Collaborative Innovation: Some thoughts

A recent book called ‘The Game Changer‘ by AG Lafley and Ram Charan states that innovation is a social process. This social, and therefore, collaborative innovation is more often than not seen as a source of development and growth for a wide range of societal and economic goals. The quest for innovation and sound innovate practice can sometimes be over-hyped, but it is an accepted truth in academic and political realms at any rate that innovation (and it’s panoptic alter ego, creativity) is an everyday occurrence, but, is in its most harness-able and commercial format when practiced collaboratively. In that book, the authors suggest, and I quote, “innovation is a social process. And this process can only happen when people do that simple, profound thing — connect to share problems, opportunities, and learning. To put it another way, anyone can innovate, but practically no one can innovate alone”. This is a sentiment that has been argued in some quarters, including Ledwith and Coughlan’s paper in 2005 about ‘splendid isolation‘, who argue that networking and ubiquitous collaborative-based solutions should not be seen as a panacea for growth and development problems. However, what cannot be argued is the increased innovate capacity that arises from the mixing and entanglement of (sometimes) vastly different thought patterns.

Collaboration therefore is the name of the game, and throughout the development of the Internet in recent years, we have seen how collaborative behaviour has blossomed. The virtual, global space that is created by Web 2.0 can have liberating effects on personal connectivity which has been used in the most part to create exciting and new directions of economics and entertainment. Twitter is a particularly powerful social tool in this regard. Examples of collaborative software from the film industry (taken from my own work) include the development of web-based (Audio Digital Recording) ADR tools used for film and television products. Also, the (Creative Review Tool) CRT used by Animal Logic for postproduction and their ‘Happy Feet’ feature film that allows the producer and art director to be on other sides of the planet, yet have real-time changes made on complex animation sequences. Eric Von Hippel has written vehemently on the ‘horizontalisation’ of user-innovator networks, which, through the ‘free-revealing‘ of open source software, restricts the ability of innovation manufacturers (as he calls them) to commercialise this realm of user-led innovation.

Virtual, web-based innovation spaces relax the institutional, social and cultural barriers that exist when ‘real life’ collaboration occurs. This ‘placeless’ innovation means that people can work together without the usual social inhibitions that can restrict the (sometimes anarchic) flow of innovate practices. Also, the real world has problems of gentrification. Spiraling rental prices can force the most innovate people (start-up designers and freelance creatives) to move away from the ‘cluster’ or ‘hub’, namely the city centre – problems which web-based collaboration do not share.

What can we do about it? It seems obvious that encouraging web-based collaborations and the usage of open-sourced and free software is the key, however encouraging an ephemeral ubiquitous connectivity can be detrimental. Targeted collaboration though monitoring skills and match-making the desires and wants of specific businesses or individuals with those skills, can help to short-circuit innovative practices by getting the people who need to be together, quicker. Also, as I mentioned, the commercialisation potential of this free-revealing arena is virtually nil, so there is a need to couple the software with complementary goods (the hardware for example), which can provide a way of making money out of an inherently social process.

It has been argued that IP needs to be tightly controlled in such an environment, however it has been also argued that free-revealing can be beneficial in other ways, not just the economic benefits (such as reputational). Trade secrets, copyrights, patents can all ‘out-invented’ so the proliferation of free-revealing, particularly in open source web-based software through the internet has further facilitated the rate of technological innovation.

This is not to say that it will ever, nor should ever replace face-to-face contact (F2F). The economic and urban geography, an creative and cultural industries literature has told me that F2F is crucial in the key economic and creative decisions made on a daily basis, and indeed many innovation procedures have to be conducted in this way, such as performances and physicality. However, the dissemination of information and the facilitation of connectivity that Web 2.0 has proliferated can only aid in what Lafley and Charan call, the ‘social process’, that is innovation. I refer you to the Connect team at NESTA who do some stirling work in this area if you want to know more from people far more qualified than I.

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