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Reinventing the Irish Agro-Food Knowledge System

In 2006 CKA was engaged by Teagasc - the national agency for the provision of research, training and advisory service to the agro-food sector in Ireland, to assist management in the development of a new vision for the organization, and reposition its research, training and advisory services in a fast changing knowledge based bio-economy.

The process started with a design workshop involving Teagasc staff and major stakeholders, to make sure everyone was clear on hat we wanted to achieve, how we would go about it and the level of effort that would be required.

The first phase of the exercise was a creative divergent-thinking phase where the intention was to uncover and challenge the basic assumptions of the organization, its mission, its clients, their needs and the kind of future they had to prepare for. This divergent phase culminated in a Radical Thinkers’ Workshop involving international domain experts from fields as diverse as dairy, finance, urban agriculture, genetics, green chemistry and renewable energies. Patrick Crehan of CKA spoke on the changing nature of innovation in the agro-food industry. He presented a scenario called ‘the exploding farmer’ to illustrate how the farmer and the work of farming would change in the coming years.

The second phase of the work was a process that required making choices about the future, in terms of the role that Teagasc would play in the development of its clients and in terms of the services it would deliver. This convergent phase lead to the development of a vision for the economy in 2030, a vision for how agricultural production and the food industry would have changed by then, how new industries would have emerged and matured by then, and how Teagasc will need to support its clients throughout this process. The final report was launched in Dublin Castle by the Minister for finance on 30 May 2008. One of the most important conclusions was that the main areas for development of the organization would be in:

• Moving from a research focus to an innovation focus
• Developing capabilities in terms of leadership, partnership and accountability

The Foresight process was smoothly integrated with the change management process which was officially launched at a change management workshop on 14-16 January 2009.

The Final Report Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 can be downloaded here or directly from the Teagasc website.

Further details about the process are provided below. Those interested to find out how CKA can help with their strategy process should get in touch here.

Further information about the exercise is provided below or can be downloaded here.

Table of Contents

• Background to the Teagasc 2030 initiative
• Goal and Methodology
• The Divergent Phase
• The Convergent Phase
• Results
• The Four Pillars of the KBBE
• Demographics Facilitating Change
• Leadership, Partnership and Governance
• Action Plan and Implementation
• Sources of Information and follow-up

Background to the Teagasc 2030 initiative

Teagasc means ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’ in Gaelic. It is the name of the food and agricultural research, training, education and advisory body in Ireland. By 2006 fundamental changes happening to the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe were already being felt throughout the Irish agro-food sector. New and emerging issues were gaining importance and looked likely to have an impact on the sector and it was necessary to ask how Teagasc would maintain its relevance to clients and stakeholders as it moved ahead. Building upon a previous foresight exercise entitled ‘Rural Ireland 2025’, ‘Teagasc 2030’ was launched to help the organization reposition and reinvent itself to meet the challenges that lay ahead.

Goal and Methodology

Teagasc 2030 was designed to establish a broadly-shared vision of what the agri-food and rural economy would look like in 2030 and a vision of what Teagasc could become as the leading science-based knowledge organization in the sector. It set out to develop the strategic capabilities of Teagasc, improve its ability to provide proactive leadership on complex issues, identify strategies and mechanisms to maximise the impact of training and technology transfer and to develop a culture of continuous renewal.

The Steering Committee (SC) included key Teagasc managers, high level representatives from relevant organizations such as the university system and the environmental protection agency, influential business leaders from both the farming and food sector as well as international experts. They played a decisive role in that they were fully engaged with the process and provided constructive input each time the group convened. The Working Group (WG) consisting of Teagasc employees aided by two international consultants was responsible for the detailed planning and execution of the exercise. The Foresight Panel (FP) consisted of experts from Teagasc, representatives of the farming and food sectors as well as experts from the research community including a commercial research service provider. FP members participated in and contributed to workshops and other activities organized by the WG.

