Beyond dissemination of research findings: innovation brokers as emerging figures in stimulating agricultural innovation

Beyond dissemination of research findings: innovation brokers as emerging figures in stimulating agricultural innovation
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Introduction: innovation systems and the need for systemic intermediarie1

More and more it is recognised that innovation cannot be explained by a linear approach to innovation in which public sector agricultural research and extension delivers new technology in a pipeline configuration through a dissemination approach, but calls for systems approach in which innovation is the result of a process of networking, interactive learning and negotiation among a heterogeneous set of actors (Leeuwis, 2004; Röling, 2009). The systems approach recognises that agricultural innovation is not just about adopting new technologies; it also requires a balance amongst new technical practices and alternative ways of organising, for example, markets, labour, land tenure and distribution of benefits (Dormon et al., 2007).
Recently, a blending of insights from the agricultural innovation literature and industrial innovation literature has resulted in the concept of agricultural innovation systems(Pant and Hambly-Odame, 2009; Röling, 2009). A national agricultural innovation system (AIS) is defined by World Bank (2006, as ‘a network of organisations, enterprises, and individuals focused on bringing new products, new processes, and new forms of organisation into economic use, together with the institutions and policies that affect the way different agents  interact, share, access, exchange and use knowledge’. Beyond researchers, extension agents and farmers, an AIS consists of all types of public, private and civil society actors, such as inputs and processing industry actors, agricultural traders, retailers, policymakers, consumers and NGOs. Besides stressing the fact that innovation requires involvement of many actors and effective interactions amongst these, the AIS approach recognises the influential role of institutions (i.e. laws, regulations, attitudes, habits, practices, incentives) in shaping how actors  interact (World Bank, 2006).
For AIS to function and enhance innovation capacity in developing countries’ agricultural sectors, the literature emphasises the need to come to shared visions, have well-established linkages and information flows amongst different public and private actors, conducive institutional incentives that enhance cooperation, adequate market, legislative and policy environments, and well-developed human capital (Spielman et al., 2008)However, creating and fostering effective linkages amongst heterogeneous sets of actors (i.e. the formation of adequate innovation configurations, coalitions, PPPs) is often hindered by different technological, social, economic and cultural divides (Pant and Hambly-Odame, 2006).
From an innovation systems perspective, the importance of having intermediary organisations that sit between and connect different actors involved in innovation trajectories countries is becoming apparent. This type of intermediary should not just mediate a one-to-one relationship, but rather be a systemic intermediary, an in-between in a many-to-many relationship (Howells, 2006). These systemic intermediaries act as innovation brokers, whose main purpose is to build appropriate linkages in AIS and facilitate multi-stakeholder interaction in innovation. So far, the agricultural sector has relied mainly on public sector intermediaries such as agricultural extension services, often with questionable effectiveness and a limited mandate to play such a systemic intermediary role (Leeuwis, 2004; Rivera and Sulaiman, 2009). Innovation brokering implies moving beyond dissemination of information, as many ‘traditional’ extensionists do, but actively forge multi actor partnerships for innovation.

