Foresight by the NRLO
From 'old' to 'new'
Foresight, Forecasting and Research
Three domains of creation
Innovation at system level
Conceptualisation in system innovations
For more updated information about NRLO's approach, you might also want to take a look at the slides that were used in presentations at:
the Wageningen Conference on ‘Towards an agenda for agricultural research in Europe’, April 1999, or
the Helsinki conference on 'Foresight at Crossroads', November 1999
The new-styled National Council for Agricultural Research (NRLO) started its activities in 1995. In particular, restyling the NRLO was intended to serve two purposes: to reinforce the long-term perspective in agricultural research policy, on the one hand, and to increase the innovative powers of agricultural research, on the other. Following its restyling it has been the NRLO's mission to develop long-term perspectives on (desirable) developments in agricultural research. This is accomplished through foresight studies. Whereas the NRLO-old-style used to focus mainly on current and medium-term knowledge needs, the council is now engaged in exploring social, scientific and technological developments with a time perspective varying between 15 and 20 years.
They provide the context for putting in perspective new options and strategies of agricultural research. The main differences between the old and new NRLO are represented in table 1.
Table 1. NRLO: from old to new
- Current and medium-term knowledge needs
- Long-term knowledge needs (2010/2015)
- Analysing supply and demand related with research efforts
- Dialogue and consensus-building
- Modern strategic analyses
- Foresight studies
- Professional organization
|Position and motivation of NRLO participants
- Functional, interest-promoting, controlling
- In private capacity, independent, innovative
The core of all NRLO activities is a combination of:
- exploring the challenges and opportunities regarding rural areas, agribusiness and fisheries that may be anticipated during
the next few decades, within a European or global context;
- exploring the potential contributions by science and technology
to help reveal and seize those opportunities.
The main question refers to the substance (directions, issues,
priorities) and infrastructure (organization, funding) that are needed in this type of research
in view of the situations that may be anticipated 15 or 20 years from now. Explicit attention is also
paid to the link between present and future. This implies that analyses will also include current fields
of influence, current policies and currently available instruments - and their potential dynamics.
The crucial idea is that realization of long-term strategies should start right now.
The products that should result from the NRLO foresight studies include:
These products will be presented in interim and final reports,
but they will also become manifest in process outcomes. If anything, the NRLO believes that the latter
should be considered equally important as the reports: it should be in the nature of the foresight
studies that they encourage the debate and promote independent thinking. They are not designed
to smooth off any rough edges from predictions or to provide ready-made answers; rather, they
should define dilemmas, challenges and opportunities as a result of active dialogue. The foresight
studies should promote the debate on the strategies of agricultural research in politics and policy-making.
- strategies for the benefit of science and technology (main product);
- general strategies (by-product).
A major instrument of the foresight studies, therefore, is to develop scenarios which may help understand and discuss policy options that are as yet unrevealed. Other activating instruments applied by the NRLO include: essay-writing, round-table discussions and strategic conferences, workshops and study assignments. They are instruments that set great value on
open and creative discussions with constant challenging between actors.
Thus, foresight studies will explore strategic issues of the future as a searching and learning process shared by trade and industry, social groups, government authorities and research institutions (table 2).
Table 2. The learning organization
- Foresight studies are searching and learning processes (in relation to strategic issues for the future).
- Actors will learn and act most effectively if they personally recognize emerging problems and explore possible solutions.
- The support base for any results of foresight studies will increase considerably if the policy-makers have been party to the study.
- The NRLO will carry out foresight studies in interaction with innovation-oriented key actors.
- Foresight studies require a well-considered combination of cognitive and social processes.
- Process outcomes, including any knowledge about their future acquired by actors in the process, are more important than writing reports or publishing official proposals.
The NRLO has decided to take the concept of 'sustainable development'
as its leitmotiv when elaborating its working programme. This involves economic, ecological,
social, cultural, technological and physical-planning elements. The NRLO will try
to clarify available options. In doing so, sustainability is defined not only in terms
of consolidation and preservation, but also in terms of dynamic development.
Foresight, Forecasting and research
Exploring versus predicting
NRLO studies are not about predicting, but rather about exploring an uncertain future. Apart from trends, discontinuities and countermovements are studied with equal interest. Foresight studies are not designed to predict a probable future. They intend to illustrate and to question the attractive perspectives, the hazards and conditions of various strategies in different potential
futures: they are searching and learning processes involving strategic issues for the future.
