Crafting actionable knowledge on ecological intensification: Lessons from co-innovation approaches in Uruguay and Europe

Walter A.H. Rossing*, Maria Marta Albicette, Veronica Aguerre, Carolina Leoni, Andrea Ruggia, Santiago Dogliotti

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Context: Despite a wealth of analytical knowledge on factors and processes that operate to slow down or impede sustainability transitions in various sectors of society, design-oriented researchers face a lack of guidance on the ‘how to’ question for developing knowledge to support sustainability changes. From 2007, we crafted co-innovation as an approach for governance and management of change-oriented projects, combining three domains; a complex adaptive systems perspective, a social learning setting, and dynamic monitoring and evaluation. Objective: This paper sets out to describe the co-innovation approach and draw lessons from its application in projects on ecological intensification in Uruguay and the European Union. Methods: We used an analytical framework for evaluating sustainability transition experiments, which considers project features that provide insights into the contribution to sustainability transformations by project outputs, outcomes, processes and inputs, and their interactions. Empirical information on 6 cases from 3 projects was collected through in-depth interviews with former project staff, group discussion, and project documentation. This enabled a reflexive evaluation of co-innovation. Results and conclusions: Outputs showed substantial variation among the cases despite a similar approach to project governance and management. More significant contributions to sustainability transitions were associated with in-depth project preparation, a focus at the farm-level instead of the crop or field level, connections during the project's lifetime with regional innovation system actors, and frequent facilitated interactions among project actors to reflect on results, wider system implications, and project direction. We discuss the results in relation to the three domains of co-innovation. To enhance the role of projects in destabilizing currently unsustainable systems we highlight: reconsidering the role of projects as a business model; stimulating institutional learning from previous change-oriented projects; and making funding more adaptive to evolving project needs. Significance: With most of the budget for agricultural research-for-change spent through projects, how projects are conducted is a critical determinant of the rate of sustainability transitions. Effective disruption of unsustainable practices through project interventions requires rethinking linear cause-effect relations to include project governance and management approaches based on complex adaptive systems thinking, social learning settings, and monitoring geared to adaptation and learning.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103103
JournalAgricultural Systems
Early online date18 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


  • Complex adaptive system
  • Dynamic monitoring and evaluation
  • Project pedigree
  • Social learning
  • Socio-technical system
  • Sustainability transition experiments

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