What is co-innovation and how can it be applied in practice in a research project?
Co-innovation is the process of jointly developing new or different solutions to a complex problem through multi-participant research processes – and keeping these processes alive throughout the research.
Our experience has been applying co-innovation as a research approach to address complex problems in an agricultural context, however, the principles apply well beyond agriculture.
Co-innovation is most suited to hard-to-solve technical, social, cultural and economic challenges. Such challenges have no obvious cause and effect relationships, as well as many different players with a stake in the research problem and solution. These include policy makers, industry, community members, first nations representatives and others who are involved in the research as partners and stakeholders.
One way to think about co-innovation is as a research approach which emphasises working with others at each stage of the research process (see figure below).
The first stage (co-design) includes the design of the research issues and outcomes with partners and stakeholders.
Once the issues and outcomes of the research are designed, the next stage (co-develop) is to develop the details of the research process. This should include the shared development of an evaluation framework, and ways for the research team to learn and adapt the research as it proceeds.
Processes to share the results and implement the findings are required during, and at the end of, the research.
Our work has indicated that there are five key principles to co-innovation that can be applied in research projects, as illustrated in the figure below. Here we outline what they are and provide links to some of the tools and processes that we use to support these in practice. Note these principles are in no order of priority.
This is about identifying and involving those who will benefit from the research in order to understand the problem from the beginning and develop solutions together throughout the research process.
In research we often want to jump straight into the ‘doing’ without clearly identifying the problem that is being addressed. A co-innovation approach means putting the problem at the centre (rather than the technology or end-user). For example, in our agricultural context, it is not about the farmer (as the end user) who needs to change, but about everyone (researchers, farmers, policy makers, industry etc) addressing the shared problem together rather than focussing on their own ideas.
In addition to the technical skills, there need to be people with collaborative skills who can strengthen the team’s ability to co-innovate. These are people who can take a broader view of the system and act as translators or brokers between the researchers, and partners and stakeholders. Collaborative and open leadership is also important.
This means that data and results are shared as they emerge, rather than waiting until the end of the research. This helps to understand how the results fit with user knowledge, identify new questions, check that the results are meaningful and/or relevant to users, and keeps the partners and stakeholders engaged in the research process.
This principle is about building in a rapid action learning cycle of Plan-Do-Observe (monitor)-Reflect to enable projects to maintain a focus on action, as well as adapting to changing circumstances and quickly seizing new opportunities for success. One good way to do this is to build in monitoring and evaluation activities from the beginning, using participatory processes with a focus on reflection and learning.
What has been your experience of co-innovation? Do you have any additional or different principles to add? Leave us a comment below.
This blog post originally appeared in the Integration and Implementation Insights blog. More information: