Innovation support services (including advisers with a focus on innovation)

One of the lessons learned from former Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) is that sometimes it is not enough to simply offer stand-alone funding for groups that cooperate on innovation projects. This is because individual actors may have difficulties in finding appropriate partners for their project proposals.  It is important to also support activities which raise awareness and facilitate the participation and implementation of innovation actions.

So-called 'innovation support services', and in particular 'innovation brokering', can therefore play a crucial role in getting worthwhile projects off the ground by facilitating contacts.  While 'innovation support' has a broader and more general focus, 'innovation brokering' is really supporting a specific individual group to start with a potentially successful project.

Partners involved in an Operational Group, will have different backgrounds. They come from practice or advisory services and from science or the market, and they are used to working in different professional contexts and with different time horizons. So it will prove particularly useful if an impartial person can 'translate' between partners, helping them understand each other’s needs and expectations. 

Innovation brokering is the process that focuses on the formation of a group and the development of the partner's project idea(s) into a clear workplan. An 'innovation broker' plays the role of 'matchmaker' in the phase before the project starts by:  

i) capturing grassroots innovative ideas from practitioners;

ii) bringing the right people around the potential OG project objectives and helping partners to connect to each other;

iii) helping to develop the concrete projects and

iv) identifying available funding to start-up the Operational Group project. 

The innovation broker acts as a go-between and connects innovation actors (farmers, advisers, researchers, NGOs, etc.) around an idea that may become an innovation.  Brokers also help to clarify the precise potential roles and activities of each of the partners in the project.  Their main task is to help prepare a project proposal which is endorsed by all actors and to help the partners to put forward a successful funding application. Such setting-up can be funded under Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) through various approaches. By using the setting-up funding first, Operational Groups should be able to begin their projects with a well developed view on the state-of-play and on how the project can bring added value. A project plan that is well discussed and thought through before the project starts, with clear milestones and embedded flexibility, would reduce the impact of unforeseen changes and minimise the risks along the innovation process.

Working with so-called 'facilitators' (intermediates in the course of the Operational Group project), is important to keep the discussion on the practical problems of farmers going, and to bridge the language of science/markets and entrepreneurial practice. If the project becomes funded under rural development, coordination and facilitation of the Operational Group project can be provided for under Article 35 (5) (c), once the OG project is running.  The innovation broker who helped the group to build its project could also provide organisational support and become the facilitator of the project, even if this would not automatically be the case.

An 'innovation support service' is a broader term that covers various tasks that support innovation. Aside from providing innovation brokering before, and facilitation during the project, innovation support services may also help promoting innovation and innovation-funding formats, organise brainstorming events and animation of thematic or cross-sectoral groups.They may also coordinate projects, and support a broad dissemination of innovative project results. Some innovation support services use thematic groups or networks which may focus on specific challenges for a particular sector to deal with.  Others invite knowledgeable stakeholders and interested parties to incentivise brainstorming on topics that may have innovation potential, cross-fertilising between different worlds. 

Innovation support services and innovation brokers should ideally have a good connection to, and a thorough understanding of, the agricultural world. They should also have well developed communication skills for interfacing and facilitating. They should be well visible and work long-term.  Their activities can be supported by RDPs. Added value can be expected particularly where the approach is as 'cross-cutting' as possible: trying to go beyond the silos of existing sectors, regions, initiatives and/or scientific disciplines. This may help the mixing of diverse ideas, customs, etc. of different places or groups of people and may lead to more innovative results.

Innovation support services can work in many different ways. For example, some might use vouchers which pay for a few meetings where brokers and partners can discuss concrete ideas and put the proposal on paper, lowering both the administrative burden and making it easier to use brokerage services.

Existing (thematic) networks and platforms also contribute to connecting stakeholders and to prepare and discuss potential innovative ideas. Furthermore, National Rural Networks (NRNs) have a specific new role in 2014-2020 of “fostering innovation” and it is expected that NRNs in some Member States/regions will get involved with the provision of specific support for implementation of the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI) through partner search and networking.

Resources and Further Reading

  • The EIP-AGRI Service Point has published a useful brochure on Innovation Support Services. You can download the brochure here.
  • The EIP-AGRI seminars for Managing Authorities in November 2013 and November 2014 focused on innovation brokering and innovation support services. A useful presentation can be found here.   
  • Some examples of innovation support services can be found on the EIP-AGRI website: Example 1 and Example 2.
  • The European Commission has provided guidelines to Member States and their regions on programming and implementation issues related to innovation, and to the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI). Section 8.2 explains innovation brokering, and clarifies possible means to support innovation brokers and partner search for Operational Groups.  These guidelines are available for everyone with an interest in the EIP-AGRI to read. The guidelines can be downloaded here.

The ENRD Focus Group on Knowledge Transfer and Innovation (KT&I) was launched in June 2012. It analysed how the 2007-2013 Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) supported knowledge transfer and innovation.  The KT&I Focus Group provided recommendations to Member States about how to promote KT&I in the next 2014-2020 programming period.  Full versions of all reports produced by the Focus Group can be viewed here.