Early consultations with the SC reinforced the need for a structural approach that went beyond the traditional sectoral view. The SC emphasized the need for new strategic capabilities that would enable the organization to operate in a rapidly changing context. One of the first tasks of the WG was to review foresight exercises on food, agriculture and the rural economy that had been conducted previously whether in Ireland or around the world and to start a discussion on the scope of the exercise and get agreement on the nature of the results it should provide. The first observation of the working group was that previous foresight exercises on food, agriculture and the rural economy tended to focus on problems related to commodity markets and the CAP system of payments. They did not offer much in terms of hope and provided little to inspire young people working in the sector with strong messages of hope for the future. It was resolved at an early stage that Teagasc 2030 would have to do more than this.

The work itself was organized in two phases. A Divergent Phase where the main purpose was to study issues relating to the organization, the sector and the broader economy in a creative and exploratory fashion, brought in outside knowledge and expertise as well as relevant case-studies from abroad. The second Convergent Phase focused on choices to be made about desired outcomes, long-term visions for the future of Teagasc and the context in which it would operate as well as the practical implementation of short term action plans. Just before the end of the Divergent Phase a Radical Thinkers Workshop was organized to challenge peoples thinking and try to overcome any remaining inertia or skepticism as regards new ideas and the necessity for change.

The Divergent Phase

This consisted of paper-writing on a number of key topics that provide important background to the members of the Foresight Panel. The papers are especially important as they allow people not expert in a domain to get an overview of what is happening. The real action however was in a series of 4 workshops.

WS1 consisted of a SCOPING and PROFILING activity to determine the boundaries of the Teagasc 2030 exercise and to verify that the Foresight Panel included a sufficiently broad range of actors. Important discussions arose concerning how agriculture and food related to the use of land in Ireland, the relationship between this and both the rural and national economy, how both the theatre and the actors might be changing and how there was a need to revisit ideas of who the typical Teagasc client was, is now or would be in the future. The immediate output of this workshop was strongly criticized by the Steering Committee as not being radical enough. It was thought too traditional or sentimental in its attachment to ‘land’. The modern reality consists of urban agriculture, greenhouses, gardens on the sides of buildings, marine and lake algae, forests, urban agriculture, greenhouses and bio-reactors as well as a food industry that has long outgrown local production and in some sectors come to rely almost entirely on imports for raw material inputs. This workshop started a process of reflection that lasted until the end of the exercise. The intervention of the SC was very important to ensure that workshop did not simply end with a result that eventually required a year to mature and which culminated in what was or Teagasc an entirely new vision of its place in the Knowledge Based Bio-Economy or KBBE.

WS2 focused on trying to understand relevant DRIVERS of change, the factors shaping the future of Teagasc and the environment in which it operates. The focus was on identifying the drivers and the IMPACTS that they could have on the economy in 2030. The discussion included references to TRENDS and TREND BREAKS. The exercise is intended to help people develop their intuition about 2030.

WS3 focused on strategic ISSUES and started the process of formulating the opportunities and challenges that the various sectors and stakeholders would face in 2030. By this stage the concept of the Sustainable KBBE starts to come into to focus.

WS4 was about developing SCENARIOS to further develop thinking about the ‘Sustainable KBBE’ in 2030, to further explore and define the issues and challenges and to identify the BIG QUESTIONS whose answers will structure Teagasc as an organization.

A Radical Thinkers Workshop was timed to take place between WS3 and WS4. This consisted of a series of talks followed by discussion involving speakers from a variety of areas and who were capable of presenting challenging views on relevant topics. It involved scientists, geographers, venture capitalists and policy makers. It opened up visions and discussion on the future of genetic engineering. For some it was an opportunity to hear for the first about renewable chemistry based on crops grown for their chemistry rather than for food, feed or fiber. A Venture Capitalist gave his vision of where important opportunities for investment would arise in future. A Danish speaker explained that while Denmark performs about 1% of all global research Danish industry will require access to the other 99% if it is to achieve or maintain global competitiveness. This observation recently gave rise to a whole new innovation policy led by the Danish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and implemented via an international network of innovation support centers in places like Silicon Valley and Shanghai. It was important not to organize this workshop too early in the foresight process. Participants need preparation to get the maximum benefit. They have to come to the meeting with the right questions in mind if they are to be receptive to the ideas. On the other hand it should not be organized so late that there is no time to incorporate new thinking into the ongoing foresight process.

