A process that places farmers at the core of innovation
Living labs: a tool for systemic change
Transforming agrosystems from degenerative to regenerative requires the adoption of innovations by farmers. These innovations come in the form of new practices, products, or tools, capable of improving farming efficiency, and therefore reducing its environmental footprint for equal yield levels. Some novelties are easily understood and appreciated (e.g. shifting from a manual saw to a electric saw), some others are more complicated to assess, with potential benefits affected by a number of factors (e.g. the yield of a hybrid variety of wheat if influenced by soil characteristics, meteorological conditions, etc.). In the context of academic research, which is where Farms4Climate originated from, top-down innovation has been the rule (in other words, researchers develop innovations and then try to have practitioners implementing them), but this seldom works. The promotion of agronomic practices that have been validated through experimental field trials are not an exception: results might look promising, but farmers rarely feel the need of implementing a practice just because it worked well during academic research. Realising this, the current vision of most research funding agencies, including the European Research Executive Agency (REA), is to generate and promote innovations through Living Labs.
The term Living Lab refers to a process that bring multi actor to co-create innovations that can be easily uptaken by end-users.
Focusing on regenerative agriculture and carbon farming, a living lab needs to attract stakeholders into cooperating toward seizing business opportunities in the primary sector. It means starting from the user experience (e.g. how could a new agronomic method improve farmers' life), and defining a roadmap through which synergic interests align. In the Farms4Climate project, the working hypothesis for the proposed living labs are: traditional farming systems are struggling to sustain production for a number of reasons; regenerative agriculture and carbon farming might provide an opportunity to improve revenues for traditional farmers; farmers need to understand these opportunities and define their own interests in the matter; researchers and solution developers (including software engineers and data scientists) should support farmers in building technological solutions that are easy to use and relevant; multi-actors should be involved in the conversation and participate in building a common path to scale up the innovation.
The Farms4Climate project intends to leverage on carbon farming to promote the diffusion of regenerative practices in Mediterranean agrosystems.
Such a process is common to any living lab, but a differentiating element in the agricultural context is that we believed that innovation opportunities could only be captured at a meaningful scale if rural organisations are established for the purpose of managing/promoting such opportunities. Reflecting their local, cooperating nature, these associations are often referred to as "Community Based Organisations" (CBOs). The consortium's ultimate objective is to participate in the creation, in various Mediterranean countries, of CBOs that can participate in the co-creation of mechanisms to reward farmers for doing things better than usual. The examples of the Aland Foundation and the Sekem Development Foundation inspired the vision for the Farms4Climate project. To replicate the success of these two organisations, the focus must be on putting farmers behind the driving wheel, particularly those younger innovators that are willing to challenge the beliefs arisen from the generations who preceded them.