The importance of open innovation for a better world

Shared challenges require shared action. They also require that we share ideas, something that does not always come naturally to industry.

Plus X Co-CEO, Mat Hunter, has twenty years of experience delivering large scale innovation programmes as a Partner at the world-renowned agency IDEO and with the Design Council where he was Chief Design Officer.​ He brings world-class design and user experience expertise to any collaboration project run at Plus X.

The power of secrecy

Whether you call it innovation, research and development, progress, modernisation or anything else, the creation and commercialisation of better ideas has often been a story of secrecy. Physical Property can usually be protected with lock and key, ideas less so, and a natural response of business has been to hide its ideas from others.

This of course led to Patents. The granting of intellectual property rights through patents and other mechanisms was designed to prevent this secrecy and facilitate the sharing of ideas by allowing the inventor sole rights to commercialise the idea for a limited period of time, if they agreed to publish what the idea was. That system has been in place now for 200 years and while it mostly works, it has its critics.

The power of openness

Responding to the downsides of this Intellectual Property approach, the open-source software movement believed that source code (the generally hidden computer code that makes software do what it does) should not be owned by a single organisation, it should be shared in its creation and use. That approach, it was imagined, would drive the growth of those ideas far faster. Linus Torvalds, working with code sharing platforms such as GitHub, assembled a large community of software developers and created the Linux software operating system. Launched in 1991, it now runs on 90% of all cloud infrastructure and 75% of smartphones. Not bad for a demonstration of the power of openness!

Furthermore, when patent protection expires and ideas can be freely exploited, we often find remarkable flourishing of innovation. For example, the rapid development of 3D printers since the 2010s was stimulated by key patents that expired from 2009, allowing anyone freely to make their own machines.  

As the pressure and pace of global competition has increased, we have encouragingly seen more openness, not less. Henry Chesbrough coined the term ‘open innovation’ to describe how a corporation needs to look beyond its own R&D activities to stay ahead. It enables more diversity of thought and action creating better results, faster.  

Chip[s] Board - Circular economy material innovators and Central Research Laboratory alumni

Open innovation for a better world

If we thought competition in the global economy was fierce enough a challenge of survival, we now recognise that there are even bigger challenges to tackle such as reducing carbon emissions and plastic pollution. Not only are these challenges shared by all companies on the planet, but they are so difficult to resolve that they will require the sharing of ideas and actions. If ever there was a moment for us to accelerate our use of open innovation, it is now.

The challenge is in getting these diverse actors together in open innovation. Not only do different businesses struggle at times to collaborate, especially the corporates and the startups, but getting academics and policy makers and citizens and community leaders to collaborate adds even more complexity. Our incentives, practices and languages can struggle to make the right thing happen.  

Collective action

The role of Innovation Hubs, such as Plus X, is initially to provide a place to meet and connect, engage and collaborate. We help to provide the means to build the connections, align incentives and build common practice. Initiatives such as Better World Collective are designed for exactly this purpose and we look forward to welcoming everyone to solution-focused and summits and purpose-led collaboration activities over the coming months.  

Innovation hubs are defined by action more than talk and so we are excited to be developing some important corporate challenges, planned for the near future, aiming to reduce food waste and single use plastic. We look forward to catalysing collaboration between startups and corporates and academics to find ingenious solutions.  

If you have thoughts about collaborations you’d like to see, or challenges that your business would like to see addressed – get in touch!


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