Technology is developing at an exponential pace, yet productivity is slowing down. Economist Henry Chesbrough opened the sixth edition of the World Open Innovation Conference (12-13 December) with this observation. He called it the “Exponential Paradox” and it is also the starting point for his new book Open Innovation Results. This is due for publication in 2020 and it was given a sneak preview at the WOIC event. In actual fact, it is set to arrive in bookshops almost 20 years after Chesbrough’s earlier book (Open Innovation. The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology), which is widely acknowledged as having changed the perception of innovation all over the world, probably forever.
A model for success
Open Innovation (OI) is now an established model. It asserts that in order to innovate, it is necessary to look to the outside world, opening doors to other organisations and learning to become “contaminated” by external inputs. In a world in which technology is so rapid and pervasive, a company that is introspective and focuses only on its own Research and Development department is unlikely to find the most effective solutions. On the LinkedIn platform, more than 55 thousand people have included Open Innovation in their profiles, the acronym OI is now commonly used by professionals and research into the topic has spread from universities in the US to those in Asia.
“But now we need to be more ambitious, we need to look further and with greater conviction,” explained Chesbrough at the opening of the conference, which was being held in Italy for the first time. The venue was the LUISS University in Rome and the conference was able to take place also thanks to the involvement of Enel as event partner. For some years now our Group has placed Open Innovation at the centre of its strategy and a few days ago the Group received the Corporate Startup Stars Award for being the company that is most active in Open Innovation in Europe. “With Enel we are close to home and we share the same values, openness and a real vocation for innovation,” declared Andrea Prencipe, Rector of the LUISS University, in his opening address.
The tools of a work in progress
In his new book Chesbrough presents innovation as a triangle, the sides of which are generation, dissemination and absorption. It is not sufficient to produce merely innovation, rather it is necessary to make sure it spreads throughout organisations and society, working to enable it to take root and become a shared asset that creates lasting benefits. This is the concept behind the creation of the corporate roles of OI specialist and OI ambassador, whose task is to make innovation part of the culture. Open Innovation is still a work in progress. “Innovation is not what we start, so much as what we conclude,” explained Chesbrough.
“Opening up in order to face the challenges of business and society,” was the theme for the sixth edition which, naturally, applied the open approach first of all to the event itself. Indeed, the conference brought together diverse disciplines and fields of expertise, also launching business challenges to the university world and urging companies to direct their research towards innovation. These challenges were targeted at the entire community headed by the home of Open Innovation, the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. This community continues to produce research (130 papers received from which the two winners were chosen) and encourage the coming together of companies, startups, research centres and universities. How? The tools are in continuous evolution and range from joint ventures and calls for ideas, to innovation networks, crowdsourcing, co-creation, and even hackathons.
Innovation yes, but it must be open and shared
Many companies at WOIC told the stories of their own experiences. For Salesforce, leader in solutions for customer relation management, the challenge was to try to use OI to enter new difficult markets like India. Ericsson took advantage of OI to create a vast ecosystem in view of the deployment of 5G networks. With the programme Free electrons, 10 energy utilities worked together and with startups on projects for the energy transition. The pharmaceutical multinational Bayer, the first company to have a Research and Development department, set up an Open Innovation strategy that involves sharing research laboratories with health facilities, while Samsung has launched a challenge to reach new clients through digitalisation.
No less important were the keynote speeches that took a more academic approach. Annabelle Gawer, Director of the Surrey Centre of Digital Economy, explained that “the big internet platforms and Open Innovation are cousins” and this is probably one of the reasons for their success, behind which, however, lie numerous attempts and failures, precisely because progress is made through a process of trial and error.
Anita McGahan, professor at the University of Toronto, pointed out the essential need to combine innovation with sustainability, for example by promoting inclusion, disease prevention and mitigating the risks linked to climate change. Combining innovation and sustainability is the key to overcoming Chesbrough’s paradox. As a matter of fact, the Berkeley economist reminded the audience that Enel has coined the term Innovability precisely in order to perceive these two features as a single entity that should never be separated.