The AgriTech 4.0 virtual event, organised by Jonathan Martin, featured various talks and roundtable discussions from a range of key players in the agricultural technology sphere. The event ran over two days – the 26th January and the 19th February and included short talks and roundtable discussion sessions. The IfA livestock team were there to learn about new developments in sensors and data management, and promote the importance of including farmers from an early stage of development to help ensure technological solutions are useful, practical and easy to use in farm contexts, ultimately driving uptake of these technologies on farms.
Co-Designing Precision Technology with Technology Providers, Advisors and Farmers.
“The best roundtable I’ve seen in a long time” - Jonathan Martin, Agri-Tech 4.0 organiser.
This virtual roundtable was facilitated by our very own Lisa Morgans, Head of Livestock. We were joined by Dr David Rose, who runs the Change in Agriculture group at the University of Reading, and Kate Pressland from Innovative Farmers. From the audience, we welcomed Ian Wheal (Founder and CEO, Breedr), Richard Green (National Centre of Precision Farming, based at Harper Adams University), Greg Colebrook (farmer), Ari Kambouris, (CO Founder of Sinafis, France), Alana Scott (FLOX).
What is Co-Design and why is it Important?
Co-design is basically a feedback loop between farmers and technology developers which helps to ensure that innovations will work on farms and provide added value to farmers. You don’t want to invest in a shiny bit of kit that breaks easily, is not fit for purpose, or is really difficult to use, right? So, involving a variety of farmers who work with a range of farm systems right from the start means tech developers can incorporate farmer opinions and experiences to improve the concept, design and ultimately the product throughout the development process. Co-design recognises the human-side of innovation.
But, as David Rose explained, studies into the adoption of technology by farmers keep coming up with the same problems – that those designing technology all too often fail to know who the users are. Fail to understand their problems, how they currently make decisions, their ability to invest, their skills, their advisory system, their on-farm connectivity, what they find easy to use, how to build trust with them. We are very easily seduced by the so-called game changer (AI, robotics, drones, etc.) but if they aren’t suitable for use on the ground, what is the point of spending all our money on them? We ought to do everything we can to ensure technology doesn’t fail, particularly if using public money. That should mean at some stage, preferably from the start, involving your intended user in the design and the delivery of that technology.
Kate Pressland added that the gap is still huge between researchers and farmers and that more needs to be done to give them opportunities to have a say in how research happens and co-design requires more funding, and more patience. Innovative Farmers’ field labs have shown that fostering relationships between researchers and farmers benefits both groups – farmers receive research summarised in palatable, contextualised forms that they can make use of, and researchers can be inspired to do research that is far more relevant. The R&D sphere needs to harness the experimental prowess of farmers, build trust and give farmers more say in the research that happens in their name.
What are the steps involved in co-design?
David outlined the key steps involved in co-design:
- Think who your user is – that might seem obvious but we still design technologies - maybe a farmer can use them, maybe an advisor can use them. We don’t quite know who the user is, what problems they face, what they can/can’t use, etc. You need to be clear who it’s for.
- Why is it better than how they currently make decisions? We too often assume that what we’re designing is better without fully understanding how a decision is made in the first place. It’s hard to say your system is better if you don’t know how decisions are currently made.
- Progress with the farmer - understand what’s easy to use, whether it can be used in practice. It’s no good launching into the design of things and expecting rollout when there’s no infrastructure to roll it out.
- Consider the delivery plan - how you create awareness, how you demonstrate your technology, and then think about what happens once you’ve launched it – do you provide technical support when farmers don’t know how to use your system, or when it breaks? Do you constantly update your system afterwards, or does it become obsolete very quickly?
Has public funding focused on co-design?
Richard Green has been part of several projects that have received Innovate UK funding through the National Centre of Precision Farming, and explained that the aim of public funding was to support the creation of new high-tech jobs in new industries that will benefit farmers and those new companies and their employees pay tax – that's the return to the UK government. Farmers have to pay for technology regardless of where it is made, and the technology being developed is not just for UK farmers – it's entering the global market, it’s being exported to build Britain up after Brexit. Ian agreed that the funding boosts collaboration between world-leading research institutes with bigger corporations that are part of the bid to give startups the support they need over a longer time scale than otherwise possible. The UK is competing globally – the US and Australia have similar research grants, so without having a competing UK grant we lose the stage to other countries and international companies and fail to leverage our UK research institutions and home-grown talent.
Although co-design perhaps is not a priority imposed by funders, Richard acknowledged that they wouldn’t be successful if they didn’t involve the target users (farmers, in most cases) right from the start. Most of the projects he had been involved with were initiated when farmers approached them with a problem and Richard’s team set up a team to develop a solution. We do involve the end users from the start, we wouldn’t be successful if we didn’t. Most of our projects, when we’re setting them up, we are approached by end users who ask us, they have a problem and they discuss it with us and we bring in a group of partners to work on the problem. David countered “but, if all research institutions are working with farmers to design technologies, then why do we still get cases of bad technologies that don’t work? Who is being involved? Is it just the one or two farmers that are very innovative, that do have the capacity to invest and the skills to use the technology you’re creating, or does it mean involving other types of farmers who might not find that innovation useful, or have different problems and challenges?"
