What Do We Call Innovation? Looking for Common Cause in a Sea of Needs

Susie Hutton

Fort Collins, CO

  • Sustainable Water Management

The Irrigation Innovation Consortium (IIC) was founded on a simple premise, to advance novel irrigation technologies through collaborative research involving industry and university partners. In practice, by asking these groups to work closely together, the IIC discovered a large gap in interests, perceived needs, and understanding about what kinds of research could or should be done in a timely way. As a result, finding the sweet spot to overcome the highly competitive nature of industry partners, while speeding up the application of research findings to benefit the industry and society at large, has proved to be a fascinating, complex challenge.

Last fall, in partnership with consultant and irrigation specialist Inge Bisconer and the Irrigation Association (IA), we set out to learn more about the kinds of research the irrigation industry wants and needs. As we work to support the best collaborations between industry and academia, we needed to ensure that our own research priorities reflected the irrigation industry’s most pressing challenges. To capture the diversity of the industry, we used the Irrigation Association’s wide range of industry connections including manufacturers, distributors, government representatives, educators, producers and others. We also conducted in-depth interviews with 20 irrigation sector experts, including industry company representatives, technical services providers, a major agriculture lender and others.

Among several notable trends, the survey and interviews revealed a consistently strong interest in gaining a better understanding of irrigation’s water and energy footprint. Respondents from both the agriculture and landscape sectors believe that this type of benchmarking is a must for determining the potential impact of efficiency improvements, including managing limited water supplies sustainably and profitably; mitigating water quality issues; or reducing greenhouse gas emissions through decreased pumping, waterlogging of soils and energy-intensive inputs like nitrogen.

The study also identified the major need for workforce training to help irrigators use irrigation technology and tools correctly and more effectively. “The bottom line is that there’s not enough of us to do this time-consuming work of training one-on-one,” noted interviewee Jim Anshutz, Founder of AGH2O. “If you have educational standards and protocols then you can teach to a higher level, based on those standards.” Anshutz’s company aims to support producers in controlling rising costs of water, energy and nutrients through practical measurement and innovatively engineered irrigation system retrofits and upgrades.

As a follow-on to this study, the IIC and the IA signed a memorandum of understanding in December 2021 to complement each organization’s expertise and ability to share more science-based outreach efforts with key and core audiences. IIC also used the study data to update its priority research topics for the competitive call for projects it launched in mid-February, basing these themes on industry’s stated needs and goals and considering the capacity and expertise of the IIC’s extensive and growing network.

As we continue to support advances in novel irrigation technology, IIC’s network of private companies, researchers, educators, policymakers and other stakeholders play a vital role in helping to shape current and future research needs and objectives. The expertise and perceptions of each of our partners brings a clearer view of the solutions needed for future irrigation.

(Left to right) Bryan Wynen, Irrigation Association President, Dr. Timothy Martin, Executive Director of the Irrigation Innovation Consortium and Deborah Hamlin, former CEO of the Irrigation Association sign an IA-IIC Memorandum of Understanding at the IA Trade Show and Education Week in Sand Diego in December 2021.
Word cloud of open-ended survey answers from IIC’s irrigation research needs study.

Additional Materials 

IIC Livestream webinar at IA show

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