Space4Agri - How to involve stakeholders and younger generations in earth observation research and support the local agro-food sector✎
Last modified on 17 January 2017
Space4Agri (S4A) aims to find solutions to some specific Lombardy needs:
- to get reliable and updated information on the agricultural system of Lombardy, such as crop mapping and monitoring of plant phenological stages, anomalies or stress (diseases, water);
- to share such knowledge with all the actors of the agro-food chain in order to face critical situations;
- to integrate different types of data (field, satellite observations, meteo, information collected by volunteers) and make them easily accessible to public and private endusers through an interoperable spatial data infrastructure;
- to promote adoption of smart technologies and sustainable management tools by regional agricultural enterprises. To these purposes strong interaction with stakeholders and scientists was necessary. Aim of S4A was also to increase interest of young generations in scientific research and to promote innovation in Lombardy through education activities for students and professionals.
Research design and solution
S4A uses aerospace technologies, such as satellites and drones, and ICT technologies, to help local authorities and farmers better monitor and manage the agro-food sector. S4A refers to Lombardy, the 1st agricultural Italian Region with more than 80,000 farmers who take care of a large part of the whole national agricultural areas and produce 42% of Italian rice and milk. A sub-set of these farms is part of Space4Agri study: their cultivation is monitored by CNR-IREA researchers for scientific purposes and since years specific field measurements regularly take place in the area. The project adopts a multidisciplinary approach in which scientists engage a wide range of stakeholders and publics in R&I process using satellite images, maps, drones and smart technologies.
Grand challenge being addressed
The agricultural sector is facing increasingly serious challenges due to the continuing pressure of world demand for food, and to the increase of price competition connected with the globalization of markets and price volatility.
To meet the demand for food, the production of major cereals (maize, rice, wheat, soybeans) is expected to grow by 60% in 2050. In addition to its primary function of producing food, agriculture has further important roles: to protect the environment and the territory; to preserve the biodiversity; to manage sustainable utilization of resources, to contribute to the socio-economic survival of rural areas. The interest in sustainable agriculture combined with production output has received increasingly more attention among various stakeholders widespread in society. The challenge is to combine the various viewpoints into an interesting opportunity for understanding the main challenges affecting society and the way in which science and technology can contribute to answer them.
Responsible Research and Innovation
The research team has collected the requirements of multiple stakeholders. S4A adopted an inclusive approach since the beginning of the project’s lifetime involving farmers, agro-food entrepreneurs, agronomists, consultants and local authorities, making them co-design a part of the research and evaluate the main products. This procedure improved the project’s socio-economic, environmental and technological impacts in terms of sustainability and acceptance.
S4A engagement process also included science education activities that involved schools and researchers in participative workshops during which they deepened research questions such as: Can Earth Observation services support the agriculture monitoring? How can a smart App be useful in a R&I project? How to prevent crop damages with the modern research and technology? Students also implemented small research tasks encouraging a new form of science co-production involving Research and School. At first, the researchers identified the main target users and explored their "external needs“. Thanks to the information provided by the respondents, a second round of deeper interviews was conducted and further (new) beneficiaries were identified.
These two rounds of interviews gave the S4A researchers the chance to collect useful elements: the 3 domains of the Project reconstructed their own state of the art, researchers collected users’ requirements and planned a co-designed workflow encountering as more as possible the needs of the different stakeholders.
During the research cycle, a second category of needs, called "internal”, emerged and was collected. These requirements derived from the mutual interactions between the 3 scientific domains revealed interesting issues concerning the communication within and outside the scientific community and the perception of project co-design by all partners.
Activities addressed to young generation were experimented through the proposal Researchers go to School (RgS): for 2 years 160 Lombardy high school students and 10 teachers followed S4A (its steps, subjects, tools, activities) through participative workshops. Every school, according to its field of study and interest faced with one of the thematic areas of the project. For researchers it was an occasion to open to the general public and experience new languages: the whole proposal brought together students, farmers and researchers’ points of view. The different perspectives on science, agriculture and innovation enriched the research procedures. In the following months, volunteers among farmers and students were selected, trained and involved to collect field data using the S4A smart App In particular, we involved three secondary schools of technical and agrarian address, through a series of meetings / lectures and through active participation in the field testing of the App S4A during the 2015 season by the students. Further follow-up is through other IREA projects and a new H2020 proposal.
The methodology followed an iterative approach and implied many interactions and feedback sessions among partners and external beneficiaries. Tools that were used are qualitative analysis of social research: in-depth interviews, supported by semi-structured questions with open answers, which were processed in interpretative grids. Communication to the stakeholder groups was directly through the interaction with the stakeholders involved in the research and to a wider audience by mainly using the S4A website (http://space4agri.irea.cnr.it/it). It provides open acces to publications, services (app and geoportal), resources and network. The platform has been created in order to pursue a simple and transparent communication to all stakeholders describing the research process, its activities, tools and objectives and it was updated over the course of the project. The goal was not to merely give account of products and results but also to describe the ongoing research activities and field campaigns. The information presented on the project’s website has also been complemented with: calendar on project’s events and outreach activities such as open days, workshops, demonstrations; regular bimestrial newsletters; presentations, workshops, and speeches carried out by the researchers and finally multimedia materials (photographs, audio, video) concerning the research events or products. About this, S4A researchers produced a video manual https://youtu.be/M3GYIsQAUWc that introduces S4A smart App and explains its functionalities; it has been shown to the students and to the general public during conferences, events and demonstrations.
The project is organized into three areas: 1) Space, 2) Aero and 3) In-Situ ICT.
- Space focused on the development of methodologies by using satellite and in situ data for: a) the mapping of crops; b2) the monitoring of their state of development and c) the identification of possible states of stress. For doing this, a series of optical and radar satellites were used.
- In Aero, the DroneAGE prototype software was developed.
- And for the area In-Situ ICT the team created an interoperable spatial data infrastructure, consisting of i) a geo-catalog for research data and ii) a geo-portal for viewing, return and customized analysis of data and products (images, maps, time series of indicators) of interest to the agricultural sector stakeholders (farmers and regional operators). The infrastructure is completed by Smart App S4A, available for free on Google-Play market, developed for the collection "smart" data in situ. The project was piloted during the summer cropping seasons 2014 and 2015, in collaboration with three farms "District Lands of Lomellina" and regional operators of ARPA (Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione dell'Ambiente) and DG -Agriculture.
- use of aerospace technologies to face with the challanges considering modern agriculture system
- necessity to involve stakeholders in the project design in order to get better results
- opportunity to decline the Dissemination activities, mandatory for any projects, in a more inclusive and innovative way (see involvment of schools, and researchers in collaborative workshops on the topics of the project).
Project founded within the Framework Agreement Regione Lombardia and National Research Council of Italy (CNR)
Institute for Electromagnetic Sensing of the Environment (IREA - CNR coordinator)
Institute of Industrial Technologies and Automation (ITIA - CNR partner)
Institute for the Dynamics of Environmental Processes (IDPA - CNR partner)
other organizations involved in the practice:
- Arpa ( (Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione dell'Ambiente - Regional Agency for the Environmental Protection ) Regione Lombardia
- Scienza under 18 - Network of Italian Schools
- District Lands of Lomellina, network of farmers ofn Northern Italy
- Regione Lombardia DG -Agriculture.