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Enhancing the multi-actor approach

TResearch Autumn

Advancing sustainability requires actors from different disciplines and sectors to work together

Teagasc social scientists have produced evaluation and impact assessment tools to support innovation-driven collaboration between actors.

The multi-actor approach refers to a collaborative process where different actors (researchers, farmers, advisors, etc.) combine their knowledges (scientific, practical, organisational, etc.) for innovation.  

Because it involves actors from different disciplines and sectors, multi-actor interactive innovation is essential in supporting systems-based approaches, in which the decisions and actions made in one area will affect another. This is particularly true for advancing sustainability, as addressing transdisciplinary problems requires transdisciplinary solutions.

Involving end-users such as farmers and advisors in the approach is necessary to produce practice-ready solutions and opportunities that have a high Societal Readiness Level – those considered ready to be taken up by end-users.

At EU-level, multi-actor interactive innovation is widely known as an approach capable of addressing environmental, social and economic challenges to reaching sustainability goals, as well as achieving innovation for greater wellbeing and prosperity. In agriculture, relevant actors seeking to participate in EU-funding schemes are increasingly being called upon to implement the multi-actor interactive innovation model within their funded initiatives.

To support actors in practically enhancing their multi-actor interactive innovation initiatives, Teagasc social scientists have led the co-design of a toolbox to evaluate and assess the impacts of interactive innovation, as part of the LIAISON Horizon 2020 project.

Evaluating innovation processes

The challenge of evaluating innovation processes lies in understanding the interplay of actors (and their knowledge) and multi-actor group dynamics.

Áine Macken-Walsh, Sociologist and member of the LIAISON project, explains: “Our work differs from classical, quantitative evaluation approaches where outcomes of a process or project are assessed using pre-determined, measurable indicators.

“Instead, our aim is to assess so-called ‘soft’ outcomes and impacts of interactive innovation processes using qualitative techniques. These include outcomes like empowerment, changed perspectives, trust building and relationship improvements.”

It is critically important for evaluation and impact assessment techniques to be used repeatedly throughout an interactive innovation process, so that the process can be improved and enhanced. The principal objective of the interactive innovation process is to support inter-actor dynamics, so how an initiative succeeds in creatively combining diverse knowledge must be evidence-based and verifiable.

“It is important for projects and evaluators to capture the driving forces that shape and fuel the interactive innovation process,” says Áine, “and the nature of the impacts it delivers.

“Initiatives must also demonstrate how effectively the interactive innovation process is practically implemented (to funders who increasingly demand it), and capture how various forms of value and positive impacts are attributable to the process.”

Practical tools to enhance interactive innovation

The LIAISON team – involving Teagasc, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Austria, The Technical University of Madrid, Spain and and European think tank Bruges Group – produced a toolbox containing 37 ‘step-by-step’ tools. These were informed by social science knowledge on human behaviour, culture, networking, governance, power, gender and other theoretical fields.

Of these 37 tools, Teagasc was responsible for producing 27. They are qualitative- and process-orientated, and are inspired by two main methodological approaches: Developmental Evaluation and Social Impact Management Planning.

“Developmental Evaluation not only charts incrementally how and why different impacts occur throughout the interactive innovation process, but it generates and tests strategies to alter the course of innovation processes with a view to enhancing impacts,” explains Áine.

“Meanwhile, Social Impact Management Planning is a management tool for addressing social impacts during the implementation of development projects, supporting adaptation of actions to enhance positive impacts and prevent or ameliorate negative impacts.

“These assessment approaches respond to the relational dynamics of interactive innovation, unexpected impacts and the need to adhere to the EU’s framework on responsible research and innovation.”

Áine and her colleagues at Teagasc co-designed practice-ready evaluation and impact assessment tools, and piloted them in the field using real multi-actor interactive innovation projects. This co-design process, itself a process of multi-actor innovation, enhances the Societal Readiness Level of the tools.

Once finalised, the tools were launched. So far, they have been used by several EU-funded projects, including Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe and EIP-Agri Operational Groups. The tools have been used in Teagasc initiatives and projects funded by the The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s Research Stimulus Fund. A Teagasc Walsh Scholar has also piloted the tools in a Horizon 2020 project, to capture learnings specifically for Teagasc Advisory Services. 

TResearch Autumn

Figure 1. The five scenarios of multi-actor work

The LIAISON toolbox in practice

The evaluation and impact assessment tools are presented in a practitioner handbook, where end-users are first invited to examine their multi-actor interactive innovation process. A whiteboard animation is used to increase end-users’ attentiveness to important features of the multi-actor innovation process, so that these features may be focused on in the evaluation and impact assessment.

Furthermore, a range of identifiers are presented to support end-users’ selection of appropriate tools. The tools are organised around two axes:

  1. The five distinctive scenarios and challenges that characterise multi-actor interactive work (see Figure 1).
  2. Practical considerations, such as when to implement the initiative, group size, level of technical complexity, time needed to implement and resources required.

This structure aids end-users in navigating and selecting appropriate tools for their particular evaluation and impact assessment needs and circumstances.


Áine Macken-Walsh

Department of Social and
Geographical Sciences

Rural Economy Development
Programme, Athenry.



Martin Javornicky

Department of Social and
Geographical Sciences

Rural Economy Development
Programme, Athenry.


Anita Naughton

Department of Social and
Geographical Sciences

Rural Economy Development
Programme, Athenry.