Speeding up innovation in agricultural engineering

The innovation process in agricultural engineering is not effective. Some incredible new technologies never reach the innovation level. What should be done?

hannu haapala

Hannu E. S. Haapala

I started to tackle this problem a couple of years ago.  In early 1990’s I worked as a young researcher of the Finnish Academy of Sciences to develop sustainable agricultural engineering.  I had an innovative research group of young researchers in my group in the University of Helsinki who worked almost 24-7 on the subject. Satellite navigation was tested and simulation models were built to vision the future ‘Position-dependent control of plant production’, later named as Precision Farming. The sky was the limit for ideas. As I had my dissertation in 1995,  Precision Agriculture (including also livestock) was seen as an inevitable future.

But what has happened? Only parts of PF or PA have penetrated the markets. The holistic vision of PA as a system is not yet, twenty years later, realised!

OK, I must admit that some great development has been happening. Field navigation and semi-autonomous vehicles with drive assist systems have been quite successful in the markets. In countries with large fields and wide implements, this has been justified both for economy and  ergonomics. However, the actual operations such as fertilization and seeding have not been automated as predicted. Integrated Farm Management Information Systems are not there, yet. The vision of ‘GPS-controlled farm’ is still far from reality.

Now, I have to stress that I mean on the markets, in practise. Research projects and prototypes exist. Coming back to my research team, the ‘Star Group’ (yes, that was our nickname), in 1992 we already had a fully operational GPS-controlled combined drill, operating according to a soil sample based plan. We visioned that it would take some years to produce a reliable and easy-to-use system that could be bought from the shelf of almost any local agricultural machinery dealer…

Then I decided to do something about the situation. In 1996, I moved to lead research in MTT Agrifood Research Finland where I started to build new research priorities together with new researchers. A new topic of system acceptability was introduced. We did some research on it and kept a couple of scientific presentations in conferences of CIOSTA, ASABE, AgEng, etc. Our finding was that maybe there is something wrong with the usability of new technologies. New technologies did not fit well for their potential users. In principle, the technology was operational but not in practical life. It needed too much attention, was too hard to learn and to remember, it did not give the user the needed feedback, nor was it reliable enough, etc. Consequently, the new technology did not build trust in itself. The users got bad experiences and stopped buying it. Users did not utilise new technologies, and then – there were no innovations.

As working as an OECD Research Fellow in 2011-2012, I  prepared a questionnaire for interested individuals who want to give their opinions, experiences and visions on my research topic ‘how to speed up innovation in agriculture?’. I also reviewed selected experts on the topic.

The results have been reported in several conference papers and oral presentations. I have also brought the subject into the attention of planners of EU research and development programs.

I will publicize my thoughts and reports on these Agrinnotech pages, hoping that the speed of innovation in agriculture will grow through my operations.

With Innovative Regards,

Hannu E. S. Haapala

11 thoughts on “Speeding up innovation in agricultural engineering

  1. Yingkuan Wang

    Some questions?

    What is innovation?

    Innovation is closely connected with usability and acceptability. Is that right? Some agricultural innovations are just new ideas, which cannot reach farm users, but are very helpful to peer experts. How do you think of it?

  2. hannuhaapala Post author

    Innovation, by my learnt definition, is not just an idea. Innovation happens when things are done in a new way in practice AND with success. This means that an innovation needs to have (potential) benefits for the user AND the user needs to use the product/service correctlty/effiently enough in order to achieve the benefits. This applies to any business, i.e. also agriculture. -So, I wouldn’t talk about innovations if the only use is for ‘peer experts’.
    Hannu H

  3. Jose

    Hannu, I could not agree more with your observations. It appears not enough emphasis is put on the customer who will ultimately be the one who decides wheather to impliment the new technology of not.

    1. hannuhaapala Post author

      You got the point! New technologies and services are going to be innovations only if someone chooses to implement them and does it in an effective and correct way.

  4. Graham A.B.Edwards

    Indeed you are correct about innovation in Ag.Engineering.
    After 40 years of creating a new Farm Tractor concept ,focused on Farm & crop transportation[7000million tonnes of crops moved annually],Farm transportation [people,equipment from field to field etc.] and one which concentrates on efficiency of low-draught farm work tasks & transportation,which together account for more working time than ploughing & deep cultivation…………..the farmer is not very aware,not very studious & the industry simple follows John Deere & each other.
    Resistance to change is a serious EC -problem & our case study need to be included in your efforts.
    Great to know you exist

  5. hannuhaapala Post author

    I think that it is not only that farmers aren’t aware of the alternative possibilities but they do not trust in new developments in general. Farmers are quite conservative (which is good since they do not pick up every new trend immediately). Trust is built slowly – but lost quickly!

  6. Javier

    Dear Hannu:

    I did not fill your questionnaire (46 pages!); I just read your blog and the figure in the first page, but the discussion only refers marginally to markets. The discussions mention only technical issues.

    The literature on innovation defines an innovation as the first introduction to a market of an idea or a product; before that, they are inventions. In other words, innovations are “packages” that combine technical components with business models. This is one of the reasons for the success of venture and angel capitalists: they contribute not only money but managerial expertise and contacts that help the start up to set up the business innovation (model)

    What are the business models for the techniques you mention? If you cannot answer it in two sentences, then that is the answer to your question: why have the techniques not been adopted?

    1. hannuhaapala Post author

      Dear Javier,

      well I admit that the questionnaire is quite lengthy but it is divided in four parts and you can choose which ones you reply. In individual questions there is also the possibility to choose.
      The questionnaire covers technological, human and business topics. Acceptability of technology is the core and research priorities are asked for. That’s why I think that there is also some interesting material for the innovation researchers to answer.
      My learnt and adopted definition of innovation does not call anything as an innovation unless it also produces benefits for the user. In other words, innovation means profitable business. That is also the reason why UCD is important.
      I think that the business models are quite clear but, as my model suggests, UCD is the missing link. It is needed to make the technologies and services more suitable for their users and use situations. This is generic research subject for many application areas, not agriculture only.
      I think that users actions can not be explained well enough by top level concepts such as market ‘push’or ‘pull’. Innovation needs detailed knowledge of the end-users’ processes.


  7. Félix-Marie Affa'a

    I used a different way to get the same findings you got about innovation and more than that, about using the knowledge produced locally and abroad. I am working on how to transform the system and particularly in improving the interactions between research-training-extension on the one hand and the production system on the other. I am interested to discuss with you about the complementarity of our approaches.

  8. hannuhaapala Post author

    Dear Félix-Marie,
    I am willing to discuss this very important issue. The gap between research ‘innovations’ and true innovations is sometimes alarming.


  9. Pingback: AFIA – Informatique Agricole - AFIA

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