Five principles of co-innovation

Community member post by Helen Percy, James Turner and Wendy Boyce

Helen Percy (biography)

What is co-innovation and how can it be applied in practice in a research project?

Co-innovation is the process of jointly developing new or different solutions to a complex problem through multi-participant research processes – and keeping these processes alive throughout the research.

James Turner (biography)

Our experience has been applying co-innovation as a research approach to address complex problems in an agricultural context, however, the principles apply well beyond agriculture. Co-innovation is most suited to hard-to-solve technical, social, cultural and economic challenges. Such challenges have no obvious cause and effect relationships, as well as many different players with a stake in the research problem and solution. These include policy makers, industry, community members, first nations representatives and others who are involved in the research as partners and stakeholders.

Wendy Boyce (biography)

Co-innovation as a research approach

One way to think about co-innovation is as a research approach which emphasises working with others at each stage of the research process (see figure below). The first stage (co-design) includes the design of the research issues and outcomes with partners and stakeholders. Once the issues and outcomes of the research are designed, the next stage (co-develop) is to develop the details of the research process. This should include the shared development of an evaluation framework, and ways for the research team to learn and adapt the research as it proceeds. Processes to share the results and implement the findings are required during, and at the end of, the research.

An indication of the steps in the co-innovation research process, adapted from Boyce et al., 2016

Our work has indicated that there are five key principles to co-innovation that can be applied in research projects, as illustrated in the figure below. Here we outline what they are and provide links to some of the tools and processes that we use to support these in practice. Note these principles are in no order of priority.


Principles of success for co-innovation, Boyce et al., 2016

1. Involve Partners and Stakeholders

This is about identifying and involving those who will benefit from the research in order to understand the problem from the beginning and develop solutions together throughout the research process.

Questions to ask:

  • Does your project include people who can help to understand the nature of the problem (or opportunity) and its causes?
  • Does the project include opportunities to work with people who could influence the implementation of the research, including those who could take the ideas to the market (entrepreneurs) or create the rules supporting implementation (policy makers)?
  • Do the partners and stakeholders understand their role in the research project?

2. Take a Problem Focus

In research we often want to jump straight into the ‘doing’ without clearly identifying the problem that is being addressed. A co-innovation approach means putting the problem at the centre (rather than the technology or end-user). For example, in our agricultural context, it is not about the farmer (as the end user) who needs to change, but about everyone (researchers, farmers, policy makers, industry etc) addressing the shared problem together rather than focussing on their own ideas.

Questions to ask:

  • Does the project include activities to first identify the problem or opportunity?
  • Are you able to repeat these activities at key points in your research process to maintain a problem focus?
  • Have you taken a broad view of the system by describing the technical, social, cultural, economic, market and political aspects of the problem and solution?
  • Are there opportunities to change activities to reflect changes in understanding of the problem (eg., stop/go milestones or explicit re-planning steps)?

3. Assemble and nurture the right team

In addition to the technical skills, there need to be people with collaborative skills who can strengthen the team’s ability to co-innovate. These are people who can take a broader view of the system and act as translators or brokers between the researchers, and partners and stakeholders. Collaborative and open leadership is also important.

Questions to ask:

  • Do you have people in the team (or access to people) with skills such as system thinkers, facilitators, translators and brokers?
  • Have you allowed enough time up front to fully understand the language and approaches of the different disciplines and perspectives in your research team?

4. Front up – share results early and often

This means that data and results are shared as they emerge, rather than waiting until the end of the research. This helps to understand how the results fit with user knowledge, identify new questions, check that the results are meaningful and/or relevant to users, and keeps the partners and stakeholders engaged in the research process.

Questions to ask:

  • Do you have regular activities with stakeholders to hear, reflect on, learn from, and provide feedback on the research? (For example, project workshops or field days?)
  • Does the project include opportunities and resources for non-research partners to contribute data, knowledge and skills?