Innovation brokers as specialised innovation system facilitators

Increasingly, one can see that actors emerge whose main function is not disseminating information or giving technical advice, but specifically stimulating the formation and facilitation of innovation partnerships. The roles, performance and effects of specialised innovation brokers as facilitators of innovation in the industrial sector in Western countries are quite well documented (Winch and Courtney, 2007). Despite the existence of a broad literature on the facilitation of interactive processes and social learning in agriculture (Leeuwis and Pyburn, 2002), the literature on embedding this facilitation role as a specialised intermediary function in the AIS is still limited. Although mentioned as a solution to knowledge infrastructure and innovation system fragmentation and underperformance, and researched in preliminary studies (Clark, 2002; WorldBank, 2008), the topic appears to have been less systematically investigated in the agricultural sector.
Howells coined the term innovation intermediary, defined as: ‘an organisation or body that acts as an agent or broker in any aspect of the innovation process between two or more parties. Such intermediary activities include: helping to provide information about potential collaborators; brokering a transaction between two or more parties; acting as a mediator, or go-between, for bodies or organisations that are already collaborating; and helping find advice, funding and support for the innovation outcomes of such collaborations’ (2006, p.720). However, the provision of brokerage and mediation functions may often not be the primary role of an innovation intermediary as Howells argues, because these often ‘also cover more traditional contract research and technical services which involve no third-party type collaboration’ (2006, p.726). To distinguish such specialised brokers from organisations that provide some innovation brokerage functions, but not as a core function, Winch and Courtney (2007, p.751) define an innovation broker as ‘an organisation acting as a member of a network of actors [...] that is focused neither on the organisation nor the implementation of innovations, but on enabling other organisations to innovate’.
Innovation brokerage comprises several detailed functions (Howells, 2006) that can be reduced to three generic functions (Klerkx and Leeuwis, 2009):

  • Demand articulation: articulating innovation needs and visions and corresponding demands in terms of technology, knowledge, funding and policy, achieved through problem diagnosis and foresight exercises.
  • Network composition: facilitation of linkages amongst relevant actors, i.e. scanning, scoping, filtering and matchmaking of possible cooperation partners (Howells, 2006).
  • Innovation process management: enhancing alignment in heterogeneous networks constituted by actors with different institutional reference frames related to norms, values, incentive and reward systems. This requires continuous ‘interface management’ (Smits and Kuhlmann, 2004) in which there is a ‘translation’ amongst the different actor domains, described as ‘boundary work’ (Kristjanson et al., 2009). Furthermore, it includes a host of facilitation tasks that ensure that networks are sustained and become productive, e.g. through the building of trust, establishing working procedures, fostering learning, managing conflict and intellectual property management (Leeuwis, 2004).

Innovation processes generally do not develop in a straightforward planned manner but are a result of self-organising networks (i.e. they are characterised by irregular progression and regression, and influenced by serendipity and events that lie outside of the direct sphere of innovation projects – see e.g. Klerkx et al., 2010).Consequently, it is essential that these innovation brokerage functions are applied flexibly depending on the evolution of the innovation process.

Examples of different kinds of innovation brokers: the case of The Netherlands

The case of The Netherlands is interesting as example, since a broad array of innovation brokers has emerged, following privatization of the research and extension system and emerging paradigms of a diverse and multifunctional agricultural sector with different innovation pathways. Following the function-based typology of Klerkx and Leeuwis (2009), examples are given of the seven distinct types of agricultural innovation brokers that can currently be seen in the Netherlands.

Types 1 and 2: Innovation consultants

These organisations focus either on the individual farmer (Type 1), or on a collective of farmers with a common interest, who wish to jointly develop or implement an innovation (Type 2). They focus mostly on incremental innovations. They make an innovation SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of a farm, define an innovation strategy with the farmer, and help to find and guide interaction among cooperation partners. Most often, the SWOT-type analysis and the identification of cooperation partners and information sources are initially provided free of charge. Innovation consultants can have different organisational formats: for-profit private firms, government agencies and non-profit foundations. These organisations often have a regional coverage, attending different types of farms. An example is the Agricultural Knowledge Centre North Holland (AKC-NH), which emerged out of concern about the closure of a regional experimental station. It was jointly funded by provincial and local government, privatised research and extension providers, regional agricultural colleges and the regional farmers’ organisation. An example of its services is the guidance it provided in the search for a flower-bulb disease detector to automate disease detection and reduce labour costs. Instead of ending up at the ‘default’, formerly public agricultural research institutes, in its role of a neutral broker the AKC-NH searched for available knowledge in public and private, agricultural and non-agricultural, research institutes and R&D departments of large companies. Having found a candidate technology, AKC-NH then searched for subsidies to conduct feasibility studies as the investment risk for farmers was too high. Furthermore, it helped maintain energy and stamina in the process, mediated between the different cultural worlds of the actors involved and guided the process of intellectual property protection.

