Appointed Director of Open Innovation at Fundació Jaume Bofill

Imagine an organization you highly and very sincerely respect. Imagine this organization calls you and tells you about their vision and the plans to achieve this vision. Plans about opening research, about making the creation and spread of knowledge very participative and collaborative, about making impact the target and research the instrument put at the service of that impact (instead of research being the goal and impact a casual side-effect). Imagine this organization asking for your opinion and listening to you digress about e-research, personal learning environments, the personal research portal, knowledge management or new ways to use technology and participate in the Information Society.

This happened in September at Fundació Jaume Bofill, a leading non-profit in Catalonia that performs quality research in human sciences in general, and now narrowing its field of action to Education in a very broad sense, with a special focus on inequalities, innovation and social change. And the conversation ended with a would you like to lead the project?.

Since November 1st I am the director of open innovation at Fundació Jaume Bofill, being my general goal to rethink how knowledge is produced and shared all across the organization. To be able to perform my new responsibilities, since January 1st 2014 until February 1st 2015 I will be on partial leave from my current job, full time professor at the Open University of Catalonia. I describe what I think the main background is in Open Social Innovation. On the other hand, what I believe my main guiding lines will be in the following year was presented in December to my new colleagues. What follows are the slides I used (in Catalan):

[click here to enlarge] | [click here to download the slides]

All of this has mostly been learning by doing, so I just expect my experience not to be too much wrong.

There is a positive side-effect to this already thrilling collaboration. My University and I found that the best way to channel it was through the recently created Open Evidence, a spin-off from my University working in the field of social sciences research, innovation and knowledge transfer. I will thus be working side by side as a researcher and analyst with my friends Francisco Lupiáñez- Villanueva and David Osimo, whom I highly respect. I hope being closer will make it easier to produce some good things together.

Last, but not least, it is worth acknowledging that things do not happen just because. There is plenty of people to be grateful to. First of all, my thanks go to Ismael Palacín (director of the Foundation), Mònica Nadal (director of prospective) and the board of trustees of the Fundació Jaume Bofill (Carles Capdevila among others) for their trust in me; to some friends and “usual suspects” (Jaume Albaigès, Pau Vidal, etc.) for their priceless help and speaking well of me and my work; to Paco Lupiáñez, Agustí Cerrillo, Mireia Riera, José Miguel de la Dehesa and Enric Vinaixa for their support and making things happen; and to María Salido, Amalio Rey, Julen Iturbe and Ana Rodera for their “notes” on how to leave the nest. And, of course, to Mercè, Muriel and (soon) Jofre for their patience.

At this moment I’m both excited and terrified at the perspective of the new year. The project is huge, both a tremendous opportunity of making great things or falling into deep failures. The team I will be working with is gorgeous and an incredible source of learning. The gods be good to us! Come, masters, let’s home. I ever said we were i’ the wrong if we never tried.

Open Social Innovation

Innovation, open innovation, social innovation… is there such a thing as open social innovation? Is there innovation in the field of civic action that is open, that shares protocols and processes and, above all, outcomes? Or, better indeed, is there a collectively created innovative social action whose outcomes are aimed at collective appropriation?

Innovation

It seems unavoidable, when speaking about innovation, to quote Joseph A. Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy:

The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.

In the aforementioned work and in Business Cycles: a Theoretical, Historical and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process he stated that innovation necessarily had to end up with existing processes, and that entire enterprises and industries would be destroyed with the coming of new ways of doing things, as the side effect of innovation. This creative destruction would come from, at least, the following fronts:

  • A new good or service in the market (e.g. tablets vs. PCs).
  • A new method of production or distribution of already existing goods and services (e.g. music streaming vs. CDs).
  • Opening new markets (e.g. smartphones for elderly non-users).
  • Accessing new sources of raw materials (e.g. fracking).
  • The creation of a new monopoly or the destruction of an existing one (e.g. Google search engine)

Social innovation

Social innovation is usually described as innovative practices that strengthen civil society. Being this a very broad definition, I personally like how Ethan Zuckerman described social innovation in the Network Society. According to his innovation model:

  1. Innovation comes from constraint.
  2. Innovation fights culture.
  3. Innovation does embrace market mechanisms.
  4. Innovation builds upon existing platforms.
  5. Innovation comes from close observation of the target environment.
  6. Innovation focuses more on what you have more that what you lack.
  7. Innovation is based on a “infrastructure begets infrastructure” basis.

His model comes from a technological approach — and thus maybe has a certain bias towards the culture of engineering — but it does explain very well how many social innovations in the field of civil rights have been working lately (e.g. the Spanish Indignados movement).

