Post-Harvest Innovation Learning Alliance (PHILA)

Innovation Systems - what are they?


Figure 1. Conventional dissemination models focus on Research (R), Extension (E), and Farmer (F) linkages.

Conventional approaches to agricultural development have tended to regard innovation as the product of research, and view its dissemination as a largely linear process confined to researchers, extension staff and farmers. The research findings, once packaged for extension staff, are expected to be inherently suited to transfer to the farming community (Figure 1).

More recent approaches to improving the impact of research and development place greater emphasis on the rapidly changing socio-economic, political and environmental contexts (e.g. civil service reform and decentralisation, deteriorating extension services, changing livelihood scenarios, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, trade liberalisation, environmental degradation), and on the importance of a diversity of key actors and organisations to the scaling-up processes.

New products and processes are deemed to be brought into economic and social use through the activities of these networks of organisations, as mediated by various institutions and policies, which together – organisations and the institutions (or the ‘rules’ that determine their engagement) – are referred to as the innovation system (Hall et al., 2004).

The key challenge to effecting impact is perceived less in terms of devising new technologies – doing different things – but rather in terms of bringing about changes in how the innovation system works – doing things differently.

Figure 2 presents the complexity of the innovation system from the perspective of the farming household, suggesting the diversity of relationships and factors that facilitate or impede farmers in increasing their production and gaining access to crowded marketplaces.

In the national context the group of interconnected organisations whose activities and interactions give rise to the development and diffusion of technologies are referred to as the ‘national innovation system’.

There is no single definition of national innovation systems (NIS), which hitherto have largely been applied to developed economies. The following box contains some of the many definitions from the literature.

National Innovation Systems: definitions from the literature

The “set of institutions whose interaction determine the innovative performance of national firms.” (Nelson and Rosenberg, 1983).

“..the network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import, modify and diffuse new technologies.” (Freeman, 1987).

“..the elements and relationships which interact in the production, diffusion and use of new, and economically useful, knowledge ... and are either located within or rooted inside the borders of a nation state. (Lundvall, 1992).

“..the national institutions, their incentive structures and their competencies, that determine the rate and direction of technological learning (or the volume and composition of change generating activities) in a country. (Patel and Pavitt, 1994).

“A system of innovation is that set of distinct institutions which jointly and individually contributes to the development and diffusion of new technologies and which provides the framework within which governments form and implement policies to influence the innovation process. As such it is a system of interconnected institutions to create, store and transfer the knowledge, skills and artefacts which define new technologies.” (Metcalfe, 1995)

“All the actors and activities in the economy which are necessary for industrial and commercial innovation to take place and to lead to economic development.” (Arnold and Bell, 2001)

“At its simplest an innovation system is the groups of organisations and individuals involved in the generation, diffusion and adaptation, and use of knowledge of socio-economic significance, and the institutional context that governs the way these interactions and processes take place.” (Hall et al., 2003: 3).

“Innovation systems approaches view innovation in a more systemic, interactive and evolutionary way, whereby new products and processes are brought into economic and social use through the activities of networks of organisations mediated by various institutions and policies” (Hall et al., 2004).

*Figure 2 is based on a diagram presented by Ian Goldman, Khanya-AICDD, at the DFID workshop, 'Improving the Productivity of Smallholder Farmers in Southern Africa', held in Harare, 27-29 September, 2005.

Related pages:
Underlying Problems
Learning Alliances