Type 3: Peer network brokers

These organisations usually have a sub-sectoral focus (such as horticulture, pig farming). They concentrate on the formation of peer networks concerned with informal knowledge exchange amongst farmers. In the Dutch agricultural sector, so-called study clubs, which resemble concepts such as Farmer Field Schools, traditionally had this function. Because of diversification of farmer interests, a decreasing number of farmers, and the fact that free of charge facilitation from the public agricultural extension service is no longer available, the original study club concept has been considerably weakened. The peer network brokers are an attempt to revitalise the study club concept, and besides a small participation fee paid by farmers they are generally supported with public funding. An example is the Dairy Farming Academy (DFA), whose goal is to set up new farmer networks on the basis of shared interests (Klerkx and Leeuwis, 2009b). Networking activities include information exchange through an online databank, network members’ farms being used as demonstration farms, experienced farmers acting as business coaches for less experienced farmers, best practice meetings in which farmers discuss a theme of common interest and master classes by non-agricultural entrepreneurs. To be able to closely identify with farmers’ life worlds, facilitators themselves are dairy farmers.

Type 4: Systemic instruments

The main difference in the systemic broker compared to the previous three is that it goes beyond individual firms, or networks of firms. It targets higher level innovation architectures that involve complex constellations of business, government and societal actors, dealing with complex problems and radical innovations (i.e. those that require a considerable re-ordering of social and economic routines and relationships). This type of innovation broker is often a civil society organisation (but with public funding), reflecting its interests in innovation and policy issues that go beyond the conventional domain of government or the private sector. A Dutch example is the Innovation Network Rural Areas and Agricultural Systems (INRAAS), described by Smits and Kuhlmann (2004). It was established in mid 2000 to address challenges such as reducing the detrimental effects of agriculture on the environment and the need to shift from bulk production to multi-functional agriculture. This complex agricultural agenda required intermediation between a diverse set of agricultural and non-agricultural actors. INRAAS aims to manage a collective systemic approach to agricultural innovation, through foresight exercises, network building, and initiating experiments to jointly identify, develop and implement innovative opportunities. Beyond participating actors, INRAAS also aims to bring about change in underlying policies, rules, habits, standards, procedures and laws. Following INRAAS, a number of sub-sectoral instruments have been set up such as SIGN (Dutch Greenhouse Horticulture Innovation Foundation). An example of the radical innovations this type of organisation facilitates is SIGN’s facilitation of a project on the greenhouse as an energy source instead of as a major energy user. At the conception of the idea eight years ago, it was seen as a ridiculous idea, but now there is a working prototype. This did, however, require re-organisations, for example in the way the electricity grid can be used. This involved energy companies and regulatory government bodies, and thus transcends the level of the individual greenhouse owner.

Type 5: Internet portals

A large variety of internet portals have developed in the Dutch agricultural sector and display relevant information, such as agricultural news, market information, and ‘yellow pages’ of service providers, the function of which is to connect farmers with these information sources. These portals may be stand-alone efforts or part of a research project. They are sometimes operated commercially, or are paid for by subsidies from government or commodity boards. Examples include the web-based question-answer databank integrated in the previously described Dairy Farming Academy.

Type 6: Research councils with innovation agency

Although in the Netherlands farmer-driven research planning mechanisms have traditionally existed, these o not always forge broader linkages in the innovation system (Klerkx and Leeuwis, 2008b). A new sort of research council has recently emerged, called Bioconnect. Through Bioconnect all relevant actors in the organic agriculture value chain (organised in product workgroups – PWGs) have been granted decision-making authority in research funding, utilising public funds of the Ministry of Agriculture (Klerkx and Leeuwis, 2008a). PWGs are expected to propose topics based on a broadly shared demand from their constituencies, which they discuss and prioritise with research coordinators in order to make research fit with sector needs. Within PWGs, a so-called knowledge manager fulfils the role of facilitator, streamlining the flows of information and mediating between the different actor groups involved. Bioconnect also facilitates the participatory research that results from the agenda setting process and links research with legislative and market developments. It thus tries to ensure that research results have impact and are accompanied by a broader set of changes needed for innovation.

