Evolution of systems approaches to agricultural innovation: concepts, analysis and interventions

  • Laurens KlerkxEmail author
  • Barbara van Mierlo
  • Cees Leeuwis


Over the years, there has been an evolution of systemic thinking in agricultural innovation studies, culminating in the agricultural innovation systems perspective. In an attempt to synthesize and organize the existing literature, this chapter reviews the literature on agricultural innovation, with the threefold goal of (1) sketching the evolution of systemic approaches to agricultural innovation and unravelling the different interpretations; (2) assessing key factors for innovation system performance and demonstrating the use of system thinking in the facilitation of processes of agricultural innovation by means of innovation brokers and reflexive process monitoring; and (3) formulating an agenda for future research. The main conclusion is that the agricultural innovation systems perspective provides a comprehensive view on actors and factors that co-determine innovation, and in this sense allows understanding the complexity of agricultural innovation. However, its holism is also a pitfall as it allows for many interpretations, which complicates a clear focus of this research field and the building of cumulative evidence. Hence, more work needs to be done conceptually and empirically.


Innovation System Innovation Process Innovation Network Agricultural Innovation Critical System Heuristic 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Assefa, A., Waters-Bayer, A., Fincham, R., & Mudahara, M. (2009). Comparison of frameworks for studying grassroots innovation: Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS) and Agricultural Knowledge and Information Systems (AKIS). In P. Sanginga, A. Waters-Bayer, S. Kaaria, J. Njuki, & C. Wettasinha (Eds.), Innovation Africa: Enriching farmers livelihoods (pp. 35–56). London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  2. Blay-Palmer, A. (2005). Growing innovation policy: The case of organic agriculture in Ontario, Canada. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 23, 557–581.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bos, A. P., Groot Koerkamp, P. W. G., Gosselink, J. M., & Bokma, S. (2009). Reflexive interactive design and its application in a project on sustainable dairy husbandry systems. Outlook on Agriculture, 38, 137–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brooks, S., & Loevinsohn, M. (2011). Shaping agricultural innovation systems responsive to food insecurity and climate change. Natural Resources Forum, 35, 185–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chambers, R., Pacey, A., & Thrupp, L. A. (1989). Farmer first: Farmer innovation and agricultural research. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.Google Scholar
  6. Checkland, P. (1981). Systems thinking, systems practice. Chicester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  7. Clark, N. G., Hall, A., Sulaiman, R. V., & Naik, G. C. (2003). Research as capacity building: The case of an NGO facilitated post-harvest innovation system for the Himalayan hills. World Development, 31, 1845–1863.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Coenen, L., & Díaz López, F. J. (2010). Comparing systems approaches to innovation and technological change for sustainable and competitive economies: An explorative study into conceptual commonalities, differences and complementarities. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18, 1149–1160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cristóvão, A., Koutsouris, A., & Kügler. M. (2012). Extension systems and change facilitation for agricultural and rural development. In: I. Darnhofer, D. Gibbon, & B. Dedieu (Eds.), Farming Systems Research into the 21st century: A new dynamic (pp. 201–227). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  10. Davies, R., & Dart, J. (2005). The ‘most significant change’ (MSC) technique: A guide to its use. Downloaded on February 24, 2010, from
  11. Dedieu, B., Darnhofer, I., Bellon, S., de Greef, K., Casabianca, F., Madureira, L., et al. (2009). Special issue: Innovations in farming systems approaches. Outlook on Agriculture, 38, 108–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dockès, A. C., Tisenkopfs, T., & Bock, B. (2011). Collaborative working group agricultural knowledge and innovation systems. WP1: Reflection paper on AKIS. Sub-deliverable of the AKIS CWG – WP1 – April 2011. Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  13. Douthwaite, B., & Ashby, J. (2005). Innovation histories: A method for learning from experience (ILAC Brief 5). Rome: IPGRI., accessed 15-8-2011
  14. Ekboir, J. M. (2003). Research and technology policies in innovation systems: Zero tillage in Brazil. Research Policy, 32, 573–586.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Elzen, B., Geels, F. W., Leeuwis, C., & van Mierlo, B. (2011). Normative contestation in transitions ‘in the making’: Animal welfare concerns and system innovation in pig husbandry. Research Policy, 40, 263–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Elzen, B., Barbier, M., Cerf, M., & Grin, J. (2012). Stimulating transitions towards sustainable farming systems. In: I. Darnhofer, D. Gibbon, & B. Dedieu (Eds.), Farming Systems Research into the 21st century: A new dynamic (pp. 431–455). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  17. Engel, P. G. H. (1995). Facilitating innovation: An action-oriented approach and participatory methodology to improve innovative social practice in agriculture. Wageningen: Wageningen University.Google Scholar