Open innovation

The best way to define open innovation is after Henry W. Chesbrough’s Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating And Profiting from Technology, which can be summarized as follows:

Closed Innovation Principles Open Innovation Principles
The smart people in the field work for us. Not all the smart people in the field work for us. We need to work with smart people inside and outside the company.
To profit from R&D, we must discover it, develop it, and ship it ourselves. External R&D can create significant value: internal R&D is needed to claim some portion of that value.
If we discover it ourselves, we will get it to the market first. We don’t have to originate the research to profit from it.
If we create the most and the best ideas in the industry, we will win. If we make the best use of internal and external ideas, we will win.
We should control our IP, so that our competitors don’t profit from our ideas. We should profit from others’ use of our IP, and we should buy others’ IP whenever it advances our business model.

Open Social Innovation

The question is, can we try and find a way to mix all the former approaches? Especially, can we speak about how to have social innovation being open?

In my opinion, there is an important difference between social innovation and innovation that happens in the for-profit environment:

  1. The first one, and more obvious, is that while the former one has to somehow capture and capitalize the benefits of innovation, the second one is sort of straightforward: if the innovation exists, then society can “automatically” appropriate it.
  2. The second one is the real cornerstone: while (usually) the important thing in (for-profit) open innovation is the outcome, in social innovation it (usually) is more important the process followed to achieve a goal rather than achieving the goal itself.

Thus, in this train of thought, open social innovation is the creative destruction that aims at making up new processes that can be appropriated by the whole of civil society. I think there are increasingly interesting examples of open social innovation in the field of social movements, of e-participation and e-democracy, the digital commons, P2P practices, hacktivism and artivism, etc.

I think that open social innovation has three main characteristics that can be fostered by three main actions of policies.

Characteristics

  • Decentralization. Open social innovation allows proactive participation, and not only directed participation. For this to happen, content has to be separated from the container, or tasks be detached from institutions.
  • Individualization. Open social innovation allows individual participation, especially at the origin of innovation. This does not mean that collective innovation is bad or avoided, but just that individuals have much flexibility o start on their own. This is only possible with the atomization of processes and responsibilities, thus enabling maximum granularity of tasks and total separation of roles.
  • Casual participation. Open social innovation allows participation to be casual, just in time, and not necessarily for a log period of time or on a regular basis. This is only possible by lowering the costs of participation, including lowering transaction costs thus enabling that multiple actors can join innovative approaches.

Policies

How do we foster decentralization-individualization-casual participation? how do we separate content from the container? how do we atomize processes, enable granularity? how do we lower costs of participation and transaction costs?

  • Provide context. The first thing an actor can do to foster open social innovation is to provide a major understanding of what is the environment like, what is the framework, what are the global trends that affect collective action.
  • Facilitate a platform. It is not about creating a platform, it is not about gathering people around our initiative. It deals about identifying an agora, a network and making it work. Sometimes it will be an actual platform, sometimes it will be about finding out an existing one and contributing to its development, sometimes about attracting people to these places, sometimes about making people meet.
  • Fuel interaction. Build it and they will come? Not at all. Interaction has to be boosted, but without interferences so not to dampen distributed, decentralized leadership. Content usually is king in this field. But not any content, but filtered, grounded, contextualized and hyperlinked content.

Some last thoughts

Let us now think about the role of some nonprofits, political parties, labour unions, governments, associations, mass media, universities and schools.

It has quite often been said that most of these institutions — if not all — will perish with the change of paradigm towards a Networked or Knowledge Society. I actually believe that all of them will radically change and will be very different from what we now understand by these institutions. Disappear?

While I think there is less and less room for universities and schools to “educate”, I believe that the horizon that is now opening for them to “enable and foster learning” is tremendously huge. Thus, I see educational institutions having a very important role as context builders, platform facilitators and interaction fuellers. It’s called learning to learn.

What for democratic institutions? I cannot see a bright future in leading and providing brilliant solutions for everyone’s problems. But I would definitely like to see them having a very important role as context builders, platform facilitators and interaction fuellers. It’s called open government.

Same for nonprofits of all purposes. Rather than solving problems, I totally see them as empowering people and helping them to go beyond empowerment and achieve total governance of their persons and institutions, through socioeconomic development and objective choice, value change and emancipative values, and democratization and freedom rights.

This is, actually, the turn that I would be expecting in the following years in most public and not-for-profit institutions. They will probably become mostly useless with their current organizational design, but they can definitely play a major role in society if they shift towards open social innovation.