Eli MacLaren

Conditions for Collaborative Innovation

Part Two of a Three Part Series

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In Part One of this series, I defined collaborative innovation as an imperative for the 21st Century, and yet, also a poorly understood and utilized tool. In part Two, I wanted to dig further into what it looks like, how it happens, and the conditions that support it.

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The day after Christmas 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean catalyzed a tsunami that killed nearly 250,000 in 14 countries. The tsunami knocked out central infrastructure — roads, electricity, and banks. Those of us at GlobalGiving were keen to respond and started raising money quickly to help relief efforts. The challenge, however, was distribution. The logical recipient — the Red Cross — was delayed in reaching remote villages most in need. It felt inhumane to ask unknown individuals to go through the typical vetting procedures associated disbursing philanthropic dollars to nonprofits. Instead, we activated a network of entrepreneurs on the ground and turned to an underused grantmaking tool called fiscal reporting. Instead of having to find and fund only nonprofits, we were able to fund any efforts — executed by any type of organization, individual, or network — that were in the service of relief. We simply had to document fiscal expenditures; a significantly less cumbersome task. In this way, we were able to more quickly bankroll relief efforts — providing water, emergency supplies, and human resources to where they were needed most.

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It is understood that 70% of health determinants are non-medical; meaning, they are the output of where we live, our education, and how we make our livings. While this has been known and understood for decades, our health care system has been unable, or unwilling, to move upstream and address the social, or non-medical determinants of health; they have continued to focus on sick care while our population gets unhealthier. Enter Children’s Health System of Texas, and Peter Roberts. Peter hired BIF to help understand what it would take to keep families healthy. The answer could be summed up by helping them improve their wellbeing. Doing this required networking with “unlikely partners” — moving Children’s Health out of the business of program delivery and into the business of brokering relationships. It required working with community organizations to change their cost and revenue structures, to be able to serve an n of 1, when they were in the business of costing services by programs. It required unleashing capabilities from their current business model in service of a new one, not for just one organization but for the many required to catalyze the prototype of a new system.

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Just how many fish are there in the sea? The perspective changes based on whether you are a New England fisherman regularly catching fish in the sea or whether you are NOAA scientist worried about data pointing to dwindling supplies. The lack of shared reality makes it difficult to created shared motivation for monitoring and accounting for fish supplies. It also leads to significant tension and distrust. A tension that is only heightened when the financial and time burden of monitoring is hoisted onto the fishermen. The better way? What if we created a new value chain, using fishing vessels as platforms for shared data collection? What if we empowered and rewarded fishermen who take a greater ownership role in monitoring and accounting by collecting and owning fish and other environmental data (such as temperature, current, pollution) that can begin to build a base of knowledge about the overall health of fisheries? In this shift, we imagine a common value chain for all that can engender cooperation. A unified approach, common language, and cooperative platform with new value streams can enhance trust and foster collective action — in effect, giving separate business models a reason to cooperate as a system. This was the concept co-created by government, scientists, fishermen, and entrepreneurs.

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Two successful entrepreneurs walk into a makeshift recording studio in New Haven, CT. They both have an emphasis on place-making. Barry Svigals is an architect who relies heavily on participatory design to engage people in imagining and co-creating future structures; he recently completed the design of the new Sandyhook elementary school. Ben Berkowitz is the founder of the revolutionary #civtech ‘See.Click.Fix.’ I had invited them together, to prototype a new podcast series, #RCUS, an exploration into the mechanics of Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects. Barry and Ben work 50 feet from each other; they have spoken at the same conferences; they have friends in common. They buy their coffee from the same shop. But they had never met. When they came together in a facilitated conversation, they immediately started riffing off each other — co-creating play spaces for “Make Haven,” a down space for creative construction and innovation and imagining networked community projects, combining employees and spaces to create public installations to signal the meaning and purpose of community.

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Whether it is epic disasters or everyday disasters, whether it is random collisions of unusual suspects, or it is the creative resolution of fierce tensions, the answer is collaborative innovation, because it can create unparalleled opportunities to tackle complicated and complex problems at a new scale. Rather than trying to parse out the issue, tackling it piece by piece and creating point solutions, collaborative innovation enables us to think and act more systemically and imagine bigger bolder solutions.

But it is significantly harder than coming together to talk and share. Coming together to actively create and/or make requires that we have a good methodology and the right conditions. If we understand these things, we can accelerate the incidences, and therefore the impact of collaborative innovation.

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It won’t come as a surprise that two of the cases described above are examples from BIF’s portfolio of projects demonstrating the power and potential of transformative innovation; nor that we understand that the same methodology that helps leaders explore and test new business models is the same methodology that helps leaders collaboratively explore and test new business models.

If a business model is a network of capabilities woven together into a sustainable delivery model, a system is a network of business models that have learned how to cooperate.

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Value chains create the incentives for cooperation. But what does it take to get people and institutions to explore and innovate together?

This is significantly harder. First, most leaders are so focused on scaling the existing business model that allocating time and resources to exploring new ones — and collaborative business models to boot — is best described as a distraction. Second, collaborative innovation requires a “play” mindset — one which many leaders have outgrown. A play mindset is one in which the outcome is unknown, and the purpose of engaging is curiosity and the pure joy of unbridled exploration. Third, collaborative innovation requires revealing a vulnerability in both your point of view and your position. It requires saying that our existing business model isn’t the only “right” answer, or that it isn’t “totally sufficient” for the job to be done. It requires admitting that we have a blind spot or that we need others to get to scale or deliver a value chain. This is a vulnerability that individuals and organizations hate to reveal to the public, and certainly don’t want to reveal to investors or funders. Fourth, if we’re able to get past these issues, there is the technical complexity of working together. Most importantly, we lack shared information, language, and metrics which enable us to actually play together.

When combined, these factors collude to kill collaborative innovation; leaders lack both the incentives and will for unbundling capabilities from their current delivery model in service of something new. This is why in addition to the “how” and a methodology, we need the conditions.

These conditions are infrastructure — tools, language, and techniques- that together create the alchemy of trust, play, and collaboration. And from projects like the ones above, as well as a host of others, I’ve come to understand that there are five specific elements:

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Understanding the mechanics of collaborative innovation enables us to catalyze and accelerate its emergence. What might this mean for individuals and institutions? First, and I’ll talk more about this in the third segment of this series, individuals are taking advantage of new collaborative platforms to leverage excess capacity (Gig Platforms), share knowledge and resources (Sharing Platform), leverage crowds (Crowdsourcing Platforms), and make stuff (Maker Spaces). Organizations have an unprecedented opportunity to catalyze new markets and systems, leverage their own underutilized assets (including thought capital, as well as technological and physical assets) for new revenue streams, and deploy innovation resources in entirely new ways.

In short, by creating the conditions for collaborative innovation, we are changing innovation equation from linear to exponential.

Read Part Three Here.

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