  18. Farrington, J., & Martin, A. M. (1988). Farmer participatory research: A review of concepts and recent fieldwork. Agricultural Administration and Extension, 29, 247–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Geels, F. W., & Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36, 399–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  21. Gildemacher, P. R., Kaguongo, W., Ortiz, O., Tesfaye, A., Woldegiorgis, G., Wagoire, W. W., et al. (2009). Improving potato production in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia: A system diagnosis. Potato Research, 52, 173–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1989). Fourth generation evaluation. Newbury Park: Sage.Google Scholar
  23. Håkansson, H., & Ford, D. (2002). How should companies interact in business networks? Journal of Business Research, 55, 133–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hall, A., & Clark, N. (2010). What do complex adaptive systems look like and what are the implications for innovation policy? Journal of International Development, 22, 308–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hall, A., Bockett, G., Taylor, S., Sivamohan, M. V. K., & Clark, N. (2001). Why research partnerships really matter: Innovation theory, institutional arrangements and implications for developing new technology for the poor. World Development, 29, 783–797.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hall, A., Janssen, W., Pehu, E., & Rajalahti, R. (2006). Enhancing agricultural innovation: How to go beyond the strengthening of research systems. Washington, DC: World Bank.Google Scholar
  27. Hekkert, M. P., Suurs, R. A. A., Negro, S. O., Kuhlmann, S., & Smits, R. E. H. (2007). Functions of innovation systems: A new approach for analysing technological change. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 74, 413–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hocdé, H., Triomphe, B., Faure, M., & Dulcire, M. (2008). From participation to partnership: A different way for researchers to accompany innovation processes – Challenges and difficulties. In P. Sanginga, A. Waters-Bayer, S. Kaaria, J. Njuki, & C. Wettasinha (Eds.), Innovation Africa: Enriching farmers livelihoods (pp. 135–152). London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  29. Howells, J. (2006). Intermediation and the role of intermediaries in innovation. Research Policy, 35, 715–728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hulme, D. (1992). Enhancing organizational effectiveness in developing countries: The training and visit system revisited. Public Administration and Development, 12, 433–445.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hung, S.-C., & Whittington, R. (2011). Agency in national innovation systems: Institutional entrepreneurship and the professionalization of Taiwanese IT. Research Policy, 40, 526–538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. IFAD. (2006). A guide for project M&E. Managing for impact in rural development. See Annex B for LogFrame. Downloaded on 24 Feb 2010.
  33. Jarrett, F. G. (1985). Sources and models of agricultural innovation in developed and developing countries. Agricultural Administration, 18, 217–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kemp, R., Schot, J., & Hoogma, R. (1998). Regime shifts to sustainability through processes of niche formation: The approach of strategic niche management. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management, 10, 175–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Klein Woolthuis, R., Lankhuizen, M., & Gilsing, V. (2005). A system failure framework for innovation policy design. Technovation, 25, 609–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Klerkx, L., & Leeuwis, C. (2008). Institutionalizing end-user demand steering in agricultural R&D: Farmer levy funding of R&D in The Netherlands. Research Policy, 37, 460–472.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Klerkx, L., & Leeuwis, C. (2009a). The emergence and embedding of innovation brokers at different innovation system levels: Insights from the Dutch agricultural sector. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 76, 849–860.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Klerkx, L., & Leeuwis, C. (2009b). Operationalizing demand-driven agricultural research: Institutional influences in a public and private system of research planning in The Netherlands. The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 15, 161–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Klerkx, L., Hall, A., & Leeuwis, C. (2009). Strengthening agricultural innovation capacity: Are innovation brokers the answer? International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology, 8, 409–438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Klerkx, L., Aarts, N., & Leeuwis, C. (2010). Adaptive management in agricultural innovation systems: The interactions between innovation networks and their environment. Agricultural Systems, 103, 390–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kline, S. J., & Rosenberg, N. (1986). An overview of innovation. In R. Landau & N. Rosenberg (Eds.), The positive sum strategy: Harnessing technology for economic growth (pp. 275–305). Washington, DC: National Academic Press.Google Scholar
