Inclusive. Innovation. How often do we hear these two words, or their close relatives “innovative” and “inclusion”?

Important concepts may start to ring hollow when we encounter them daily across many different spheres. Authentically pursuing inclusive innovation requires stepping away from facile labels.

In a 2021 policy brief, the Independent Science for Development Council (ISDC) offered recommendations to CGIAR’s governance bodies as they invest in and guide CGIAR’s 2030 Research and Innovation Strategy. The brief explored the implications of pursuing innovation alongside strategic delivery of world-class agri-food systems research. A motif became evident across the brief's eight recommendations: inclusion.  

A similar motif arose when the evaluation function of the Independent Advisory and Evaluation Service produced the Synthesis of learning from a decade of CGIAR Research Programs (2021). Based on 45 different evaluations, external reviewers and subject matter experts concluded that poor and marginalized people have not been adequately included in CGIAR Research Programs. How will they be made central through CGIAR’s 2030 Research and Innovation Strategy?

Getting to grips with all that is happening under the banner of inclusive innovation could easily be the work of a lifetime. To make a start, ISDC commissioned a literature review and quickly discovered that the search for a universal definition or theoretical model of inclusive innovation would prove futile. This was confirmed by consultations with a selection of CGIAR researchers and partner colleagues, who are testing out an array of inclusive research modes in the field. These discussions revealed that concepts and practices of inclusive innovation are diverse and emergent. Apparently, there is no one-size-fits-all.

Nevertheless, the literature review uncovered rich veins of evidence for strategies that bring the voices and experiences of marginalized people into agri-food innovation systems. For example, past ISDC-commissioned work highlighted the importance of examining trade-offs and understanding how singular agricultural technologies generate winners and losers. Recent studies show that trade-offs can be more skillfully navigated by overtly seeking out all relevant forms of knowledge, especially the acquired insight of the fundamentally diverse people who collectively manage the world's agroecosystems. How might greater inclusivity contribute to richer analysis of local agri-food challenges and the viability of potential solutions?

For an organization with the annual turnover of CGIAR to move the needle on an ambitious global agenda, working with public and private sector partners across local to international levels is a sine qua non. Beyond the universal urging to work with partners, and to pursue action-oriented co-creation, CGIAR can benefit from a growing pool of studies that explore how and when different partnership strategies empower innovation by agri-food system stakeholders. How might greater inclusivity supercharge CGIAR's ability to stimulate systems transformation through its vast partnership networks?

Worsening climate change and other global stressors demand substantial organizational renewal as CGIAR enters its second half-century. Growing experience with transdisciplinary research and more equitable governance models is changing how researchers perceive their role within complex, multi-level agri-food systems. How might greater inclusivity help CGIAR maintain and increase its role as a relevant, legitimate, credible and effective international research institution in a rapidly evolving context that demands institutional evolution?  

It's a truism that what is not measured is not done. To effectively contribute to transformative innovation, CGIAR will increasingly rely on measurement and learning functions that can accommodate non-linear change processes. How might complexity-aware approaches to monitoring, evaluation, and learning enable CGIAR researchers to continually assess, integrate and benefit from inclusive practices?

Based on literature and consultations, ISDC has produced a technical note that exhorts CGIAR governance bodies to root out those assumptions that undermine inclusivity (disrupt!) and then, build more inclusive ways of working that create space for trial and error (test!). By measuring outcomes of such tests, CGIAR can commit resources to research practices that spur truly inclusive innovation (invest!). Following this path will allow CGIAR to deliver more fully on its Research and Innovation Strategy and to propel the type of transformative change that CGIAR staff and partners care passionately about.

Francis et al. (2016) pointed out the need for new thinking on the innovation system concept. Their work alludes to transformative changes exercised through both attitudinal and institutional adaptation within agricultural research, extension and education organizations: whereby organizations recognize and promote incremental change in farming systems driven by local people and built on local knowledge, experience and creativity. Thus, the term “disrupt”, is not only about rooting out assumptions that undermine inclusivity; it is also an active acknowledgment that local innovation by farmers is “disruptive” to business as usual, being more affordable and accessible to resource-poor small-scale farmers whom CGIAR wants to reach. 

Through its latest commissioned project, ISDC has discovered that there is no recipe for embedding inclusivity into CGIAR research. However, we do have an expanding toolkit of validated strategies that improve agri-food system innovation by pulling in from the sidelines the knowledge and creativity of people making their living under the most challenging agricultural conditions. And, as an institution, CGIAR is home to a wealth of inspired, creative people who have already set an inclusivity transition in motion.

Tomorrow, 1 November 2022, at the TropAg Conference taking place at Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, Brisbane, Australia, from 13:00 - 15:00 local time, ISDC will lead the symposium “Building Inclusive Innovation in International Development.” If you are present at TropAg, please join us. If you are not, please continue to watch this space for forthcoming blogs, papers and the final ISDC Inclusive Innovation Technical Note to be released 7 December 2022.