How innovations are born

Production of 95 per cent of all food is based on soil. Yet soils everywhere are under threat. We illustrate the role of development cooperation by considering soil.


Klaus Töpfer (c) Patrick Seeger/dpa

By Klaus Töpfer

Klaus Töpfer

Professor Klaus Töpfer, a graduate economist, was Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam from 2009 to 2015.

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By Alexander Müller

Alexander Müller

Alexander Müller, a graduate sociologist, is the head of a global study of the UN Environment Program on "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food" and CEO of "TMG - Töpfer, Müller, Gaßner GmbH, ThinkTankforSustainabilty".

All contributions

TMG – ThinkTankforSustainabilty


A glance at some global development indicators reveals a hopeful picture. The percentage of people whose lives are blighted by hunger and poverty has fallen. School attendance rates for children – especially girls – are rising. Health care for young mothers and access to vaccines have both improved. But other trends give cause for concern: the threats posed by climate change, the unsustainable and rapidly increasing consumption of natural resources, and the proliferation of armed conflict are just some examples of factors that could derail the progress being made in development. The figures show that in some parts of Africa the number of people going hungry is rising, and it is estimated that more than two billion people worldwide are malnourished.


If the people of this Earth are to live together peacefully, these challenges – both old and new – must be tackled. This calls for knowledge and for new ideas and initiatives. We must pursue the development of technology and social innovation in order to be able to adapt to changing conditions and shape them.


Innovation for food security

How do we generate the innovations that will help us ensure food security for a growing world population against the backdrop of climate change? The term ‘innovation’ conjures up the image of a scientist who breeds higher-yielding crops in the lab, creates improved drugs for animals or adapts agricultural machinery to use less fuel. Studies show that the increase in global agricultural productivity is due first and foremost to innovation and only to a lesser extent to the greater use of inputs such as fertiliser and irrigation. We shall continue to need innovations of this sort and systematic support for this type of research must not be neglected.


But we also need social innovation: greater recognition of the rights of women to own land and other productive resources, changes in consumption patterns and new approaches to the protection of groundwater. All these are familiar challenges that policy-makers, business leaders and civil society have been grappling with for years and in some cases decades. To tackle them, we need other ways of generating innovation.


Transformation through knowledge – knowledge through transformation

In the first place, these are innovations that involve implementation by large numbers of actors. This means that they cannot be developed in isolation from political and social interests. Moreover, in some cases the relevant questions arise during implementation of political programmes – such as programmes to encourage the issuing of land titles in the names of both marriage partners. We have therefore spoken elsewhere of ‘transformation through knowledge’ and ‘knowledge through transformation’. The transformation processes themselves generate the research questions that then lead to the innovation.


This calls for science that involves society. Scientists have coined the concept of transdisciplinarity. In principle this involves including relevant actors from the political sphere and civil society in the process of research in order to develop solutions – innovations – that are in tune with the realities faced by policy-makers, civil society and people in business. 


An example: Soil rehabilitation for food security

People are far less aware of the importance of soil than they are of that of water. This is surprising, because production of 95 per cent of all food is based on soil. Soils harbour significant biodiversity, form the second-largest reservoir of carbon (after the oceans) and are an important factor in the formation of groundwater. Yet soils everywhere are under threat. It is estimated that erosion causes 24 billion tonnes of fertile topsoil to be lost from agricultural land each year. As a result of human use, some soil types have disappeared entirely; they have become ‘extinct’. The Convention to Combat Desertification stresses that more than a billion people worldwide are affected by these processes.


At the same time, the demands we make of our soils are growing: soils are to be used to help mitigate climate change, they are to provide biomass to replace non-renewable resources, and they are to be managed in ways that enable them to produce food for a rising world population with a growing appetite for animal products.


Meeting these demands while also coping with the problem of degradation calls for two things. Firstly, soils must be used sustainably and degraded land must be restored. Secondly, soils must be managed responsibly, which means that rights to fertile land must be allocated equitably and with a view to sustainability.


Both action areas – land rehabilitation and responsible governance in relation to land – require innovation if progress is to be made. This involves not only technological innovation but also social innovation as described above.


For example, there are many ways of restoring soil fertility, but they are often not applied across all sectors of society. Technology is designed for situations in which more labour is available than a family can provide – especially in times of internal and international migration; agricultural advisory services are not geared to the needs of food-insecure households, and the land rights system makes it almost impossible for women, young people or migrants to invest in conserving or enhancing soil fertility. These obstacles are well known, and there is also a general understanding of how they should be tackled. What is frequently lacking, however, is innovations adapted to the local situation. It is not possible to come up with such innovations by sitting at a desk or working in a laboratory. They can only be identified when scientists and other actors conduct research together. What is needed is science that involves society


The role of international cooperation

The example of soil provides a particularly good basis for discussing the possible role of international cooperation in innovation processes of this sort. With the agreement of partner governments, there are two ways in which stakeholders in international cooperation could contribute:


  1. Agenda setting: The subject of soil shows that issues of major importance for food security are not necessarily at the top of policy-makers’ agenda. Development policy programmes on these issues can create momentum and increase the willingness to address them. Without such political momentum it is significantly more difficult to get innovation processes under way. In addition, development policy programmes of this sort trigger the transformation processes that form the basis for identifying the relevant research questions.
  2. Direct promotion of innovation processes: Coming up with social innovations takes time. Stakeholders must be involved, the foundations for the participation of disadvantaged groups must be laid and time is needed to try out ideas. Learning from mistakes in the course of innovation is vital – and far more important than the constant publishing of stories of success.


The One World – No Hunger Initiative and the accompanying research that is being conducting in close consultation with the implementing organisations paves the way for innovation processes of this sort. The activities of the initiative must now be systematically documented and evaluated in order to draw conclusions for the further work of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.


Looking forward

The state of our soils is an example of the challenges mentioned earlier that could derail worldwide progress in combating hunger and poverty. Concerted development policy programmes are urgently needed if these challenges are to be met. International cooperation, working closely with its partners, can provide stimulus and show how such programmes can be implemented.


Because we are often not familiar with the specific approaches needed to meet the challenges – such as those relating to soil protection – under the prevailing local conditions, international cooperation must strengthen its role in innovation processes. Involving the scientific community is an essential part of this – provided that scientists do not shun dialogue with other stakeholders but see it as an integral part of conducting research, not just of applying research outcomes

Über den Autoren

Alexander Müller

Alexander Müller

Alexander Müller, a graduate sociologist, is the head of a global study of the UN Environment Program on "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food" and CEO of "TMG - Töpfer, Müller, Gaßner GmbH, ThinkTankforSustainabilty".

TMG – ThinkTankforSustainabilty

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