Introduction to Open and social Innovation and how to get started

18.12.2014| Christian Kreutz

This article was originally published in the GIZ publication "10 trends in open innovation - How to leverage social media for new forms of cooperation".

Taking Down Barriers To Social Innovation

How To Tackle Challenges Through Mass Collaboration

Tumble dryers are part of many households – a modern convenience but also an appliance that has one of the highest energy consumption rates. Is there a way to reduce energy consumption associated with this device? At the Dynamic Demand Challenge, an open innovation contest organized by the UK innovation agency Nesta, a noteworthy proposal to solve energy consumption issues tackled this. Participants presented a small laundry app that presents you with the best options for when and how to do your laundry – both washing and drying. The app always prefers line drying outdoors over tumble drying. Based on weather report information the app lets you know whether, for example, there is a chance of rain in the hours ahead or whether it is worth waiting for some sunshine hours expected for later in the day. At the same time, it monitors energy consumption patterns and provides information on highs and lows of energy demand. In the future, the app could become a feature not only of most washing machines and tumble dryers, but also of many other appliances with high energy consumption rates. It is a small step to start with but it has great potential to tackle the issue of energy saving.

More often than not, such innovative ideas do not evolve into products and even less are brought to market, simply because they do not manage to reach a wider audience or potential developers, or because their commercial value is just low. Open innovation has become an important platform that empowers people as it allows them to express and share their ideas.

The Dynamic Demand Challenge is such an open innovation platform. Anyone from across Europe – from amateurs to experts, with any professional background – can share ideas around energy-saving solutions. (Disclaimer: We provided the platform.) The best ideas are then invited to take part in a Hackathon, an event during which the teams can test their ideas, build prototypes and elaborate their ideas by designing the steps needed to bring them to market. The final winner receives funding to turn his idea into a commercial product or a social project.

Thanks to the Internet and social media, w are nowadays able to mobilize talent and great minds from around the world to work together on all sorts of matters. This collaboration is one of the main drivers of open innovation. People collaborate on open innovation platforms 24 hours a day, seven days a week; they share ideas, they controversially and thoroughly discuss the pros and cons and add expertise to make ideas more robust. The crowds include pretty much anyone with great imagination or expertise in the respective field.

This article maps out open innovation as a new form of innovation enabled by the rise of social media. It provides an overview of its use in co-creation of anything ranging from products to policies, describes its use in monitoring politics and in open government. It then discusses how open innovation is an answer to organisational barriers to innovation. The next section is devoted to providing practical steps on how to set up innovation challenges and how they can be evaluated.

Open Innovation – A Different Form Of Innovation

Innovation challenges, hackathons, external product development are all new phenomena that can best be summarized under the concept of open innovation. For Henry Chesbrough, one of its pioneers, open innovation is:

„Open Innovation is the use of purposive in flows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate innovation. With knowledge now widely distributed, companies cannot rely entirely on their own research, but should acquire inventions or intellectual property from other companies when it advances the business model.“

Unfortunately the concept is very much associated with the business sector only; and in such a way Chesbrough defines open innovation as a process taking place mainly in commercial research and development, reducing it to product development. But we are witnessing a huge global flow of ideas being shared across all sectors, not only business. There is a much greater phenomenon taking place, in which all sorts of organizations, companies and individuals are collaborating in brainstorming processes targeting all sorts of issues all over the world.

Open innovation is therefore a global phenomenon. People share ideas and work together through open and transparent networks, be it for commercial or social purposes, thanks to the ease of online collaboration tools and social media.

Seeking ideas and solving problems is just one of the many facets of open innovation. “Wisdom of the Crowd” processes have taken place in various forms and in many areas for decades. But it is now, in the information or digital age, that they are being exploited at such a fast pace.

One well-known open innovation platform is OpenIDEO, on which global communities can take part in solving any of the various challenges presented on the platform. One such challenge, initiated by development aid agency UKAID, asked “How might we make low-income urban areas safer and more empowering for women and girls?”

OpenIDEO’s commercial counterpart Innocentive offers companies to externalize their product issues or other particular challenges. Companies that have specific challenges around their product can post them on Innocentive to attract ideas from around the world to collaborate on finding a solution. The person with the best solution proposal earns a sum paid by the company. Danish toy maker Lego has been using this prototype for years. It started involving its consumers to develop new products after realizing that they are often the best product developers. If a product idea reaches a certain threshold within the community, it becomes a selling product and the inventor receives some royalties.