5. Plan- Do- Observe- Reflect: action learning cycle

This principle is about building in a rapid action learning cycle of Plan-Do-Observe (monitor)-Reflect to enable projects to maintain a focus on action, as well as adapting to changing circumstances and quickly seizing new opportunities for success. One good way to do this is to build in monitoring and evaluation activities from the beginning, using participatory processes with a focus on reflection and learning.

Questions to ask:

  • Have you built in monitoring and evaluation from the beginning of the project and sufficient time and resources to support this?
  • Does the project include resources and time for reflecting on progress with partners and stakeholders?

What’s your experience with co-innovation?

What has been your experience of co-innovation? Do you have any additional or different principles to add?

To find out more:
Boyce, W., Percy, H., Turner, J., Fear, A., Mills, T. and Craven, C. (2016). Building co-innovation into your research proposal. Beyond Results from AgResearch  and AgResearch Āta mātai, mātai whetū. Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. (Online): (PDF  624KB)

The tools and approaches below are available on our website:

Biography: Helen Percy MMS is a science impact leader at AgResearch Ltd. in Hamilton, New Zealand. For the past five years she has been leading AgResearch’s Adoption and Practice Change implementation programme – a cross-organisational change programme to achieve enhanced impact from research.

Biography: James Turner PhD is a senior economist at AgResearch Ltd in Hamilton, New Zealand. He studies, develops and evaluates approaches to enhancing the impact of science in agriculture through extension, participatory research, co-innovation and collaborative processes. James has 20 years’ research experience in forest and agricultural management and economics.

Biography: Wendy Boyce M.Phil. is a reflexive monitor with AgResearch Ltd in Hamilton, New Zealand. She is a collective impact advisor and community biodiversity activator. She grew up on a farm at the base of Maungatautari, near Waikato River.

How to support research consortia

Community member post by Bruce Currie-Alder and Georgina Cundill Kemp

Bruce Currie-Alder (biography)

A research consortium is a model of collaboration that brings together multiple institutions that are otherwise independent from one another to address a common set of questions using a defined structure and governance model. Increasingly consortia are also being joined in cross-consortia networks. How can connections be made across the institutions in individual consortia, as well as in cross-consortia networks, to ensure that such collaborations are more than the sum of their parts?

Georgina Cundill-Kemp (biography)

During 2014–2018 we were involved in the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), which supported four transdisciplinary research consortia involving more than 40 institutions across 15 countries. CARIAA’s aim was to generate new knowledge and inform efforts that build resilience among vulnerable people living in hotspots of climate change. CARIAA contributed to over 20 local or national plans and strategies, as well as practical actions such as scaling-up of solar-powered irrigation pumps in Pakistan, adopting vulnerability and risk assessment by Botswana districts, and identifying investments in livestock value chains in Kenya.

Drawing on our experience, we share insights on organising, managing, and collaborating within this multiple-consortium programme. These insights also apply to individual consortia.


Selecting participants and fostering partnership are critical. Key lessons are:

  • Bring together diverse partners who complement each other in ways that collectively bridge science, geography and practice.
  • Each partner should bring some unique contribution, be it in skills and expertise, or their relationships and access to diverse communities and stakeholders.
  • Having diverse partners requires accommodating different levels of skills and resources, as well as diversity related to culture, gender, age, hierarchy, professions, and expertise.
  • Pay attention to what motivates each participant, whether this is the prospect of academic publication or achieving on-the-ground impact. Seek to create diverse outputs and forms of recognition that contribute to the goals and careers paths of different participants.
  • Connect early-career and more experienced participants to contribute to capacity building between institutions and generations.

Our experience suggests that the complexity of coordinating a consortium or a cross-consortium network increases with the number of participants and institutions. Key issues are:

  • Having partners working in dispersed locations and time zones, and operating in diverse cultural settings, creates difficulties for working together effectively.
  • Careful work planning is needed to define each partner’s role and encourage partners to be accountable to each other. Consider negotiating a formal agreement, or partnership charter, and revisit it over time.
  • Establish a shared knowledge platform to help foster a sense of identity and transparency. This includes cloud storage to access each other’s work across institutional firewalls, as well as regular newsletters to keep partners updated on activities across individual consortia and cross-consortia networks.