  42. Knickel, K., Brunori, G., Rand, S., & Proost, J. (2009). Towards a better conceptual framework for innovation processes in agriculture and rural development: From linear models to systemic approaches. The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 15, 131–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lamine, C. (2011). Transition pathways towards a robust ecologization of agriculture and the need for system redesign. Cases from organic farming and IPM. Journal of Rural Studies, 27, 209–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Leeuwis, C. (2004). Communication for rural innovation: Rethinking agricultural extension. Oxford: Blackwell Science.Google Scholar
  45. Leeuwis, C., & Aarts, N. (2011). Rethinking communication in innovation processes: Creating space for change in complex systems. The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 17, 21–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Leeuwis, C., & Pyburn, R. (Eds.). (2002). Wheelbarrows full of frogs: Social learning in rural resource management. International research and reflections. Assen: Koninklijke Van Gorcum.Google Scholar
  47. Leeuwis, C., Long, N., & Villarreal, M. (1990). Equivocations on knowledge systems theory: An actor oriented critique. Knowledge in Society: The International Journal of Knowledge Transfer, 3, 19–27.Google Scholar
  48. Leitgeb, F., Funes-Monzote, F. R., Kummer, S., & Vogl, C. R. (2011). Contribution of farmers’ experiments and innovations to Cuba’s agricultural innovation system. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 26, 354–367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lundvall, B. A. (1992). National systems of innovation. Towards a theory of innovation and interactive learning. London: Pinter.Google Scholar
  50. Markard, J., & Truffer, B. (2008). Technological innovation systems and the multi-level perspective: Towards an integrated framework. Research Policy, 37, 596–615.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Neef, A., & Neubert, D. (2011). Stakeholder participation in agricultural research projects: A conceptual framework for reflection and decision-making. Agriculture and Human Values, 28, 179–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Norman, D. W. (2002, November 17–20). The farming systems approach: A historical perspective. Invited for presentation at the 17th Symposium of the International Farming Systems Association, Lake Buena Vista, FL.Google Scholar
  53. Oreszczyn, S., Lane, A., & Carr, S. (2010). The role of networks of practice and webs of influencers on farmers’ engagement with and learning about agricultural innovations. Journal of Rural Studies, 26, 404–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Oughton, C., Landabaso, M., & Morgan, K. (2002). The regional innovation paradox: Innovation policy and industrial policy. The Journal of Technology Transfer, 27, 97–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Pant, L. P., & Hambly-Odame, H. (2006). Multi-stakeholder deliberation on dialectical divides: An operational principle of the systems of innovation. Knowledge Management for Development Journal, 2, 60–74.Google Scholar
  56. Pant, L. P., & Hambly-Odame, H. (2009). Innovation systems in renewable natural resource management and sustainable agriculture: A literature review. African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development, 1, 103–135.Google Scholar
  57. Regeer, B. J., Hoes, A. C., van Amstel-van Saane, M., Caron-Flinterman, F. F., & Bunders, J. F. (2009). Six guiding principles for evaluating mode-2 strategies for sustainable development. American Journal of Evaluation, 30, 515–537.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Rivera, W. M., & Sulaiman, R. V. (2009). Extension: Object of reform, engine for innovation. Outlook on Agriculture, 38, 267–273.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Rivera, W. M., Qamar, M. K., & Mwandemere, H. K. (2005). Enhancing coordination among AKIS/RD actors: An analytical and comparative review of country studies on agricultural knowledge and information systems for rural development (AKIS/RD). Rome: FAO.Google Scholar
  60. Rivera, W. M., Alex, G., Hanson, J. C., & Birner, R. (2006). Enabling agriculture: The evolution and promise of agricultural knowledge frameworks. Proceedings of the Association for International Agricultural and Extension Education Annual Conference, Clearwater Beach, FL.Google Scholar
  61. Roep, D., van der Ploeg, J. D., & Wiskerke, J. S. C. (2003). Managing technical-institutional design processes: Some strategic lessons from environmental co-operatives in The Netherlands. NJAS: Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 51, 195–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  63. Röling, N. (1990). The agricultural research-technology transfer interface: A knowledge systems perspective. In D. Kaimowitz (Ed.), Making the link: Agricultural research and technology transfer in developing countries (pp. 1–42). Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  64. Röling, N. (1992). The emergence of knowledge systems thinking: A changing perception of relationships among innovation, knowledge process and configuration. Knowledge and Policy: The international Journal of Knowledge Transfer and Utilization, 5, 42–64.Google Scholar