The Convergent Phase

This consisted of a series of three workshops involving the Foresight Panel. If this convergent phase of work were to culminate in an actionable plan for the transformation of Teagasc, such a plan would require the commitment of top managers. The outcome had to be something they would own and act upon. To make sure that management was adequately prepared for the final stages of the Foresight process, a series of internal meetings was arranged that brought together the top managers of the organization along with a small number of representatives of the Working Group, to help them understand the implications of the exercise, to identify the main axes of change for the organization and to anticipate the detailed requirements of the last workshop. Although the Foresight workshops were usually animated by members of the working group or external consultants, the goal was for key elements of the final workshop to be led by members of top management with support from the working group. At the same time an internal dissemination process addressed all parts of the organization to explain what was happening and to gather feedback on changes required moving forward. An external consultation process separately addressed the farming and food industry sectors, again with a view to explaining the kind of ideas that were emerging, as well as gathering feedback and inputs from an increasingly broad range of stakeholders.

WS5 was devoted to the development of SCENARIOS about the Sustainable KBBE. In particular the goal was to develop more specific thinking about the role of knowledge, learning, research, innovation, training, advice in the sector in 2030.

WS6 was used to finalize the scenarios and flesh out a VISION for the research and innovation, training, education and advisory system in 2030 and the role that Teagasc would occupy in the system.

WS7 was devoted to the issue of organizational transformation and the DIRECTIONS of CHANGE for Teagasc for the coming years. The management meetings played a significant role in determining the structuring of this last meeting. Based on their discussions it was decided to focus on transformation under the major headings of Leadership, Partnership, and Governance. The issue of leadership originally emerged in meetings of the Steering Committee and was echoed in discussions with industrial stakeholders. It was considered to be of increasing importance for smaller or mid-size companies due to especially on long-term scientific and technical issues, due not the high cost and high risk of doing research and the need to be three inter-related headings emerged from discussions with stakeholders.


One of the most important results was the development of a vision for the Agro-Food and Rural Economy in 2030 as a “knowledge intensive, innovative, internationally competitive and market-led BIO-ECONOMY”. This helped to place the sector at the centre of something big and positive and full of opportunity that would play a role not only in the rural economy, but in the general knowledge economy via its contribution to climate change, energy security, sustainability and eventually the transition to a post-petroleum era. Recognizing that countries with excellence in agriculture have opportunities for moving up the value-chain by selling not only their products but their know-how, the final report speculated about a time when the most important export of the dairy sector in Ireland might no longer be its milk, cheese, yoghurt and functional foods but its management expertise and its technical knowledge about the organization of dairy production systems.

The Four Pillars of the KBBE

From an Irish perspective it made sense to complete this vision by breaking it down in terms of ‘four pillars of the KBBE’:

• Food Production and Processing which mainly represents mature industries where competition is relentless and global, where competitiveness often relies on efficiencies of scale, automation and process technologies as well as scientific management and competitive sourcing.
• Value-Added Food Processing which includes advanced food processing and food-service, functional foods, as well as food-additives and ingredients, bio-actives, nutraceuticals and cosmaceuticals. This sector is fast moving and innovative. There is continuous adoption and improvement of technologies for production, processing, distribution and preparation. Supply chains are constantly changing and considerable attention is given to intangibles such as patents, brands, provenance and traceability.
• Agri-Environmental Goods and Services include food-safety and traceability, animal welfare, energy security, climate, clean air and water, fertile soils, bio-diversity, areas of public amenity, natural beauty and those of importance for cultural heritage. Although these are normally treated as a spin-off from other activities based on multi-functionality, this is given a separate identify in recognition of the overall role it will play in energy and climate security as well as in the overall sustainability of society and the economy.
• Energy and Bio-Processing includes the production of feedstock for bio-fuels and bio-polymers. This sector makes substantial investments in harnessing knowledge. It places great importance on knowledge as a factor of production. It is characterised by a high level of risk and provides opportunities for government support to lead markets. It correspondents to new and emerging areas of science and to entire new markets. This sector is where the high-valued added and commodity sectors of the future are created.