Our experience provided two key lessons:

  • Use nested activities to coordinate a consortium and cross-consortia collaboration, while also permitting a degree of autonomy for diverse activities.
  • Use funding to strengthen leadership at different levels.

In CARIAA nested levels served to clarify connections among the more than 450 individuals and 40 institutions (see figure below). The potentially overwhelming array of partners became more tractable through management fora at the program, consortium, and activity level. Together these nested levels created a pattern of relationships akin to a scale-free network. Managing such levels does require time and effort from principal investigators and coordinators. CARIAA learned that coordinators need to be empowered to effectively manage the day-to-day operations, including progress reporting, knowledge management, and communications.

To strengthen leadership at different levels, CARIAA provided funding directly to a set of core partners in each consortium. This was intended to provide a stronger role for these partners in administering financial resources yet risked weakening the role of the lead institution in managing the consortium. With time, we learned to encourage partners to share resources across the consortium and provide lead institutions with the financial updates needed to monitor progress and address any performance issues.

Network of CARIAA structure
A map of the consortia and institutions involved in the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), showing the nested levels (source: Currie-Alder et al., 2019)


The three key lessons here were:

  • Provide a range of collaborative opportunities, be these face to face or online, and allow these to evolve and change over time.
  • Reserve project budget and time for unexpected synergies and opportunities.
  • Researchers should allocate a portion of their time for collaborative opportunities that only arise later in the research process.

Periodic but consistent intra- and cross-consortium meetings and learning reviews are vital for building relationships, identifying synergies, and pursuing research impact. CARIAA also created different ‘spaces’ including:

  • thematic working groups;
  • additional funding for emergent sub-projects; and,
  • common platforms for engaging stakeholders.

These opportunities provide a scaffolding for collaboration to arise through meeting places for smaller groups of participants to come together. Such spaces were allowed to evolve over time. For example, a working group initially formed to ensure robust climate science in each consortium, later pivoted to contribute original studies to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the implications of +1.5 degrees Celsius warming.

Evolution over time was not only allowed but planned for. For example, CARIAA funded additional work to integrate findings on gender and on migration, to distil and convey higher-level learning for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and ahead of the Global Compact for Migration. Budget and time were reserved to respond to such emergent opportunities. CARIAA set aside one-tenth of its programme funding for such collaborative spaces, defining the specific budget and activities later in the programme once the need became clear. Yet time can also be a limiting factor. Key people can easily become fully committed if they do not similarly allocate a portion of their time for collaborative opportunities that only arise later.


We can achieve greater ambition and impact from research effort through large-scale collaboration that pursues joint learning and research uptake across diverse research networks. Looking ahead, the rising ambition of climate action will continue to heighten such demands upon the scientific community.

Meeting this challenge requires careful attention to organising, managing, and collaborating across diverse partners at multiple scales to bridge science, geography and practice. This means new ways of working (and resourcing) research efforts, and funders (like ourselves) will be fundamental to making this possible. A key challenge in the years ahead will be how to ensure that the transaction costs involved in large scale collaborative research do not outweigh the benefits that researchers and practitioners alike see in their participation in such endeavours. We’ve learned that flexible funds and strong leadership can make such cross-consortia efforts impactful and worthwhile for those involved.

What has your experience been in leading or working in consortia and cross-consortia networks? Do our lessons resonate with yours? Do you have additional lessons to share?

