the Primary Innovation webinar recordings:
  7. Hall, A 2012 Agricultural Innovation Systems: An Investment Sourcebook, World Bank 
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Adrian Englefield
Adrian Englefield
4 years ago

Hello John and Denise Great insights on co-innovation!!! Made me reflect on how I (and my team members) engage with stakeholders through our project management and extension practice. We work closely with industry participants (including end users) through the whole project cycle especially during the early design period. Projects focus on regional outcomes (and local knowledge). I can see increased benefits of the reflexive (or reflective) monitors and will look for greater diversity and alternative views from stakeholders. Any thoughts on how a co-innovation approach may reduce project timelines and create the greatest value for resource investment (e.g. collaborations with… Read more »

Roy Murray-Prior
4 years ago
Reply to  John James

Hi Adrian & John Firstly a very well constructed blog – simple yet comprehensive & I liked the summary at the end. Participatory RD&E, which this process is – on steroids – is not a simple or quick process for the R&D part, unless of course you are tapping in to an existing network that has been used previously. I have observed and been part of this process with grower groups in the WA grains industry & in projects in SE Asia. The benefits are in the relevance of the R&D to farmers and the shorter, more efficient and effective… Read more »

David Masefield
4 years ago

Hi John, a well thought out blog on Innovation Adoption through Co-innovation. For me the secret sauce to add to this is having a problem worth solving. Solve a problem that has a market demanding a solution has a much better potential for uptake than a solution looking for a market no matter how many people on the team.

We would love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment!x