In British Columbia, MLA John van Dongen told delegates to the Certified Organic Associations of B.C. (COABC) conference in February that “innovation is key” to meeting industry and government goals in areas of food security, environmental sustainability and marketing.1 B.C. Senior Manager of Innovation Ann Eastman said that innovation is intended to identify opportunities and barriers and to build collaboration for increased capacity.1
So it must be important, whatever it is.
If this is the intent of innovation, it comes in many guises. Over the last week, I’ve been party to a number of intriguing ideas that seem to be truly innovative.
- The first was a high-tech system for a new style of greenhouse energy screen being developed by a team of university physicists. This could significantly reduce greenhouse energy use.
- The second links greenhouse vegetable production, dairy cow manure, an anaerobic digestion system and utilizing the byproduct of that process for growing different types of algae. In turn, the algae can be used for remediation of dirty water or, depending on the type, can be used as protein. Potentially, lots of protein. On a global scale, if successful this system could simultaneously address a number of “linear” issues (dealing with waste, providing protein/food, reducing production costs) by utilizing circular thinking.
INNOVATION HAS TO BE LOCALLY AND CULTURALLY RELEVANT
While not all innovation has to provide a high-tech answer, it does have to be locally and culturally relevant. This might, for example, involve making a new piece of equipment from otherwise scrap components that:
- Saves labour (a harvesting machine perhaps).
- Improves work or product quality.
- Results in a saving of time and money.
- Applies a different method of working to reduce injury or repetitive strain.
Innovation also has to be clearly understood by all parties. I recently received a mail from a (Canadian) friend in Vietnam. The message concerned a mutual Vietnamese friend who is an incredible greenhouse operator wanting to start a “vertical farm.” Given that many of the greenhouses I’ve seen in Vietnam and China are made of bamboo and polythene, I was a little surprised to say the least.
I wrote back to suggest that unless they both had pockets as deep as the vertical farm was tall, they might want to reconsider this venture. A hasty response back to me clarified that in this case, “vertical farm” meant raising a greenhouse roof to give sufficient height for including crop wires and then growing cucumbers and tomatoes on a (to us) standard high-wire system.
Both parties in this have been involved in horticulture for a long time, but were seeing and understanding the meaning of “vertical farm” through very different pairs of spectacles. Our ethnocentric world views led us to seeing a simple project from completely different perspectives. How easy is it then for truly innovative ideas to get jumbled between different parties involved?
This got me wondering about the funding process we have for turning innovative new ideas into reality. Typically, funding is sought by submitting a (very lengthy) written application to a potential donor.
So, how much funding goes to a project that the donor thinks will achieve one outcome, when the researcher actually has something different in mind? Worse, how many great ideas are turned down for funding because of misunderstandings between applicant and funder? How difficult is it to get an innovative idea across to a third-party funder when a written description is often the only way the project concept is conveyed?
BEING CLEAR WITH APPLICATIONS FOR PROJECT FUNDING
In reality, of course, there are probably few cataclysmic mismatches of funding and research. That said, maybe our grant application process should include new ways to communicate important new ideas that might be hard concepts to grasp.
Not everyone learns the same way: some are linear thinkers, others are visual learners, others learn primarily by doing. Most of us probably use all these methods. Perhaps research funders are no different and need multiple ways to assess new project ideas other than the traditional “form in triplicate.”
1 As reported by David Schmidt in Country Life, April 2012.