Grasping the digital transformation of agri-food systems through responsible sense-making

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


In the agri-food sector terms like agriculture 4.0, smart farming and digital agriculture are used to describe the digital transformation process that impacts both on- and off-farm. Digital technologies are often seen as an opportunity to enable sustainable futures in agriculture and rural areas. They, however, often have impacts that go beyond use of the digital technology, but also includes social, economic, institutional, etc., aspects, which can be difficult to foresee and understand. Digital transformation is thus a process that comes with uncertainties, expectations and the need for sense-making by and for actors. Hence the research objective of this thesis is to develop insights and understanding of the challenges encountered by organisations, value chains and the agricultural knowledge and innovation system (AKIS) in their ability to make sense of digital transformation of agri-food systems. This objective leads to the following overall research question: How do actors within agri-food systems make sense of digital transformation?

The following sub-research questions will help to address this overall research question:

  1. How do actors within agri-food systems perceive digital transformation?
  2. What are key elements for actors within agri-food systems to make sense of and respond to digital transformation responsibly?

Chapter 1 introduces the core concepts of this thesis, namely digi-grasping and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). The former can be considered a form of sense-making whereby actors actively gain awareness and get involved in the digital world. This will help them to deal the earlier mentioned uncertainties, expectations and challenges and in doing so they may move across different digi-grasping modes (e.g. ignorance, awareness, empowerment, and transformation). The latter, the RRI approach, can help to consider unseen and unknown (positive or negative) aspects of digital transformation using four main principles (e.g. anticipation, inclusion, responsiveness, and reflexivity).  

Chapter 2 uncovers how agricultural knowledge providing organisations, such as farm advisors and science organisations, understand and respond to digital agriculture. Using the concept of organisational identity to describe both initial understandings of and emerging responses to digital agriculture, which shows how organisations digi-grasp. Through interviews with agricultural knowledge providers in New Zealand it becomes clear that digitalisation is often understood as farm-centric, despite being considered disruptive both on- and off-farm. These understandings influence organisation’s digitalisation responses to digital agriculture, which were often ad-hoc. Organisations would start with adapting organisational capabilities, practices and services as their clients and partners require, rather than a strategic approach allowing for more flexibility of roles and processes and to changing business models. This ad-hoc approach appears to be a response to uncertainty as digital agriculture is in early stages of development. At AKIS level there should be more support for agricultural knowledge providers in their digi-grasping process.  

Chapter 3 looks at uncertainties, in particular in the interaction between actors, and connects it to the concept of trust. This chapter investigates how trust relations affect digitalisation and vice versa, using the Dutch flower sector as a case study. The findings show that the sector has limited institutional trust as the relationships between companies are highly competitive and transactional. Limited trust results in limited digitalisation, which in turn causes more distrust due to uncertainties around the digitalisation process, further increased by existing (technological) path dependencies. This indicates a need for developing 1) higher levels of understanding of what digitalisation entails and 2) organizational ambidexterity in the value chain.

Chapter 4 takes an agri-food systems perspective and aims to gain a better understanding and anticipation of the often unknown impacts of the digital transformation process. Digital technologies and the related transformation are not inherently good and have many impacts (e.g. economic, environmental, social, technological, institutional). A framework is developed supporting insights in the relations between the social, the cyber and the physical dimensions of digital transformation, i.e. a Socio-Cyber-Physical System. Additionally, the conditions for digital transformation of such a system are also described (e.g. access conditions, design choices and system complexity). This framework, illustrated through an example of digital dairy farming, allows for a better problematisation of digital transformation, as well as a better understanding of who is responsible and /or accountable for the identified (positive or negative) impacts, i.e. responsibilisation.

Chapter 5 provides a broader conceptual reflection on digitalisation aiming to unravel how processes of digitalisation in agriculture may lead to inclusion and exclusion of people in the present or future, illustrated with examples from an European Union context. A broad variety of inclusion and exclusion factors are discussed across three levels: specific digital technologies; digital innovation packages; and the digital innovation system. This chapter shows that when it comes to the use of digital technologies in agriculture, inclusion and exclusion are more than a binary distinction between ‘who is in’ and ‘who is out,’ or what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’.

Chapter 6 discusses that an organisational level digitalisation is less disruptive as expected due to (organisational) perceptions that hamper the process. The heterogeneity among actors in terms of their digi-grasping modes shows that disruption is only experienced in relation to other (competing) actors. To deal with the uncertainties of digitalisation organisations need to be more flexible and re-consider their organisational identity.

At an AKIS and value chain level thus far there is limited support for the digital transformation. Additionally, due to limited trust between competing and dependent organisations, the necessary  openness for digital transformation is hampered. It would therefore require four key elements of collaboration, trust, reciprocity, and ambidexterity to deal with dominant responses to the uncertainties of digital transformation, such as reinforcement of existing power structures, competitive behaviour and technological lock-in.

For the overall agri-food system it is important to assess the appropriate level of digital transformation for the set of heterogeneous actors involved. It requires a rethinking of digital transformation that discuses s not only the responsibilisation and inclusion and exclusion factors, but ultimately allows space for alternative pathways in both content and process. Therewith this thesis extends the concepts of digi-grasping and RRI.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Klerkx, Laurens, Promotor
  • Turner, J.A., Co-promotor, External person
Award date26 Apr 2022
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789464471199
Publication statusPublished - 2022


Dive into the research topics of 'Grasping the digital transformation of agri-food systems through responsible sense-making'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this