Table 3. Forecasting versus foresight
- To anticipate a (most) probable future in terms of policy adaptation
- To facilitate policy-making by reducing uncertainties
- To anticipate potential futures in terms of well-considered innovation
- To explore uncertainties and alternative strategies
Exploration versus research
Foresight studies differ considerably from research studies (in
the classical sense of the word). Their differences include:
A. Knowledge, willingness and ability
B. Certainty versus uncertainty
- Research studies are focused on knowledge, i.e. on increasing
knowledge and understanding; they are based on the psychological
model which says that problems can be solved as soon as all the
relevant facts and data have been collected;
- Apart from factual knowledge, foresight studies also examine
willingness and ability.
- Problem-solving and strategic development not only require
knowledge, they also require that attention is paid to norms,
values, the attitudes and interests of groups and individuals
(willingness) as well as their action potential (ability). The
psychological model involved here is the idea of the triple unity
of 'mind, heart and body'. It implies that norms and values, fields
of influence, the institutional context of policy-making, the
social debate and the development of alternative options and perspectives,
i.e. in order to reveal willingness and ability, may be even more
important than hunting down the facts. The design of both the
social process and the cognitive process merits attention.
C. Reductionism versus holism
- Research studies concentrate on certainties, mapping out trends
and developments; their psychological model stipulates that uncertainties
should be reduced by investigating.
- Foresight studies not only value facts and trends, but especially uncertainties, ambiguities and discontinuities. It is not allowed to try and
transform those uncertainties into certainties or probabilities;
instead, one should recognize the existential essence of uncertainties, ambiguities
and discontinuities. The challenge is how to deal with them. One
should learn to think and act based on various futures.
D. Paradigmatic versus Socratic approach
- Reductionism is the dominant approach in research studies.
Reality is simplified and subdivided in such a way that the resulting
elements can be studied by applying established scientific methods.
- In foresight studies the first matter of importance is that
a holistic or integrative approach is used, paying a great deal
of attention to the interaction between the constituent parts
of a problem or issue. Foresight studies are integrating studies
where a method of mixed scanning is applied, i.e. they combine
a panoramic point of view (to achieve integration and a general
overview) with zooming in on the elements of greatest importance
(to achieve depth).
Foresight studies are designed to stretch our mental maps, to help us take a different perspective, to make us search and learn. The underlying principle of foresight
studies is: 'The mind is like a parachute, it works better when it opens'.
- Research studies approach their questions by starting from
specific disciplines, including their well-established paradigms,
theories and methods. As a result, only those facts are collected
that fit in with specific ways of seeing and working (the scientific
- Foresight studies will always raise the question as to whether
the problem under study really is what it seems to be (the Socratic
approach). Do we really apply the paradigms and theories that
are most appropriate? Perhaps the dynamic of strategic issues
is inherently chaotic rather than linear - and therefore permanently
eludes total prediction. In that case we should work
with the concepts derived from complexity theory and chaos theory
rather than applying common arguments based on linear causality.
In addition it will be necessary for foresight studies to take
an approach that will transcend disciplinary boundaries.
Exploring the future is a great challenge. In doing so, the NRLO
takes a rather long-term perspective, attempting to discover fundamental
changes in society and to develop well-matched strategies. This
requires a willingness to call into question current perceptions,
concepts and institutional roles as well as to design and test
new perceptions or concepts (models of thought, paradigms). Thus,
it will be necessary to have in-depth discussions with the partners
involved: policy-makers in trade and industry, social organisations,
knowledge institutes and government authorities.
During 1997, the Council paid attention to these issues in various
parts of its working programme, as an undercurrent that surfaced
in some places more than in others. The report about 'Challenges
and concepts for a future policy of agricultural knowledge and
innovation' dealt with these issues in more detail.
Three domains of creation
In its foresight studies the Council has been raising explicit
questions about the existing paradigm of knowledge, technology
and innovation. The paradigm implies that relations between research
and innovation are seen as linear processes: from basic research
to strategic and applied studies and then to actual practice.
For many decades the paradigm has dominated the organisational
structure of agricultural knowledge. More recently, a radical
transformation of thought has been propagated by both trade and
industry and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, implying that the
market rather than scientific research is the essential motivating
factor. Still, another linear relationship is then considered
to exist, this time starting with innovation needs and necessary
technological developments resulting in knowledge development
by separate scientific disciplines.