To find out more:
Currie-Alder, B., Cundill Kemp, G., Scodanibbio, L., Vincent, K., Prakash, A. and Nathe, N. (2019). Building climate resilience in Africa and Asia: Lessons on organisation, management, and collaboration from research consortia. Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) working paper no. 24, International Development Research Centre: Ottawa, Canada; and, UK Aid: London, United Kingdom. (Online):

Cundill, G., Harvey, B., Tebboth, M., Cochrane, L., Currie-Alder, B., Vincent, K., Lawn, J., Nicholls, R.J., Scodanibbio, L., Prakash, A., New, M., Wester, P., Leone, M., Morchain, D., Ludi, E., DeMaria-Kinney, J., Khan, A. and Landry, M. E. (2018). Large-scale transdisciplinary collaboration for adaptation research: Challenges and insights. Global Challenges, 3, 4: 1700132. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Conway, D., Nicholls, R. J., Brown, S., Tebboth, M., Adger, W. N., Bashir, A., Biemans, H., Crick, F., Lutz, A. F., Safra De Campos, R., Said, M., Singh, C., Hassan Zaroug, M. A., Ludi, E., New, M. and Wester, P. (2019) The need for bottom-up assessments of climate risks and adaptation in climate-sensitive regions. Nature Climate Change, 17 June 2019: 1-9. (Online) (DOI):

Gonsalves, A. (2014). Lessons learned on consortium-based research in climate change and development. Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) working paper no. 1. International Development Research Centre: Ottawa, Canada; and, UK Aid: London, United Kingdom. (Online):

International Development Research Centre. (2019). 2012-2019 Novel insight briefs – Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA). CARIAA and International Development Research Centre (IDRC). (Online):

Biography: Bruce Currie-Alder is a Program Leader, Climate Partnerships at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa, Canada. Bruce currently shapes the next generation of work beyond the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia. Bruce previously led the IDRC Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa. Over more than 15 years with IDRC, Bruce has worked on scaling-up participatory environmental management, fostering international collaboration on research funding, and tracing the evolution on thinking on international development.

Biography: Georgina Cundill Kemp is a Senior Program Officer at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa, Canada. Georgina currently supports the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) which aims to help decision-makers in developing countries design and deliver climate compatible development. Previously Georgina was based at Rhodes University in South Africa, and Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones (CEAZA) in Chile, where she worked with rural communities on issues of land rights, governance, social learning and livelihoods for more than 10 years prior to joining the IDRC.

Designing scenarios to guide robust decisions

Community member post by Bonnie McBain

Bonnie McBain (biography)

What makes scenarios useful to decision makers in effectively planning for the future? Here I discuss three aspects of scenarios:

  • goals;
  • design; and,
  • use and defensibility.

Goals of scenarios

Since predicting the future is not possible, it’s important to know that scenarios are not predictions. Instead, scenarios stimulate thinking and conversations about possible futures. Continue reading

Agent-based modelling for knowledge synthesis and decision support

Community member post by Jen Badham

Jen Badham (biography)

The most familiar models are predictive, such as those used to forecast the weather or plan the economy. However, models have many different uses and different modelling techniques are more or less suitable for specific purposes.

Here I present an example of how a game and a computerised agent-based model have been used for knowledge synthesis and decision support.

The game and model were developed by a team from the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), a French agricultural research organisation with an international development focus. The issue of interest was land use conflict between crop and cattle farming in the Gnith community in Senegal (D’Aquino et al. 2003).

Agent-based modelling is particularly effective where understanding is more important than prediction. This is because agent-based models can represent the real world in a very natural way, making them more accessible than some other types of models. Continue reading

Funding transformative research: 10 key stages

Community member post by Flurina Schneider

Flurina Schneider (biography)

How can funding programmes maximize the potential of transformative research that seeks to make a real difference? How can funders support a more hands-on approach to societal challenges such as ecological crises? A group of Swiss transdisciplinary researchers and funding-agency staff identified 10 overlapping stages and their key ingredients. The stages are also described in the figure below. Continue reading

What makes government policy successful?

Community member post by Jo Luetjens, Michael Mintrom and Paul ’t Hart

Jo Luetjens (biography)

There is considerable pressure on researchers to show that their work has impact and one area in which impact is valued is government policy making. But what makes for a successful government policy? What does it take to achieve striking government performance in difficult circumstances or the thousands of taken-for-granted everyday forms of effective public value creation by and through governments? Continue reading