Change is not linear. Change is not easy. Changing the way research is carried out for more impact is certainly no exception. In a session of the Third International Forum for Water and Food, dedicated to innovation platforms, the tone was set: if we want to achieve impact, we have to change dramatically and it will not be a smooth learning curve. This is true for the Challenge Programme on Water and Food (CPWF) and for any other piece of research that pretends to be relevant and meaningful.
Innovation platforms bring together multiple stakeholders (researchers, farmers, national and local level governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations and other actors) and shape the nature of research and development interventions in a participatory and empowering way that supposedly guarantees improved sustainability of water and food research and development interventions. But the way forward is daunting. To achieve change and progress, one has to change, at various levels, and together.
This interactive session shed light on the nature of these changes. Andre van Rooyen, one of the presenters for this session, stressed some of the key lessons around the changes that had to happen to let innovation platforms blossom: Learning to live with change and uncertainty, nurturing diversity, combining multiple knowledges and social learning, shaping and seizing opportunities for self organization. Other speakers and presenters in the session further emphasized the different scales of learning to change around innovation platforms:
- Learning to let go of control – Kim Geheb emphasized that innovation platform processes tend to really exhaust their facilitators and that sometimes they have to learn to step out, for scaling up and local ownership to take the stage;
- In line with this, learning to facilitate. This is very different to managing a process. Managing keeps close control. Facilitation implies taking some distance and inviting all parties to find their space and pace to engage;
- Learning to let the project/intervention agenda mingle with and eventually get taken over by the local agenda, if innovation platforms are to be sustainable – a point which is arguable but let us spare this argument for later;
- Learning to practice what we preach, or to lead by example. This implies among others learning to organize meetings and discussions that truly open the space for higher engagement;
- Learning to start research and other interventions from the demand side. As Andre van Rooyen emphasized, innovation platforms are better off starting where there is pre-existing interest and expertise rather than starting from a blank slate;
- Learning to assess impact in other ways: policy impact, behavior change impact, impact in inter-institutional relationships;
- Learning to explore one’s own untapped tacit knowledge and discovering ways to unravel it and stimulate organizational and social learning;
- Learning to deal with emotions and power – far from the comfort of objective science;
- Learning to listen to each other, which in spite of the obvious does not readily happen;
In short, researchers – certainly in the CPWF – have no alternative than carrying collaborative and integrated research, but they may not realize what this new process entails just yet, let alone accept the consequences of working around innovation platforms. Yet, the scientific spirit of curiosity that should guide any researcher is perhaps the most crucial asset one might need to embrace that change.
By Ewen Le Borgne