The line of thinking developed by the NRLO and the Consultative Committee on Foresight Studies (OCV) is based on the idea that linear
relationships have become outdated. Thus, the Council has suggested three domains of creation to be distinguished: the production
of (fundamental) knowledge (K), the development of technology and skills (T), and innovation (I). The three domains differ substantially (see table 4).
||Developing technology and skills
|Products||new facts, insights and theories
||new techniques, methods and skills||new products, processes, services, concepts and systems
|Leading actors||universities, research institutes
||institutes for scientific and technological research, consultancy and engineering firms, corporate laboratories
|Differences in cultural environment
||developing and controlling technologies and skills
||profitability and surviving in a competitive environment
|Competences required||abstract-analytical abilities, an attitude of critical doubt
||diagnostic powers and designing skills
|Success measurement||international scientific assessment
||effectiveness of technological or "skillful" solution
||success in the "market"|
|Access of knowledge base||public
||part public, part private||private
Table 4: Differences between three domains of creation
The three domains of creation have different objectives. Knowledge
production involves detecting facts as well as generating new
theories and insights. Developing technologies and skills involves
developing new techniques, methods and skills. And innovation
refers to efforts to realize new products, processes, services
and systems. But the three domains do not only differ in their
objectives. In order to be successful, the three processes of
creation should also be controlled in differing ways. Furthermore,
it is essential for the vitality of the three subsystems that
they are in constant interaction with their environment ('congruity').
This reciprocity is of utmost importance for system maintenance,
procedures and design. The three domains of creation differ considerably
in their 'cultural environments' (motivations, accounting mechanisms,
rules of the game). They each have their own separate set of rules
and criteria of success, while requiring distinctly different
skills and attitudes (see the diagram 'Distinguishing characteristics
of K, T and I'). If these differences are not taken into account
sufficiently by policy-makers, the long-term result will be that
at least one of the domains will get stuck.
Thus, in the Council's opinion, it is a key challenge of future
policies in the fields of knowledge and innovation that they ensure
the vitality of all three domains of creation. This will require
policies that are specifically adjusted to the domains involved.
Figure 1: The LAT-Model
Another factor of importance to the organisation of policy-making
in the fields of knowledge and innovation is the perception of
combined actions between the three domains. NRLO report 97/17
described their interplay as 'living apart together'. Generating
fundamental knowledge, developing technology and skill, and innovation:
each one of them is appreciated for its own sake and its own dynamics.
At the same time, any interaction between the three of them will
produce additional value. Examples include:
- in order to accomplish innovations - in addition to other
activities such as production, marketing and finance - it is often
necessary to develop technologies and skills or even to generate
- conversely, generating fundamental knowledge may open up fresh
opportunities for developing new technologies or innovations.
The implications of this LAT relationship are that policy-making
should focus on developing all three individual domains as well
as their mutual interplay.
Research, transfer of information, training and education (permanent
education) play their part in all three domains. However, activities
may take quite different forms in the three domains. Two illustrations
- theoretical and abstract learning will be emphasized when
generating basic knowledge, whereas innovation will stress practical
- laboratory experiments will be emphasized when generating
basic knowledge, whereas innovation will stress interactive scientific
Innovation is needed at system level
During the year 1997 the Council has been paying explicit attention
to the issue of innovation in agrobusiness and rural areas. Innovations
come in all shapes and sizes. As a result, innovations mayhave
considerably different degrees of thoroughness. Process and product
innovations will mostly involve incremental innovation, whereas
system innovations will involve more structural types of modernisation.
The latter are much more drastic. Frequently, they will have repercussions
for many parties in the sector while various partners in society
are affected as well. This may be illustrated by referring to
the innovation of the auction system in the Netherlands. System
innovations of this kind will lead to changed interactions with
the environment and it is not uncommon to find that various functions
- social, economic, technological - will have to be redefined.
System innovations tend to be relatively radical alterations,
putting technical systems under review and bringing about shifts
in cultural paradigms: older values are replaced by newer ones,
which will nearly always cause a great deal of resistance.
Dutch agriculture today is in a phase when a fundamental changeover
to sustainable agriculture will be necessary. At the same time,
the use of rural areas is being drastically redefined. It involves
both competition for space and finding new possible combinations
of highly diverse functions (agriculture, recreation, nature,
housing, infrastructure, water collection, etc.). Actors playing
a role in the use of rural areas are trying to find and create
new opportunities to increase the functionality and quality level
of rural areas.
Over the past few decades many incremental improvements have been
achieved within existing agricultural systems. However, improving
current systems is unlikely to be sufficient to find solutions
for the great diversity of problems in relation to customer orientation,
environmental protection, animal health and welfare, degeneration
of scenery and nature, and reduced social legitimacy of agriculture.
To solve these issues it will be necessary to achieve far-reaching
reorganisations as well as innovations that transcend individual
business levels and short-term commercial interests.
Examples of system innovations include:
- new systems for logistics and distribution of agrofood and
ornamental plant products;
- new function combinations in rural areas;
- new animal production systems (combining design requirements
in terms of animal health, environmental protection, animal welfare,
labour income, and working conditions);
- environment-friendly system innovations at higher aggregate
levels (resulting in closed cycles of substance use between agriculture
and other sectors);
- new integrated animal health strategies (i.e. strategies satisfying
both veterinary-zootechnical and public-health, economic, ecological,
social, ethical, managerial and political requirements).
Conceptualisation in system innovations
Although system innovations may be necessary for agrobusiness
and rural areas to be vital and sustainable in the 21st century,
they are difficult to achieve, both organisationally, culturally
An adequate understanding of the key issues referred to above
is not likely to be the main problem in achieving successful system
innovations. A major bottleneck will be the necessity to abandon
familiar concepts and traditional types of behaviour. The following
elements may play a role here:
- Innovating not only requires scientifically tested knowledge,
but also context-dependent practical experience and know-how.
Innovating requires procedures to achieve that both explicit and
implicit knowledge bases are mobilized and combined.
- System innovations require intensive interactions between
problem owners and professionals. Mostly, they will be problem
owners with diverse interests and professionals with diverse qualities.
Private-public partnerships will frequently be a precondition
- Important functions and processes in system innovations include:
taking the initiative (defining the problem, 'pulling'); conducting
negotiations and acting as intermediaries; combining ideas, energies
and interests; facilitating and directing; learning both individually
and collectively. Careful organisation of this processes and functions
will be essential for system innovations to be successful.
- Exploring, designing, testing and realizing are the primary
activities of system innovations. A leading role will be played
by activities such as data collection, creativity and selection,
knowledge integration and making new combinations of available
technologies rather than generating new knowledge.
- System innovations require professional expertise in both
science, humanities and social sciences. It is not sufficient
to consider only purely scientific or technological aspects of
innovations; rather, they will also involve analyses of organisational,
managerial, political, economic, ecological, structural and cultural
elements associated with developing and implementing innovations.
- In order to make valuable contributions in exploring and designing
system innovations, research efforts will need essentially different
methods and qualities as compared to knowledge generation: from
analysing and explaining towards synthesizing; from monodisciplinary
towards multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary
activities; from optimizing current reality towards designing
new systems; from specialities towards 'T-shaped skills' or the
ability to combine disciplinary thoroughness and scope; from purely
scientific research towards co-innovation in close collaboration
with various groups of both researchers and non-researchers.
- System innovations should be organised in such a way that
highly differing parties may take concerted action. Innovation
creating networks (consortiums, strategic alliances) are highly
appropriate in this respect. Particular attention should be paid
to the flexibility and outcome orientation of networks. Also,
the network design to be selected should be dependent on both
the nature and context of the innovation process.
- Innovative policies aiming to achieve system innovations will
need financial structures that encourage various professionals
and parties to take concerted action in order to accomplish radical
innovations. It should be avoided that economic resources are
allocated in advance to specific institutes for conducting research
or providing information; rather, resources should be made available
to the innovation project as a whole, being managed by the consortium
leadership and assigned to activities and qualified parties that
are needed to accomplish the innovation. Finally, an adequate
accounting and assessment system should be made operational.
- It is not functionally appropriate to distinguish between
fundamental research, strategic research, applied research and
practical research. What is needed in cases of innovation is an
entirely new way of considering and designing the relation between
innovation and research.
- If the objective is innovation, it is inadequate to think
in terms of a 'division between policy-making and implementation'
or 'boards of policy-makers and businesses define problems and
research institutes take care of their solutions'. Innovation
requires that problem owners, researchers as well as other parties
involved will combine their efforts to find solutions.
- The desire to avoid establishing new institutional facilities
as well as to maintain a strict division of tasks between trade
and industry, government and knowledge institutes is counterproductive
to achieving system innovations. System innovations require a
network approach and specific innovative structures created in
the context of the innovation process.
- In order to make effective contributions to innovation, many
research institutes will have to change their organisational cultures.
Also, researchers must be willing to act as co-innovators.
- The institutional design as well as the allocation mechanism
currently used in its knowledge and innovation policies by the
Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries are inadequate
to achieve system innovations. Providing financial support for
research programmes and research institutes is one thing, but
financing innovation themes and innovation creating networks is
quite another matter.
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