  65. Röling, N. (1994). Platforms for decision making about ecosystems In L. O., Fresco, L., Stroosnijder, J., Bouma, & van Keulen, H. (Eds.), The future of the land: mobilizing and integrating know­ledge for land use options. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, pp. 385–393.Google Scholar
  66. Röling, N. (2009). Pathways for impact: Scientists’ different perspectives on agricultural innovation. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 7, 83–94.Google Scholar
  67. Ruttan, V. W., & Hayami, Y. (1984). Toward a theory of induced institutional innovation. Journal of Development Studies, 20, 203–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Sanginga, P., Waters - Bayer, A., Kaaria, S., Njuki, J., Wettasinha, C. (2009). Innovation Africa: Beyond Rhetoric to Praxis In P., Sanginga, A., Waters - Bayer, S., Kaaria, J., Njuki, & Wettasinha, C. (Eds.), Innovation Africa: enriching farmers livelihoods. Earthscan, London, pp. 374–386.Google Scholar
  69. Schut, M., Leeuwis, C., van Paassen, A., & Lerner, A. (2011). Knowledge and innovation management in the policy debate on biofuel sustainability in Mozambique: What roles for researchers? Knowledge Management for Development Journal, 7, 45–64.Google Scholar
  70. Sorensen, T. (2011). Australian agricultural R&D and innovation systems. International Journal of Foresight and Innovation Policy, 7, 192–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Spielman, D. J. (2006). A critique on innovation systems perspectives on agricultural research in developing countries. Innovation Strategy Today, 2, 41–54.Google Scholar
  72. Spielman, D., & von Grebmer, K. (2006). Public–private partnerships in international agricultural research: An analysis of constraints. The Journal of Technology Transfer, 31, 291–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Spielman, D., Ekboir, J., Davis, K., & Ochieng, C. M. (2008). An innovation systems perspective on strengthening agricultural education and training in sub-Saharan Africa. Agricultural Systems, 98, 1–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Spielman, D., Ekboir, J., & Davis, K. (2009). The art and science of innovation systems inquiry: Applications to sub-Saharan African agriculture. Technology in Society, 31, 399–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Spielman, D., Davis, K., Negash, M., & Ayele, G. (2011). Rural innovation systems and networks: Findings from a study of Ethiopian smallholders. Agriculture and Human Values, 28, 195–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Temel, T. (2004). Mapping organizational linkages in the agricultural innovation system of Azerbaijan. International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology, 3, 134–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Thompson, J., & Scoones, I. (2009). Addressing the dynamics of agri-food systems: An emerging agenda for social science research. Environmental Science and Policy, 12, 386–397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. van Mierlo, B., Leeuwis, C., Smits, R., & Woolthuis, R. K. (2010a). Learning towards system innovation: Evaluating a systemic instrument. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 77(1), 318–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. van Mierlo, B., Arkesteijn, M., & Leeuwis, C. (2010b). Enhancing the reflexivity of system innovation projects with system analyses. American Journal of Evaluation, 31, 143–161.Google Scholar
  80. van Mierlo, B., Regeer, B., van Amstel, M., Arkesteijn, M. C., Beekman, V., Bunders, J. F., et al. (2010c). Reflexive monitoring in action: A guide for monitoring system innovation projects. Oisterwijk: Boxpress.Google Scholar
  81. Van Paassen, A., van den Berg, J., Steingröver, E., Werkman, R., & Pedroli, B. (2011). Knowledge in action: The search for collaborative research for sustainable landscape development. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  82. Vanloqueren, G., & Baret, P. (2009). How agricultural research systems shape a technological regime that develops genetic engineering but locks out agroecological innovations. Research Policy, 38, 971–983.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Vellema, S. (2008). Postharvest innovation in developing societies: The institutional dimensions of technological change. Stewart Postharvest Review, 4(Art. No 2), 1–8.Google Scholar
  84. Werner, U., & Reynolds, M. (2010). Critical systems heuristics. In M. Reynolds & S. Holwell (Eds.), Systems approaches to managing change: A practical guide (pp. 243–292). London: Springer.Google Scholar
  85. World Bank. (2008). Agricultural innovation systems: From diagnostics toward operational practices (ARD Discussion Paper 38). Washington, DC: World Bank.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laurens Klerkx
    • 1
    Email author
  • Barbara van Mierlo
    • 1
  • Cees Leeuwis
    • 1
  1. 1.Communication and Innovation StudiesWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations