Looking back on one year of the IUPAC N-GAGE journey

The period from February on to May has been the strangest part of this IUPAC project so far. I had planned to take a holiday at the end of February to go see Japan (a country that has been on the top of my travel list for a long time). Before leaving, I got everything in order as much as I could, and for all intents and purposes the project would continue growing while I was abroad, because the wheels were spinning. Little did I know back then that the world would look completely different after my trip. When I came back, society had gone into lock down due to the corona crisis and it seemed like the world had stopped working overnight. I think this is a time of reflection for many people, which is why I also want to take the time to reflect not only on the past months, but also on the IUPAC project as a whole. 

The first couple of weeks in April were about getting back on our feet, finding ways to deal with this unfamiliar situation. Good thing we have all the tools needed to continue our efforts online. An important step towards creating an online knowledge exchange platform for farmers came in early April. We found an immensely innovative farmer who is willing to dive into this adventure and started working towards creating an online course based on his own knowledge. This will serve as the pilot course on our online learning platform. The moment I received the first few pages of content was a really important point for me in this project, but also in overcoming this crisis. It meant that despite this lock down, we would carry on and keep pushing forward.

Of course, things are never easy even at the best of times. The biggest hurdles at the moment come from an administrative angle. I have to very clearly define the legal documentation surrounding my collaboration with the farmer, but during corona times this process is going much slower than expected (understandably). There are some ‘good’ things about this entire crisis as well though. Our project is about connecting people. Bridging gaps between research and practice. The fact that we currently live in a world where everyone resides in isolation is ironic in a way. It has made the point clear that we are going to have to progress our way of knowledge extension within the agricultural sector. I have talked with people from the Flemish government agricultural department who have agreed that this crisis also serves as a wakeup call. We see people organizing e-learning courses at universities, schools and companies. People who before never used WhatsApp, or Zoom are now learning to use them because there is no other choice. I hope this will help to pull the agricultural sector into the modern age as well, by showing people that there is a digital way of doing things.

I want to finish this progress blog by looking back at the start of this project, nearly one year ago. We started out dreaming big with an idea about creating a smartphone app that would help innovate farmer practice. Since then, I and my amazing friends, colleagues and coaches have been to conferences, talked to research institutes, professors, government officials, web designers, tech companies, and most importantly a lot of farmers. I have had incredible opportunities and conversations with people that will stay with me for the rest of my professional and personal life. As a result, the project transformed. Our view on innovation in the agricultural sector changed and it became clear that the way forward is through online community building and knowledge extension. We first have to pave the way for innovative technology to reach farmers, because the problem is not the advance of technology, but its adoption rate within our farmer community. Starting a sector wide community including academics and farmers is hard, and requires a great deal more time and effort than what we have been given for this project. We will therefore focus on a proof of concept in the form of an online masterclass: for farmers, by farmers. This masterclass gives innovative farmers a platform to share their knowledge throughout the community in a way that is custom tailored to the needs of their fellow farmers. This pilot project will then serve to convince investors and policy makers of the value of online community building. The road so far has been quite the journey. I could never have expected we would end up here, which makes it all the more exciting to think where we will be one year from now.

Simon Appeltans, N-GAGE Champion

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