Type 7: Education brokers

Because the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture continues to fund agricultural education, basic research and research that supports policymaking, it has responded to a perceived lack of interaction amongst agricultural (vocational) education establishments, research institutes and practice by supporting the set-up of the so-called Green Knowledge Cooperative (Kupper et al., 2006). Besides linking the several education establishments, it aims to position the agricultural schools as regional knowledge centres that respond to innovation queries from the agricultural sector, involving teachers and students. Another example is the so-called Content Broker, which helps to find material for teachers to use in their classes, such as journal articles, educative computer models and manuals.

Conclusion: The observed contribution of innovation brokers

Several studies have looked at the contribution of the Dutch agricultural innovation brokers (e.g. (Batterink et al., 2010; Klerkx and Leeuwis, 2009)) in terms of their influence on the way innovation arrangements are organised (roles, responsibilities and patterns of interaction) and how routine working practices and policies (institutional setting) have changed. In the sphere of demand articulation, they have helped farmers and other agri-food stakeholders to think about new possibilities to sustain their businesses. Because of their unbiased position, innovation brokers appear to provide a fresh look at diagnosing the constraints and opportunities of farmers or, at a higher level, production chains, regions or sub-sectors. Because innovation brokers are critical and provide a mirror for self-reflection, they tend to force their clients to look towards the possibilities beyond their current situation and constraints. In the sphere of network building, there are numerous examples where innovation brokers have helped farmers, and others that want to initiate innovation projects (innovation champions), to get in touch and negotiate with project partners and other relevant stakeholders from the policy, market and civil society domain, as well as with the most suitable research and extension providers who could assist them in orienting towards new activities. They hence make a variety of knowledge sources and cooperation partners available; this is essential for developing the new combinations that are central to innovation. At a higher system level, they have contributed to the development of innovation agendas, and radical and/or systems innovations to meet future challenges, by performing foresight exercises and initiating innovation projects that bear a high risk of failure. This has resulted in several new concepts, some of which were initially regarded with suspicion and disbelief, but now have become viable new development strategies.
Finally, it has been confirmed that innovation process management is an important function that can be performed by innovation brokers. Innovation processes tend to involve different groups of actors, with different expectations and interests determined by their institutional background. For example, farmers often want instant access to applicable knowledge and quick results, research providers have an interest in undertaking (publishable) research, policymakers want to realise their policy goals and see the results of public investments. The interested parties thus differ with regard to the time horizons of projects and the desired output. Innovation brokers have clearly facilitated cooperation and managed to synchronise expectations of different actor groups during a number of innovation processes. They have reportedly made the different project partners aware of their institutional backgrounds and expectations, and of the role they can fruitfully play in the innovation process. Moreover, they have been successful in making transparent the risks and benefits that are attached to engagement in the innovation process, reducing uncertainty in the early stages of innovation processes. In addition, they act as a ‘translator’ between the different cultural worlds and perform mediating roles in the event of conflict about, for example, the attribution of intellectual property rights, strongly diverging goals and visions, or the division of funds. The involvement of innovation brokers in innovation processes hence avoids inertia and accelerates the process by helping project members maintain their focus and energy during the process. Beyond the level of the single project, innovation brokers fulfil a catalyst role (to bring about change and stimulate cooperation), a liaison role (e.g. to inform policy) within the AIS, and also an innovation capacity building role.


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  • 1. This paper is largely based on and derived from Klerkx, L., Hall, A., Leeuwis, C., 2009. Strengthening agricultural innovation capacity: are innovation brokers the answer? International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology 8, 409-438