Demographics Facilitating Change

A key observation concerning the future of agriculture in Ireland was an observation by the Rural Economy Research Centre of Teagasc that approximately 40% of farmers in Ireland would retire in the next 10 years and that almost all farms would change hands at least once by 2030. This pointed to an opportunity to use the unavoidable dynamic of retirement and property transfer to restructure the farming sector so that land as a natural resource could make the greatest possible contribution to the economy. This would include enabling successful farmers to increase the area they cultivate and less successful ones to move on perhaps using models based on leasing. Discussions arose about ‘future farmers’ and ‘foresight farmers’. It is likely that the land transfers that will happen in the common years will give rise to a younger better education and more international generation of farmers. Armed with Agricultural MBAs or degrees in bio-technology many will approach farming more as a business than as a family tradition or vocation. Their approach to managing the farm as a business would be less sentimental and more entrepreneurial-scientific. Such farmers represent very different clients for Teagasc that those it has served before.

Leadership, Partnership and Governance

One of the most important currents of debate throughout this foresight exercise concerned the traditional push-approach to technology transfer. The old approach was summarized as follows …

whereas the Teagasc in 2030 would need to resemble something like this.

The challenge is not only how to develop a more demand-led organization, but how to deal with the fact that much of the cutting edge knowledge required by innovative new companies would not be available within the organization, that much of what they need in terms of knowledge for research and innovation would need to be sourced either elsewhere in Ireland from private or public research providers or from international knowledge networks.

The vision that emerged for Teagasc as an organization in 2030 was that of an organization suffused with a culture of support for innovation by its clients, that is capable of:

• Providing LEADERSHIP where necessary on innovation related issues
• Developing and maintaining the PARTNERSHIPS required for research and innovation
• Employing new GOVERNANCE mechanisms to assure relevance and accountability to its clients and stakeholders

Action Plan and Implementation

In many ways the implementation of the action plan started even before the exercise was finished. A part of the action plan is a natural continuation of consultations with major stakeholder groups that was started as part of the foresight process. The most immediate and tangible result was the creation of a permanent foresight unit within Teagasc to oversee the implementation of the Teagasc 2030 action plan and to support other foresight activities as needed within the organization. The action plan which is outlined in the Teagasc 2030 report includes steps to create a broader culture of innovation with the organization, intensify systematic interaction with client groups and stakeholders as well as the reform of personnel structures to enable greater mobility of staff within the organization, facilitate trans-disciplinary work and align incentives with the needs of clients. Other structural reforms include a focus on network based activities as well as time-limited project-network like intervention such as Technology Platforms and Commodity Working Groups that pool the resources of partners and include stakeholders as part of the management.

The general result of Teagasc 2030 is a positive one based on the opportunities offered by the KBBE, not only for actors currently involved in the agri-food and rural economy but for entire new generation of entrepreneurs with no prior link to the land. It is clear that key to success in agriculture continues to be innovation and that the role of Teagasc in the future will be to increasingly channel its efforts and resources towards support innovation for innovation in particular through the development of the partnerships required by its clients and stakeholders for innovation in the KBBE.

Sources of Information and follow-up

All background papers, scenarios and proceedings as well as the final report are available from the Teagasc 2030 website at www.teagasc.ie/foresight/index.htm. The papers and presentations of the radical Thinkers Workshop are available at www.teagasc.ie/publications/2007/20070725/index.htm.


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