Impact by Design: We need to Flip the Research
This keynote address was delivered by Dr Mike Briers AO at the Food Agility Summit 2020 on the 11th February 2020 to a packed audience of delegates representing the depth and breadth of the research and agrifood sector. You can watch Mike's address here.
Many of you know that I have had a long career spanning the research and commercial sectors with a mission to find new forms of collaboration to make research translation more effective – this has involved establishing industry associations, academic knowledge networks, commercial digital platforms, and of course Cooperative Research Centres.
However, fewer of you know that I have had a life-long sporting involvement in judo – actually since age 8 at a YMCA in Hobart. My family lived in a very tough suburb and being the 2nd youngest of 8 children, my mum wanted me to be able to take care of myself!
Apart from the obvious physical and mental benefits from training and competition, judo teaches two key principles.
The first principle is “mutual welfare and respect”.
Despite the combative nature of judo, we are taught to help each other learn - symbolised by the respectful bow – even after you have been overpowered by an opponent – the bow says thank you for helping me to learn and improve for next time.
This concept is totally imbedded in every aspect of the sport. One of the joys of travelling around the world as a young athlete was being welcomed at any judo club and finding instant friends. You could find yourself at a club with a world or Olympic champion, it would make no difference – novice or expert, everyone is welcome to practice and improve their skills with a new partner. Collaboration, trust and mutual respect is built in – as it should be with our food innovation system.
Australia has a highly capable research system, we have world class producers and we have innovative data and digital technology. How can we mobilise these diverse capabilities to meet the challenges facing us in the coming decade based on mutual welfare and respect?
The second judo principle is “maximum efficiency with minimum effort”.
This is best expressed as using a sometimes larger and more powerful opponent’s momentum or reaction to throw them onto the ground. A common technique is to suddenly push your opponent backward, then take advantage of their reaction to flip them forward over your hip on to the ground.
Just like in a judo throw, we need to flip the research so that we don’t expend all our efforts on developing research solutions without properly understanding the problem we are trying to solve. And so with data, how do we spend more time finding ways to use data to support decisions and less time wrangling it?
So today I want to outline two things that stand out to me as having the biggest impact on whether this country becomes a world leader in Agrifood innovation.
First we need to Flip the Research. Many people here will have heard of the movement in universities to 'flip the classroom'. I believe it is time to flip the research if we are to tackle our biggest challenges.
Second we need to Unlock the Data. We need to figure out how to switch the emphasis on collecting more and more data and focus on how we unlock the value of data in circulation.
I, like pretty much everyone here that I know, is in this game to help address one of the most challenging issues facing the world today – how do we produce enough food to feed the world without breaking it? And then, how do we maintain consumer trust that food is safe to eat? How do we optimise nutrition and reduce waste? How can we do this without depleting natural resources and regenerate the environment? And then, how can we meet these challenges and create new economic opportunities for Australians?
Because I don’t just want Australia to export its incredible produce. I want us to export value-added services and smart technologies that have been designed and developed here along-side our world class food producers.
This of course is not a simple set of challenges - but nor was closing the hole in the ozone layer.
One thing I know with certainty as I walked through the smoky haze over summer and the flooding rains this week, now is the time to get moving – urgently.
Never before have we seen this confluence of climatic events, social pressure, uncertain global trading and political uncertainty.
The question is: can we rise to the challenge and act fast enough to be leaders, or will Australia be a follower?
I believe we have all the ingredients in place to be a leader. Australians are known as rapid adopters and the appetite for good agtech is growing. We are now seeing a wave of growth in the number of AgriTech start-ups with commensurate interest from venture funds and new dedicated incubators and accelerators. Many of these start-ups are progressing to scale-ups with reports of significant follow-on funding in the past year.
Farmers can see that’s where the future lies, if only we can bridge the distrust caused by too many experiences of tech that requires them to input the same data over and over, that one system can’t talk to another or that it just doesn’t do what it says on the can.
That is the challenge, so now I want to talk about what we can do about it.
We need to make some adjustments to the configuration of our innovation ecosystem – we have to tweak our recipe to extract maximum value for our producers, our consumers and for our communities. We just need to work out the maximum efficiency with minimum effort bit!
Finding solutions has become overweighted compared to finding the problem. If we want to have impact, let’s spend more time validating the problem – and then designing for maximum impact in the areas that matter. We have the talent, and we have more people and organisations than ever before focused on digital agrifood innovation.
