Collaborative innovation

In a previous post I wrote about my ambition to help to (better) focus innovation projects on promoting people’s wellbeing. This begs the following questions: What is currently wrong with these projects? And what could be done differently? In my previous post I advocated focusing innovation projects on their ultimate goal to promote people’s wellbeing. Below I will advocate organizing collaborative innovation.

Let us assume that we organize innovation projects because we want to solve societal problems and promote people’s wellbeing—e.g., by enabling people to live (more) healthily, actively or safely. Then we need multiple perspectives to understand this problem and to develop solutions. We need a technology perspective, to understand the role of technology in causing the problem or in creating solutions. A social perspective, to understand social processes and people’s needs and aspirations. And a business perspective, to understand the role of industry in causing the problem or in creating solutions. Moreover, any solution will need a viable business model in order to be sustainable.

Furthermore, we will need to organize collaboration between a range of actors and stakeholders, e.g., suppliers, funding agencies, customers and users. In the case of developing a health care service, e.g., this may involve an e-health software developer, a health care insurance company, medical staff, and patients and their family members. This may sound like commonplace. But this is not always the case in practice. Too often, project teams operate from ivory towers. And even when actors and stakeholder are involved, they are often involved too late in the process, or in relatively passive roles—instead of right from the beginning and in active roles.

Moreover, we combine practice and theory. We need to solve the ‘innovation paradox’. In The Netherlands, e.g., we are good in developing knowledge, but weak in creating practical solutions for practical problems. Universities are traditionally looked at for the development of knowledge. Knowledge that others can use in practical situations. But this transfer does not happen automatically. Too often we have academic knowledge on one side and unsolved societal problems on the other. Fortunately, however, this is starting to change. Peter Paul Verbeek, e.g., recently proposed that ‘academic freedom implies societal engagement’.

In short, we need collaborative innovation. We need a room full of people, with different backgrounds, from different organizations. And they need to engage in co-creation: to identify, study and understand a specific societal problem, and to explore, develop and try-out practical solutions. 

John Dewey, a pragmatist philosopher of a century ago, was also bothered by the unproductive gap between developing knowledge and applying knowledge. Instead, he proposed to view knowledge as fundamentally practical: knowledge emerges from engagement with practical situations and knowledge should serve the improvement of practical situations. Theory and practice are then different and complementary views on the same world.

Related to this proposal to combine theory and practice, there I would also like to put forward the proposal to combine an overall, high-level vision and practical, hands-on experimenting. An innovation project needs to operate both on a visionary and on a practical level. We need early, continuous, and iterative prototyping efforts to avoid the two pitfalls of ‘mindless action and actionless minds’.

What are your experiences with a multidisciplinary approach? What is you view on the combination of theory and practice? What are your experiences with an iterative approach?

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