Agriculture meets Design

In one way or another, we’re all linked to agriculture. Food availability is the basis for building any civilization. But what we’re also hearing is the challenges that agriculture has to meet. The world population is expanding and soon we’ll have to sustain 9 billion people. There is pressure on critical natural resources, like water, soil, fuel. And this is all happening amidst unprecedented change in the global political and economic landscape.

The good news is that this challenge to agriculture is widely recognized. Issues on agriculture are climbing up the agenda’s in an increasing number of fora. The bad news is though that agriculture is stuck. And by stuck I mean that key players in the field are not reaching the level of dialogue that is needed to meet the challenge at hand. It’s industrial agriculture vs organic agriculture, pro-GMO vs non-GMO, omnivores vs vegans., agronomy vs farmers’ intuition, etc vs etc.

With this form of conversation, solutions remain isolated as foreign languages and don’t connect. They’re caught inside the buildings where agriculture is professed, while the facts and answers to our problems are outside, where farming is practiced. Such a conversation landscape overemphasizes differences between tribes, aggravating opposing views, rather than enabling recognition and utilization of mutual strengths and gains from trade. Only conservative, incremental tweaking can come from this, while what the world acutely needs is a fundamental rework of how we produce and distribute food.

What can we do about it?
Despite the negative effects of polarities in the system, you can also look at it in another way. Wouldn’t it be great if we can use this diverse body of experience and knowledge available and leverage complementarities, rather than allowing the usual patterns of interaction to emphasize disconnect? Wouldn’t that enable a broad sensemaking inquiry into the problems at hand in our agricultural system, rather than remaining at refinement exercises within our own disciplines? Wouldn’t vested views on problems then turn into challenging assumptions that are to be examined and tested?

We need to create an enabling space where these new conversations can be started, conversations with ideas that will fire innovation; discipline to discipline, people to people. Ideas that progress from such conversations will likely create new paths of solution development, lowering barriers to adoption of new, game changing ideas by nature of having traversed that path. This is, I think, what we can expect when we build a space where agriculture meets design.


Me and my colleagues will be active on the Agri Meets Design platform at the Dutch Design Week in October in Eindhoven, working with farmers and multidisciplinary design teams on experience and business model design. There will be many more equally excellent or even better events given by the partners who made Agri Meets Design possible!  I hope to also see you there! Ping me on twitter if you’re interested to connect!

Your priority is our focus

Over the past few months I have been studying design approaches applied to sustainable development projects in agricultural value chains in developing countries through the lens of human centered design. Here’s a brief insight into my first experience of one of the principals of the human centered design process (exploring and understanding the problem first, before even starting to contemplate potential solutions) and a description of how it has enriched my own understanding of a thematic area in which I used to consider myself to be knowledgeable

What it takes to search for your problem

  • prioritize understanding before anything else. This means creating space (freedom to think, talk, play, and move around) for working on the prime objective of understanding
  • observe in a lateral sense to discover what significance a problem has, and how it is defined and expressed by the users in their own voice.
  • all discussion which takes place with your users has a topic in mind, but no explicit purpose. Voicing purpose in problem exploration will likely lead to crucial assumptions in your perceptions remaining undefined and thus unvalidated (expert’s bias)
  • refrain from doing any analysis on your observations. They will blind your inquiry into the problem. Only analyze after repetitive patterns start appearing in your observations.

The general feeling I got from this method of inquiry was that of being a total slacker, based on a self-invoked perception of not being productive. But the trick is to not let that feeling permit you to cut short the exploration of the problem area by attempting to nail things down too early. Explore until patterns start repeating and you’re likely to stumble on insights that your expertise has never revealed to you before.

The pains of staying away from describing or even conceiving the solution, whilst discovering the problem

Expertise encourages a tendency to look smart by exposing knowledge about a problem area, voiced in the form of solutions. But:

  • your conception of solutions is a mirage. Despite your knowledgeable background, solutions actually mean nothing until the user starts voicing tentative parameters for a solution herself.
  • signaling solutions instigates memes, and the problem definition starts leading its own life
  • voicing solutions is an implicit promise to deliver a specific solution. You are likely to commit to delivering something that in the end won’t address the real problem at hand, if any problem at all.

The challenge I faced here was to drop my fear of discrediting my skills and competencies by not prescribing what should be done. You need to realize that the pay-off for your efforts (recognition, fame, happy responses) lies further on in the innovation process when you are able to define actionable insights. As with the problem search, tendencies towards immediate gratification by proposing solutions will increase the likelihood of introducing concepts that will not lead to feasible, viable nor desirable outcomes.

The reward
The pains of feeling incompetent, and not playing the expertise card need to be seen as an investment. The leverage that this investment provides will allow you to wield a significant force of creativity: focus, as in

  • prototyping solutions with the right focus on a demarcated innovation space -> your users and their problems. This is where you can try out all your creative solution concepts
  • using all relevant capacities and resources to address the need of the user
  • users instantly understanding the intent of your solution, and intuitively tinkering and helping in your process of prototyping because they are empowered.
  • instant recognition of signals of adoption or rejection with users.

The human centered design process thus ensures that your priority remains our focus, throughout.