Incubator Blogs: The Strength in Open Events and Open Innovations — Part I

Open events help create innovation. In Part I of our blog series on the matter, we cover what we understand as innovation and how heterogenous open communities are key to helping promote innovation.

Hi, my name is Santeri Tuovila, and I’m the Project Lead for Circulator 1.0. One of my passions is organising open events, and I firmly believe that they are of great benefit in creating and maintaining a healthy innovation ecosystem.

In this series of blog posts on the subject I’ll walk you through why I think that is. First, in Part I, with help from the University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Services team’s Mikael Malmivaara we’ll talk about what is innovation, how heterogeneity in skillsets and viewpoints are crucial to its development, and how openness and communities are an important factor in ensuring the continuous development of new innovations. In Part II of this series, we’ll cover three open events we’ve organised and how these have helped develop an open innovation ecosystem at the University of Helsinki. We’ll finish this series with some analysis in Part III on the relationality of community and innovation, what I see as our role and the limitations of said role in this broader ecosystem are, and how I believe a thriving ecosystem could take root here at the University.

But first, let’s start with our beloved/loathed buzzword: innovation.

What is innovation, anyway?

As the go-to buzzword for most parties advocating for one thing or another during the past decade or so, innovation as a term has come to represent many things in the collective consciousness – both good and bad. Yet when stripped of its many political and ideological connotations, all the way down to its purely academic core as defined by Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) in his 1947 article, The Creative Response in Economic History, an innovation is simply a new idea that, through the actions of one or more enterprising individuals, finds itself widely adopted by relevant stakeholders. Without adoption, he says, “an idea […] is not, by itself, of any importance.”

This echoes what the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) spoke of decades prior. As Jussi Kinnunen explains in his 1996 article Gabriel Tarde as a Founding Father of Innovation Diffusion Research, Tarde saw innovations as ideas that had successfully gained traction in the relevant parts of society. However, Tarde also saw that innovations were the result of what he called imitation; an activity involving the replication and synthesisation of information an individual has gathered from around them.

At this junction it is crucial to remember that the innovation need not be particularly spectacular or momentous to be considered as one. A new sausage, if it achieves sufficient commercial success, is just as much an innovation as, say, nuclear fission power, or the Finnish social security system. Indeed, equally important is to remember that while Schumpeter in his original text viewed innovation as largely the realm of successful physical inventions, later research and thought has extended the definition to more abstract concepts as well. The only thing that matters is adoption.

Subsequent research and discussion on the subject has simply reinforced this notion and has focused on further codifying the process by which an idea is developed into an innovation, also known as innovating. The result is a variety of New Product Development models, with one such model being the 1982 Booz, Allen & Hamilton 6-step model, which can be essentially summarised as:

  1. Idea generation
  2. Idea selection
  3. Initial Analysis
  4. Concept Development
  5. Final Testing
  6. Launch & Adoption

These models offer interesting ways of understanding the work undertaken by those trying to turn their new ideas into innovations. Other research on the subject has worked on defining what qualifies as “new” and categorising the various types of innovation, with a good framework being the 1990 Henderson & Clark innovation matrix below:

Heterogeneous & Open Communities and Innovation

Let’s return to heterogeneity. Over the years, what I have come to understand with regards to innovating, is that humans are generally excellent at not only adopting new ideas but combining them with old ones as well, often with fascinating results. Tarde’s theories tell us as much.

It should come to us as no surprise, then, that one of the greatest minds in late 20th and early 21st century innovation, Apple’s Steve Jobs, used to highlight how important it had been for him to have studied a course in calligraphy, and how he’d later utilised the knowledge and viewpoints he acquired during the course in creating Apple’s undeniably innovative designs.

Likewise, most contemporary breakthroughs in science and elsewhere are made by heterogenous interdisciplinary teams who openly and freely share their different worlds of knowledge to generate new ideas and research. One such example comes from the University’s Utelias Mieli podcast, where Tuomas Heikkilä, a medievalist, explained how new insights into the evolution of cultural phenomena came from working in a team combining history and computing algorithms.

The conclusion we can draw from this, is that in order to promote and support innovation, we need to promote and support interdisciplinary collaboration. One way to do that is with open events, where people from various backgrounds with a variety of viewpoints can easily come together to share and learn. We conclude this post, then, with a few innovation mantras to keep in mind when organising open events:

  1. Truly embrace diversity in any programmes, events, or opinions. Understand that the more people’s knowledge and views are the same, the less variety in innovative ideas there can be.
  2. Give people enough time to digest new ideas and viewpoints (and make that time interesting to spend).
  3. Document all knowledge and make sure it is viewed again by a similarly diverse audience, ensuring the continuation of innovative narratives and discoveries.

With this understanding of innovation and the importance of open, heterogenous communities in furthering its development we are ready to consider open events, and how they can help build the aforementioned heterogenous communities. Join us next week for Part II covering just that!

Citations used in this blog post

Booz, & Allen & Hamilton. (1982). New products management for the 1980s. Booz, Allen & Hamilton.

Henderson, R., & Clark, K. (1990). Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Exsiting Product Technologies and the Failure of Established Firms. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35(1), 9-30.

Kinnunen, J. (1996). Gabriel Tarde as a Founding Father of Innovation Diffusion Research. Acta Sociologica, 39(4), 431–442.

Schumpeter, J. A. (1947). The Creative Response in Economic History. The Journal of Economic History, 7(2), 149-159.