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The unknown: a driver for innovation

Researchers seek innovation in all areas – even in innovation itself. To promote innovation in agriculture, Elsa Berthet is working on a new method of collaboration based on the principle of “a common unknown”.

Portrait of Elsa Berthet. © INRA
By Elsa Berthet - Pascale Mollier, translated by Teri Jones-Villeneuve
Updated on 09/30/2014
Published on 06/06/2014

Elsa Berthet, for your doctoral thesis, you’ve investigated new processes to design agroecosystems by teaming researchers up with various agricultural players.What makes your approach original?

Elsa Berthet: I began by trying to understand how scientists think about agroecosystems. I realised that ecologists focus on maintaining an “ecological fund” through complex ecological processes, which agricultural scientists tend to overlook. To encourage these scientists to give more weight to this fund, I led a workshop on collaborative design with ecologists, agricultural scientists and those working in agriculture.

Based on this workshop, I developed a method at the Ecole des Mines, which asks participants to look at things from a particular angle. We don’t work on objectives set ahead of time, but instead on designing a new concept – in this case, the ecological fund. Initially, each participant has their own interests in mind. The goal is to turn it into a “common unknown”. On the one hand, it’s about considering why it needs to be managed collectively; on the other, we encourage all the players to explore the desirable characteristics that may not yet be identified. This means that everyone stays focused on the common goal and no one person’s interests overrides the others’. In sporting terms, we’re not creating a strategy so that one team can win, but establishing the game rules so that both teams can play.

What was your empirical model?

EB: I worked on the Zone Atelier Plaine et Val de Sèvres site, managed by the Chizé Centre for Biological Studies (Centre d’études biologiques de Chizé, CBEC).With a surface area of 500 km2, it covers 40 towns and 650 farms. It is established along a plain were cereals are grown and farming has intensified, although part of it is in a Natura 2000 area. Over the past 20 years, studies of biodiversity and land-use patterns have been carried out, as well as various trials with farmers. Ecologists have studied how agroecosystems function with a view to protecting a threatened bird species, the Little Bustard. The wider aim of the programme, in addition to saving this bird, is the conservation of the area’s biodiversity and a high-quality ecological fund. For example, crickets are the favourite food for these young birds, but current agricultural practices have reduced populations considerably. Ecologists have determined that adding alfalfa as a major crop supports cricket reproduction.Their idea is to create a landscape mosaic that fosters biodiversity. Prior experiences have shown that it is counterproductive to set percentages in terms of alfalfa grown, because farmers are put off by such fixed objectives. The collaborative design workshop helped us come up with a range of ways the landscape mosaic could be managed, and showed how everyone benefits when all players work together. This coordination led to the creation of a short alfalfa supply chain managed by an agricultural cooperative, helping to promote this crop for feed for local goat herds. Through the workshop, we were able to set out the major concepts of an agroecosystem that can also be viable from an economic standpoint.

How are you planning to use this work? What’s your next step?

EB: I finished my doctoral thesis in late 2013. I published two articles in generalist magazines that deal with agricultural sciences and ecology, and I submitted another article to a management magazine. My work offers a new way to think about collaborative innovation. It is unique for a discipline that is still not very focused on the agricultural industry. This industry is particularly interesting: first, its goals are linked to the living world, and second, there are so many players involved who, contrary to the industrial sector, are not generally trained in design. There is a real possibility to develop these skills to support agroecological innovations.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Elsa Berthet UMR1048 SAD APT Joint Research Unit – Science for Action and Sustainable Development: Activities, Products, Territories
Associated Division(s):
Science for Action and Development, Social Sciences, Agriculture and Food, Rural Development and Environment.
Associated Centre(s):

Funds and flows

In economic terms, funds in a production system are defined as factors of production. They are not consumed and are a constant in the production process, such as capital, labour and land. Input includes raw materials, while output refers to the products and waste created (according to economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, 1971).

If this model is transposed to ecology, funds in an ecosystem can be defined as the factors of production for ecological flows. For example, the heterogeneity of a landscape is a fund that generates and regulates a certain number of ecological flows, such as maintaining biodiversity.


- Georgescu-Roegen, N., Ed. (1971). The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University Press.

- Georgescu-Roegen, N. (1976). Energy and Economic Myths, Pergamon Press.

The “colleges of the unknown”

This work is part of what researchers from the Centre for Scientific Management at the Ecole des Mines call the “colleges of the unknown”, a type of management structure which develops in certain economic sectors to reinforce companies’ capacity for innovation. Colleges of the unknown enable the various players in a business ecosystem, usually competitors, to collaborate to generate disruptive innovations in terms of markets and products. Their aim is to come together around a common unknown and create a space for collaborative design, helping the companies to identify and develop concrete solutions which can then be applied to their specific businesses. Colleges of the unknown do not seek to develop a specific technology, but rather to drive the exploration of emerging technologies and long-term concept renewal.


Le Masson, P., Weil, B., Hatchuel, A. and Cogez, P. (2012). "Why are they not locked in waiting games? Unlocking rules and the ecology of concepts in the semiconductor industry. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 24 (6): 617-630.