Co-innovation Drives Impacts for One Extension Program in New Zealand

In February, I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to visit New Zealand and talk with some of the people involved in the Primary Innovation project.

Dairy cows grazing a pasture in New Zealand
The dairy industry in New Zealand was looking for ways to improve the weights of heifers. The co-innovation model helped identify underlying causes for low weights.

When I first heard about this Primary Innovation project three years ago, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of “closing the loop” between research knowledge and the experiential knowledge resulting from application of science on farms.  It makes a lot of sense that farmers and those working with farmers should be involved in setting the direction of science and defining the problems that science hopes to solve.

The Primary Innovation project is structured around the co-innovation model. The principles of this model, summarized in my own words, include:

  1. Understand the problem from different viewpoints.
  2. Be inclusive!
  3. Seek new insights, expertise, and perspectives.
  4. Listen to each other. Be open to new ideas.
  5. Keep sight of the shared vision.
  6. Be honest, open and constructive when interacting.
  7. Context matters. External influences can change your goals.
  8. Be flexible and adaptable.
  9. Stick with the process.

The team in New Zealand was quick to point out that not every situation we encounter in extension requires this model. There are some situations that are simply a matter of technology (or knowledge) transfer.

However, if you do not see the changes or impacts you hoped through a tech transfer approach, it is worth taking a new look at the problem to see if there is more lurking below the surface. A co-innovation model can help.

As an example, the team explained one problem they saw on dairy farms – heifers were not in adequate condition for re-breeding when they joined the dairy herd.

In New Zealand, most dairy heifers are raised by grazers, whose primary occupation is typically beef or sheep production. Since this appeared to be a simple problem, the team looked into publications, workshops or other tech transfer methods to improve the situation.

A scale showing different extension approaches starting with tech transfer to adoption to adaption to co-innovation


After working with the beef and sheep farmers, it eventually became obvious the problem was more complex. The co-innovation model was applied to figure out what the real problems were. Long story short, grazers were not aware of the target weights and the contracts they worked under were not explicit in performance goals for the heifers. A more robust educational program was created; one that also included expertise on developing relationships and writing agreements.

If you want to learn more about the Primary Innovation project, visit their website  or YouTube channel.