Another fun conference!

As well as the Parliament launch of our report on research use, I also attended an exciting conference last week. The conference, jointly hosted by the Association of Applied Biologists and Defra, was about the Sustainable Intensification of agriculture – in simple terms, how to grow more food without putting pressure on the environment or on agricultural (or wider) society.

As I’ve said in a previous post, one of the joys of being an academic is that you get to travel to cool places and present your work to people (and usually claim the money for it!). The venue for the first day was Rothamsted Manor, which was magnificent. It appears to be a popular wedding venue  and the website tells me that the first record of the Rothamsted estate was made in 1212. The first record of a house was made in 1221, and by the 16th century there was a large manor on site. Nowadays Rothamsted is home to a major agricultural research institution, known for various major experiments, such as Broadbalk and Park Grass. Earlier in the year, I received a tour of the sample archives which was amazing!

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At the conference, I presented findings from my work on Defra’s Sustainable Intensification Platform. This platform brought together many different universities, research institutions, and industry partners, to work together in an effort to create a step-change towards the sustainable intensification of UK agriculture. My work looked at the attitudes of farmers and advisers towards decision support tools (and other technologies), and I also helped with some work to prioritise management interventions which could be rolled-out nationwide. Several key findings have emerged from our project.

Firstly, there are many factors that determine whether a farmer or adviser will use a decision support tool (or other technology). Of course, the system must perform well and be easy to use, but it must also be trusted, cheap, work with existing infrastructure, fit decision-making workflows, and help answer relevant questions. Tool designers must also implement good delivery strategies that help to market the tool, and make the most of trusted advisers and peers in the farming community. Read more about this here and here. The diagram below is from the Agricultural Systems paper (Rose et al., 2016).

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Secondly, we developed a user-centred design strategy for developers of decision support tools. Below is a diagram from an accepted paper in the International Journal of Agricultural Management, which will come out soon (I will update the blog then with the link). Six steps are needed for good user-centred design – (1) identify who the user is as varying users like different tools and have different questions to answer, (2) make the case for why users should want to use it, i.e. is it better than an existing way of making a decision?, (3) and (4) ask whether there is the infrastructure (e.g. internet) for the tool to work in practice, and consider whether it is easy to use (based on actual user testing), and finally (5) and (6) adopt a good delivery plan and consider how the tool will be maintained after the end of the project. We consider that a tool designed in such a way, in other words with the user firmly involved, will have a greater chance of making an impact in practice. It is insufficient for a developer to imagine the world in which farmers practise, rather they must make the tool fit the real world of on-farm decision-making (see Task Technology Fit theory).

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Lastly, I also discussed the social implications of new technology, including the potential for it to disrupt life on the farm. I have a paper in review about this, more soon I hope! I also talked about a workshop to identify priority interventions for sustainable intensification, but more on this when that paper is published (I hope!).

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It was an exciting day at a really cool venue, and some of the other talks were very interesting. It was good to see some quality social science, such as Sophie Wynne-Jones’ work at Bangor University and Carol Morris at the University of Nottingham, even though it was in the minority. I’m looking forward to future work in this area, and to ensuring that social science plays a big role in future research. Thanks to Defra and Welsh Government for funding this work.

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