Prompted by a question from the audience, David agreed that a key way forward would be to increase support for knowledge exchange platforms which are specifically designed to form a middle ground between industry and farmers/farm advisors. “I think Defra realises this and there are jigsaw pieces in place which are supposed to be the innovation brokers who do that. However, I don’t think we have any clear sense of who is responsible for what, where effort is being duplicated, which farmers aren’t being reached by those innovation brokers, and how all of these people work together.”
What challenges are involved in co-design?
Ian Wheal observed that when it's a commercial system, there is often less tolerance for testing and poor functionality whilst you work through iterations that don’t work. “I think the hardest thing about innovation is actually those first few phases of where people start using it, they hit a problem, so they stop. You often only get one or two chances. Our development phase is: we build something, we test it in the office, we go out onto a farm, we test it like we’re the farmer, then we let the farmer use it whilst we’re watching over their shoulder and then we’ve got these iteration phases before we actually let the farmer use it without us in the room because we know we’ll lose them if something happens and we’re not there.”
Richard Green pointed out that information about commercial work must be limited in the public domain “I don’t really want to go on a platform like this and tell you all about the exciting things that we’re doing, because if I did, then all of our competitors would know exactly what we’re working on.” Kate indicated that these sensitivities limit opportunities for co-design as work has to be under wraps for a long time before farmers can then be just the end-users. It is preferable to involve farmers as co-developers to help shape the technology as is progresses, rather than fully develop a product and have to backtrack because it is not fit for purpose, but the challenge remains of how to protect the ideas that give a company their competitive edge.
Ian also pointed to the tech-farming divide – there's not many people who grew up on a farm that go on to be a software developer. At Breeder, they get their developers onto a farm as soon as possible to help them to understand the context and make a personal connection to a farm and to a farmer.
The importance of tech-farmer relationships
Greg shared his experience of purchasing ready-to-go-to-industry tech that had apparently been tested on farm, but he experienced practical limitations – it wasn’t waterproof, the power source wasn’t easily connected. He invested thinking the validation had been done, but found the final steps to being commercial weren’t quite there. He advised tech companies to look beyond a small test based for feedback – for real-world validation they need to get some feedback from other farmers to check how the product is actually going to work and interact on different farms. Richard was familiar with the technology and explained that the company pushed the product very quickly to market so that farmers could benefit from it, but things do take time to test, and coming back to Ian’s point, expectations are extremely high from a lot of farmers about what they’re going to get.
Ari Kambouris explained that his technology company, Sinafis, was set up to offer affordable solutions for the problems experienced by small-scale farmers. They are aware that there are other markets that can support expensive solutions, but the small farmers that Sinafis work with cannot, so they aim for solutions that fit within their low-cost philosophy.
Ian stressed the importance for their developers at Breedr to get under the skin of the user, and make sure simplicity is at the heart of the tech. To achieve that, they’re starting to see themselves more as a network and a community with discussion groups to learn from each other.
What works well?
Forming personal connections by having a chat and a cuppa tea. Talking about the problems that farmers have on their farm – whether it’s related to your company or not, or related to your idea or not, just really get to know who they are, and then on the back of that come back with a vision. For Ian, the personal touch was the number one thing to drive engagement because you are asking a farmer to make a leap of faith which comes down to a personal connection to start with.
Enable farmers to use their own data to improve their profitability. Go from “people just want to take my data” to “we use that data to make more money and be more efficient”. Alana Scott from FLOX explained that their broiler monitoring system not only provided constant monitoring of flocks to achieve better welfare and returns, it also addresses the lack of transparency throughout the supply chain. This could bring additional benefits, for example working with insurance companies to reduce farmers’ insurance costs.
Working with groups of farmers can be a great approach to co-design as they can discuss the product amongst themselves and offer joint feedback which allows technology developers to be as responsive as possible. This allows you to check with multiple groups whether proposed changes are good or bad.
Offer extensive support beyond the initial development and point of purchase to ensure clients – or potential clients – are happy. This service should include demonstrations, problem-solving and opportunities for feedback.
Aim to make farmers’ lives easier by developing technology that saves them time and/or effort. Ian summed this point up quite nicely: “within farming, if you add a minute to someone’s day, or a minute to weighing a single animal, it doesn’t matter if you generate them £1million of revenue – they'll find it too much of a pain and they won’t use it. If you save them 15 seconds, they’ll love you for it. We’ve constantly got to think about how we’re making their lives easier, in a practical sense.”
Identify your key feature - the thing that gets the initial adoption. Start small, avoid building too much too soon because it will fail. So, establish one key feature that is considered hugely worthwhile by farmers so they put up with the hiccups down the line as you build up and develop further.
Find out more
If you would like to find out more about co-design, or get involved, please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org
You can see which companies took part in AgriTech4.0 and purchase access to the 45+ recorded presentations here https://www.tech40.net/page-3iaJ-SKRg.