Australia ranks highly in terms of research output – we know how to do great research. We are particularly good at agricultural research and we estimate that there are about 12,000 researchers working in this field alone. As someone who has represented Australia in sport I am proud to say that we have kicked it out of the park in terms of research and capability. But we are terrible when it comes to research impact. Amongst OECD countries we rank 9th in research output and 29th in research impact.
The country that is the best, and the fastest at putting together the innovation capability, the data, and the technology will reap the rewards.
This is how I think Australia can do it.
We need to 'flip' the innovation system.
Every Australian university will say that it’s great at collaborating with industry. Just about every researcher in our field will say they are “industry-led”. I am telling you that neither statement is true.
Yes, we are getting better. Yes, there are some great examples of research-industry collaboration with impact. But it’s far from the norm. There’s still a yawning gap between the researchers and the people whose problems they are trying to solve. Research is still directed by academics whose key performance indicator is the number of papers they publish and not how many people benefit from their findings.
That’s not to say academics aren’t motivated by doing public good. The vast majority I’ve encountered want to make a difference. But the system doesn’t reward them for that. The system rewards them for publishing papers.
There is still resistance among some researchers to engage directly and regularly with the people who will use the output of their work. And so by the time the research outcomes do get released, the industry has often moved on.
Our experience as a CRC has been that many view us as a funding body; that we are here to serve universities by funding their projects. I absolutely refuse to let Food Agility CRC be a funding body.We have purposefully taken a different path. It’s not the easy path, that’s for sure. The easiest thing for us would be to call for project submissions, choose the ones we’ll fund and then just check in on the projects every now and again.
Food Agility does not fund projects. We invest in research that will help our industry partners solve its greatest challenges.
That means the starting point must be identifying what those challenges are. Then we can look across our incredible network of universities and technology partners to curate the best team and capability to solve those challenges.
I want our researchers to publish great papers. But that’s secondary. The primary focus has to be on impact for people in the agrifood industry: did we help solve their problem? Did we make their jobs easier? Did they increase outputs while reducing inputs? Did they enhance food production and the natural environment? Did they reduce waste, or water use, or greenhouse gas emissions? Did we as consumers get safer, healthier food?
That’s why Food Agility has taken a very different approach to curating projects and teams rather than funding research proposals. We can have academic independence and industry-led research. We can have high quality research based on sound scientific methods, that also involves early prototype testing and pivoting where necessary to deliver what industry needs.
We just need to “flip” the research.
A lot of the people in this room will have heard of 'flipping the classroom'. This is the movement among universities to invert the traditional model of learning. It used to be the case that students came to the classroom to consume the content, and then the applied learning happened outside of the classroom. The new model is to give the students the content to consume in their own time and they come to the classroom to understand how to apply that new knowledge.
'Flipping the classroom' has transformed university teaching and learning. 'Flipping the research' could transform the Australian research and innovation sector.
Here’s what we mean by 'Flipping the Research':
- We start by curating the big challenges from industry.
- We identify the capabilities we need and curate cross-disciplinary teams.
- We bring together the industry representatives with the researchers and any other capability we need to clearly define the challenge.
- We work together to map out a project or program of research that includes regular milestones for delivery to enable validation, as well as a longer-term objective for impact.
- And then we constantly check in with end-users to make sure what we’re learning and developing is useful and useable.
- We don’t wait until the end of a 3-year waterfall research project and the papers are published before we release outcomes.
- We release early prototypes and we continuously refine our approach based on feedback and other data.
- And we make sure that built-into the research program is a plan to either communicate the findings or to commercialise the IP so it can be used by the people who need it.
This approach will require significant cultural change across the Australian research system.
It will also require universities to offer greater incentives to researchers who deliver impact; as well as faster legal and governance systems that can support agile research projects.
Food Agility will be a consistent agitator for this until we witness a rising tide of change that makes true industry collaboration the norm and not just a few individual case studies.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting all research should follow this approach. There will always be the case for pure research and academic-directed research. I also want to be clear that academic independence is paramount. The ‘flipped’ approach is about creating impact where it is needed most to support innovative, prosperous and healthy communities. It’s about making research more relevant to the challenges we face as producers, as consumers and as a society.
Validation of research outcomes by other scientists is critical to traditional knowledge creation. But iterative validation of research and technology outcomes with problem owners and beneficiaries is critical for practice change and adoption and ultimately industry impact.
Our challenge is that the balance at the moment favours the former and not the latter.
