Fostering the collective design of innovation in the field of environmental resource management

Management sciences, interfacing with ecology and agronomy

Elsa Berthet is a doctor of MINES ParisTech since the 23rd of September 2013

Reconciling agriculture and environment

Elsa Berthet’s PhD thesis in management sciences deals with the stake of reconciling agriculture and environment. New challenge for scientific research is to learn to manage environmental regulations within agro-ecosystems (i.e. cultivated ecosystems) in order to make agriculture sustainable. This thesis aimed to define a design approach of agro-ecosystems: can innovative design be applied to these specific objects? What are the methods and appropriate modes of governance to design and manage agro-ecosystems?

Elsa carried out a historical analysis of scientific reasoning in agronomy and ecology to highlight the reasons why the design of agro-ecosystems remains so difficult, despite the knowledge progress on environmental regulations. The thesis also shows that fields of literature on the "commons" and on "ecosystem services" often freeze the conflict between agricultural objectives and environmental concerns without fostering the exploration of new farming systems.

The thesis models a particular class of objects part of agro-ecosystems, the “ecological funds”. It shows the importance of considering the ecological funds not as common goods but as "common unknowns”. The proposed conceptual model, tested on an archetype of an intensive cereal production area, makes it possible to develop a method of collective and innovative design of agro-ecosystems

                          An ex-post illustration of the ecologists' agro-ecosystem modelling

Elsa Berthet’s thesis is focused on the concept of agro-ecosystem and analyses its potential to overcome the difficulties to conciliate agriculture and environment. Elsa first studied the emergence of this concept in agronomists and ecologists’ scientific reasoning. Her analysis draws upon the model “fund-flow”, introduced by Georgescu-Roegen (1971) to explicit production processes. In an industrial production process, funds would be, for instance, plants, machines and workers; flows would be raw materials, as well as manufactured products. In ecosystems, funds would be based on complex ecological regulation processes that would condition the production of ecological flows. Elsa Berthet suggests that agronomists are essentially interested in optimizing ecological "flows" while ecologists put more emphasis on the modeling and preservation of "funds." However, how to integrate ecological models rather developed in a comprehensive goal in the design logic of agronomy?

So far, attempts to manage agro-ecosystems have not addressed the issue of the design of ecological funds: the notion of "ecosystem services" deals with the management of ecological flows, and on the elaboration of appropriate incentive mechanisms. In contrast, the notion of "common pool resources" (Ostrom, 1990) deals with funds’ preservation. But it focuses only on funds clearly identified for services whose value is not debated. The thesis proposes a third approach that stresses the high complexity of agro-ecosystems, since neither the resources nor the funds are clearly identified and since their value is not commonly recognized.

Drawing upon recent progress of ecology and new concepts, such as “landscape”, the thesis shows that they are characterized by both critical ecological regulation mechanisms, but also by open dimensions, often unknown. Elsa Berthet introduces the idea to consider ​​"ecological funds" as "common unknowns" in reference to the work of Le Masson and Weil (2013): such ecological funds can be determined on the basis of ecological properties to preserve (which are identified by ecologists), but they have unknown attributes that require a collective design process.

                                         Participants to the collective design workshop

Elsa illustrates this theoretical approach by an empirical study of a cereal agro-ecosystem in Poitou-Charentes (West of France) experiencing problems of biodiversity and water quality degradation. She first studied the research projects and the design of conservation actions carried out by a local research center in ecology. These ecologists modeled the regulations involved in the survival of the Little Bustard (Tetrax Tetrax). They highlighted some critical landscape properties, such as landscape heterogeneity that could be obtained by grassland reintroduction among the cereal fields. However, for many reasons, developing the production of grasslands, either by economic incentives or by self-organization, is difficult. Grasslands do not have the same value for farmers and naturalists. The analysis showed that it was necessary to revise the concept of grassland with local actors. An experimental collective design workshop proved that it was possible to consider new properties for grasslands, new design parameters and to initiate cooperation for the management of grasslands across a territory, despite a priori divergent interests among stakeholders.

Renewing public policy to foster collective innovation

1 - The thesis introduces a new language (ecological funds and common unknown) to sustain a design reasoning of an agro-ecosystem. It leads to rethink the role of ecologists and agronomists in the exploration of new agro-ecosystems and of their acceptable or desirable properties.

2 - The thesis suggests moving from an approach based on common goods to "common unknown". This notion should help overcome obstacles to collective action due to diverging interests by identifying collectively desirable innovations. This shift suggests renewing public policy to foster collective innovation. It also opens up research perspectives in management sciences on business ecosystems and associated modes of regulation.

3 - Finally, the thesis proposes new insights on the management of agro-ecosystems, even if the method needs to be tested on new cases. It follows on recent work on new collectives and new governance modes to improve firm innovation capacities. It calls for further work in management sciences on the issue of collective innovation for sustainable agriculture.

Elsa Berthet

Elsa Berthet holds a Master’s degree in Agronomy from AgroParisTech (2006), and a Master’s degree in Management from MINES ParisTech and University Paris X (2010). During her studies, she spent three long periods of internships abroad: she studied environmental economics with the CSIRO in Australia in 2004, worked on cattle breeding in Madagascar in 2005, and carried out an agro-economic analysis in the irrigated plain of Valencia, Spain, in 2006. She has also a three-year long work experience (2007-2010) in research management at INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research). She co-animated three national research programs funded by INRA and the National Research Agency. She also coordinated the creation of an “ERA-Net” network of research funding agencies spanning over 20 countries.


Elsa Berthet carried out her PhD with the Centre of scientific management (MINES ParisTech - CGS) and UMR Sadapt, INRA, under the supervision of Blanche Segrestin and Egizio Valceschini. At MINES Paristech, she beneficiated from the support of a very stimulating research team, among the best ones at the national and international level on the issue of innovative design. She could integrate some international research networks in this field, thanks to a variety of conferences either organized at MINES Paristech or held overseas, where she could go to present her work. Located in the centre of Paris, this research centre offers a fulfilling student life as well as integration in cutting-edge research dynamics.