COVID-19 and climate change are two of the major global challenges that are currently threatening the world as we know it. The uncertainty and complexity of these challenges and the many possible solutions cannot be addressed by one actor. More than ever, this requires that private and public institutions collaborate. New research indicates that companies, researchers and decision-makers need to gear up for greater openness and involve new types of actors to solve the problems.
Not very long ago, most top company executives would be horrified if someone proposed that they collaborate on business development with their fiercest competitors. Today, the concept of open innovation is commonplace in many manufacturing companies. Companies think completely differently than they did just 20 years ago, especially when major global challenges such as COVID-19 or global climate change are on the agenda. This is not only necessary but also extremely useful according to a new study.
“Global challenges such as the COVID‐19 pandemic require collective and collaborative efforts from a variety of actors to enable the expected scientific advancement and technological progress. Our study explores a case that gathered more than 30,000 people from 140 countries online, and many of the thousands of ideas to solve the challenges of the pandemic have indeed been further developed. The experiment shows that you cannot have all the talented people in one single organization and that you must seek alternative inspiration when you want to innovate,” explains Marcel Bogers, Professor, Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands.
The new study is based on global challenges that can be described as wicked problems or grand challenges characterized by great complexity and uncertainty in being able to predict how they develop. They are also cross-disciplinary, so they can be understood and especially solved in several ways. It may also mean that new concerns arise once one aspect of a challenge has been tackled, such as the mental effects of the current COVID lockdowns.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of a grand challenge that requires a collective, coordinated and sustained effort from numerous and different actors. The pandemic also shows that solving grand challenges requires pursuing bold ideas and adopting less conventional approaches. We therefore decided to study a tool that could generate novel ideas by gathering a variety of actors,” says Marcel Bogers.
The special tool the researchers studied was a hackathon, which has emerged in recent years as an innovative practice based on participatory activity. This was originally invented by information technology developers, meeting for a day or a week to create ideas and lay the foundations for later developing prototypes or concepts. In the new experiment, more than 30,000 people met in hackathons from six domains: health & life, business continuity, social & political cohesion, remote working & education, digital finance and other.
“Because of COVID-19, #EUvsVirus became not a physical but an online hackathon in which experts, innovators, investors and especially end-users from both Europe and elsewhere gathered for 3 days to develop innovative solutions for the COVID-19 grand challenge,” explains Marcel Bogers.
Other types of experts needed
The organizers then selected 117 of the thousands of ideas and invited participants to an online matchathon aimed at facilitating matchmaking with end-users such as hospitals and providing access to investors, companies, foundations and other funding opportunities from across the European Union. One idea was CoviFight, which integrates Bluetooth with social network analysis for effective contact tracking; #WeStudyTogether, an online learning community; Sophia Advisory, a consulting platform for small businesses; and Lunsj, an automated knowledge-sharing program.
“This became a dual experiment. Hackathons normally take place through an intense face-to-face meeting, but COVID-19 made this impossible, so having to organize it online was challenging, and the staging of the online meeting was clearly absolutely crucial, as was the building of online communities,” says Marcel Bogers.
The second part of the experiment was applying the hackathon concept itself as a tool for open innovation and idea development to solve grand challenges such as climate change, food supply or, in this case, COVID-19.
“These wicked problems usually require both urgent action and long-term thinking and are cross-disciplinary. Thinking across different perspectives is therefore crucial for organizers to develop ideas, and perhaps even more important is involving different types of experts than the usual suspects: retired experts, graduate students or laypeople, for example, who are often end-users,” explains Marcel Bogers.
Simplicity often makes the difference
In 2003, Henry Chesbrough, Faculty Director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, had a very radical idea when he first launched the concept of open innovation with actors outside one’s own company as an alternative to intramural innovation. How could a company make money if they just gave their ideas away? Today, open innovation has become the norm in many sectors as a way of supplementing internal knowledge by externally sourcing ideas.
“This places great demands on an alternative business model. There is naturally more uncertainty in product development, since these grand challenges raise doubts about the right solutions and whether they are within the company’s core competencies. This requires a different and more flexible structure and also an alternative mindset and working environment. You have to believe that despite having to share the pie with other people, the pie will grow and the individual slices will also get bigger,” says Marcel Bogers.
The collaboration required to solve grand challenges applies to other actors than companies. Marcel Bogers also focuses on how universities and companies can create environments that facilitate effective cross-disciplinary relationships among individuals. The aim is to gain insight into the processes that underpin the transfer of knowledge from universities to industry.
“The managements of both companies and universities must support openness and create the right organization internally and ecosystem externally, but eventually the characteristics of individual people are absolutely crucial to successful innovation. Finding and supporting this is also crucial to tackle the grand societal challenges we face in this century – including sustainability, mobility and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” concludes Marcel Bogers.