As one enjoys the cultural and leisure experience of wandering around the narrow streets of historic town centres, often imprisoned within medieval walls, it is impossible not to reflect on how much cities have opened up. Once the fear and rivalry amongst neighbour cities, or countries, overcome, cities have jumped over their old defensive walls and extended apparently endlessly across land. Cities have also opened up to people from elsewhere, absorbing new cultures, styles and traditions. Many cities once famous from a single traditional sector have opened up to new businesses and services. And at a time where open innovation is changing the way organisations across the world look at and take advantage of one of society’s last “closed fortresses” – the world of research and development – it´s is worth to see how cities are, on their turn, adopting and promoting open innovation methods for their expansion and achieving sustainability.
Open innovation – from closed labs to open spaces:
Although open innovation was first espoused as a theory as recently as 2003, its roots in reality go back at least as far as the Italian Renaissance, and have sprung in what at the time were the most open and dynamic cities of the world — when networks of apparel businesses in Piedmont and Tuscany cities were responsible for rapid innovation in techniques for producing silk and cotton fabric. It is thus only curious that, now established as a proven theory for firms, open innovation is making its own way back into cities governance.
At the core of open innovation is the principle that innovation may come from anywhere, and not just the inventors, i.e. those individuals who are specifically charged with the responsibility for this process. The organisations usually considered as major sources of innovation are research organizations and industry. However, there are many other potential sources of innovative output. The central idea is that organisations which look outside their in-house resources for ideas and technologies have better access to ideas, expertise and technology than those which rely solely on in-house support. For private or public organisations alike, the concept of open innovation is reflected in a larger participation at all phases of the innovation process, with the early involvement of market agents in the conceptual stage, stronger partnerships in the development and wider access in the deployment – be it for products or for sustainable or social policies. Innovation is coming out of the closed labs and is now played in open spaces, and in their quest for more competitiveness and sustainability, cities must now learn to play with the new rules and improve the game by their action.
Repositioning Cities through innovation and creativity
Cities have long embraced the need for innovation – as a driver of competitiveness and economic growth – amongst their top priorities, to which sustainability has also become an important driver. However, most remain strongly traditional in their approach to the topic, with a clear focus on the promotion of the triple helix model through incentives to academic research, support to industry (often through the promotion of industrial or scientific areas, including incubators) and some intervention at local policies level, including tax incentives and funding programmes. In short, cities promote innovation by making use of the traditional tools they have at hand, which are awards, land and money. To promote local innovation, cities traditionally try to attract towards them the “right type” of higher education institutions and research centres, the “right type” of businesses and the “right type” of people, and wait for them to play their respective role in the (closed) innovation chain: universities produce people and scientific knowledge, both of which should eventually be used by local businesses to innovate, taking advantage from the “proximity factor” and making ample use of locally available work force.
But in our fast evolving times, the “right type of people” has changed and the same is happening with the “right type of businesses”, which is now knowledge intensive and to whom local education institutions, no matter how good or how big they are, are no longer enough to satisfy their urge for (open) innovation and knowledge.
Putting Sustainable & Social Urban Innovation in motion:
Different cities may address Sustainable & Social Urban Innovation in different ways, but it is commonly understood that cities can and should play a key role in:
Creating Spaces where Interactions Take Place: Connected, Interdisciplinary Environments such as Living Labs:
Living Labs try to involve users in the innovation process by designing, developing and validating new technologies, products and services with users in real life environments, often using a whole city as laboratory. Also they provide a wide range of services and play diverse role in the quest for articulating user involvement, from support to entrepreneurial lead users to needs-finding or user experience services. Their goal is no other than the creation of “innovation arenas” where multiple actors could experiment in an open, real life environment. Looking at this goal, it will be difficult to imagine a better place for Open Sustainable and Social Innovation.
Attracting talents and skills to the innovation processes:
Cities can also play a key role in increasing participation in areas of sustainable or social innovation and entrepreneurship, especially from those who are under-represented, by creating conditions that attract both locals and foreigners alike towards the projects being developed in the city. This may include leverage ‘experienced people’ (maybe retired) with skills that can be passed onto those starting off so lessons can be learned and experience re-invested; increase participation of women (50% of workforce) in all areas of business innovation as often too few women start new businesses or drive innovation within existing businesses.
Another promising area, that clearly may fall under the responsibility of public authorities such as city councils, is the expansion of entrepreneurship support measures to target young people, with no university background and resident in “sensitive areas”, as these are often excluded from the normal support schemes while possibly being the target group with the greater need and will to take entrepreneurial initiative.
Setting the technological infrastructure:
A fundamental principle of open innovation is communication, and a wide range of information technologies are now available which allow users to communicate with each other and with product developers so as to inform, if not determine, product development. Cities can, and should, enable wide access to information and communication technologies, including broadband access, in order to facilitate innovation.
Encourage collaboration across boundaries:
Most of cities innovative policies and actions, even if intended for a particular group or sector, end up by affecting most, if not all, of its citizens. Cities must recognize this fact and invest and promote the working together across boundaries, sectors and professions. Innovative policies often require long-term commitment and genuine collaboration between different agencies and departments, as well as, between public and private interests. In this scope, it’s the city’s governance role to bring them together and try to align them in the same direction.
No matter how pleasant narrow streets and medieval city centres may be for tourists, cities cannot be confined within walls anymore. Cities must continue to open up, and after physical and demographic expansion, many cities are now embracing innovation expansion by adhering to open innovation policies with a particular focus on enhancing sustainable innovation. They do so by opening their infrastructures and citizens, as real living labs, to the development of new products/services by public-private partnerships, by motivating end users to participate in the solution of city problems and environmental challenges, by enhancing creativity, by untapping new skills and talents and by creating the necessary technology backbone to become real urban hubs from where their local companies can reach the global networks of ideas, skills, organizations and markets.
Open sustainable and social innovation will require from many city officials, a strong change of mentality and attitude. It is no longer about playing with the traditional tools at hand – awards, land, money – but is very much about listening to everyone, sharing amongst all, giving opportunities to those that often have none. In sum, open sustainable and social innovation in motion is very much about applying the basis democratic principles to the innovation processes. Something that for cities, which have often been the pillar of democracy in our society, shouldn’t be too difficult to adopt.
(Author: Eurico Neves, CEO Inova+)