To be clear – industry impact is not just a nice to have – it is mission critical given the scale of challenges and opportunities ahead.
And this takes me to the second key ingredient for Australia to unlock Agtech innovation at scale. The scenario I’ve painted leads us to “data data everywhere … but does it make us think?” (or, perhaps more importantly, do?).
Courtesy of the 4th Industrial revolution we now have some flashy new tools. These of course include the internet and an exponential growth in the things that connect to it and measuring more and more stuff every day (in real time if you want it) – from micro climate sensing, to robots and drones, to farm machinery and logistical track and trace systems to satellites.
This room doesn’t need to be reminded of the explosive growth in measurement systems spawned by these technologies and why we keep talking about how big data and artificial intelligence is not just coming but has already arrived in agriculture.
Like many of you returning to work after the summer break, the Food Agility team had a debriefing session which involved listening to the stories of team members affected by the fires. One of our team, Sara, lives in Bright in Victoria, and had to evacuate to Melbourne with her young family not knowing if her house was still standing. Another team member, Majella, had helped keep a fire at bay with her brother which came right to the fence line of her parents’ house at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains.
As each told their story, we switched back and forth between the Victorian and the NSW fire service maps to illustrate the plight of these two team members. As we did so, it became pretty obvious that the fires seamed to miraculously stop at the NSW VIC boarder! Does this sound familiar? The challenge of interoperability between data silos! Not to mention the anxiety and uncertainty caused by delayed information.
Some of you won’t be surprised by these stories – but with the 4th Industrial Revolution upon us, I say it’s just not good enough.
Too much of our time and effort is spent on collecting the same data over and over again. Not just our producers but all stakeholders in the food system including, importantly, researchers. We have more data silos than grain silos.
In my previous role in the world of finance as the founder of Rozetta Technology, we were able to build a data platform that connected real-time data from over 300 global financial markets and used by every major financial institution in the world. They paid for it because they derived a lot of value. So much value that the technology was recently sold for an estimated $3b plus (unfortunately I didn’t have a stake in that!).
But Regulators also benefited from access to the data and the financial system became more transparent and better regulated as a result. Critically, our universities and academics were also able to derive value at a fraction of the cost. They had access to vast amounts of real time “analytics ready” data which opened up whole new areas of research and drove innovation in the finance system.
Today, around 100 Australian PhD students are embedded in finance companies all around the world whilst still graduating from Australian universities. Moreover, our burgeoning FinTech sector is now a world leader. These major global impacts all started with the aim of sharing interoperable data that was analytics ready with the entire Australian research sector.
You can see here some pointers for the Agrifood industry. In Agrifood, there are major trust barriers to sharing data among producers and other players in the agrifood system. People are right to be cautious about privacy and commercial confidence. Data can be used to control. But on the flip side, transparency can also increase trust and collaboration. If other industries can solve these data challenges, why can’t we? Data can connect the system in a way that delivers benefits across the food system, including for producers who operate in increasingly complex global markets.
We need to build the underlying infrastructure to collect and share data in trusted systems so that:
- Producers can unlock productivity benefits and protect their natural capital
- Our supply chains can be more efficient
- Consumers can make informed purchasing decisions
- Regulators can protect consumers safety
- Brands can unlock new markets with provenance stories
- Technology companies can create new products and services
But importantly, to really power up our innovation system, we need our vast world class research sector to access shared data to create new knowledge and accelerate innovation across these challenge areas.
This is the lesson we learnt in the finance industry. Collect data once and enable it to be used by many people, many times and for multiple purposes. The value of data increases with its circulation. Maximum efficiency with minimum effort.
And so, back to Judo. In judo the aim is to improve oneself (physically, mentally and spiritually) by taking on the principles of “mutual welfare and respect” and “maximum efficiency with minimum effort” and by finding partners with diverse capabilities to practice with. The more diverse the better. This means constantly testing and validating your technique … continuous improvement driven by a deliberate and intensive collaboration with your partner or indeed your opponent!
In the face of our dramatically changing economic, environmental and political landscape, and with the mission to build a more resilient and sustainable food system we need to do much more and with more urgency.
Not to mention that we have all signed up for a $100b industry by 2030.
We need to accelerate the development of shared data infrastructure to mobilise our vast research talent and to power up our Agrifood innovation system. A rising tide lifts all boats.
We need to unlock the data. We need to develop and promote new deliberate innovation methods that privilege problems over solutions.