A magnifying glass on an old book, research about the origins of open innovation

The Surprising Origins of Open Innovation

The age of silos is over. The modern company is on a quest for agility and innovation. And although innovation is traditionally the domain of R&D departments, things are beginning to change. Increasingly, major groups (led by Microsoft, Google and Bouygues) have grasped the importance of adopting a more cross-department approach. And so they appeal to all of their employees as well as outside communities, such as students and startups, to help the company to innovate. This is open innovation.

But some remain sceptical, seeing it as a trend. And yet open innovation has been around for a long time. In a range of forms, admittedly, but it’s already proved itself. Agorize has two surprising facts for you about the origins of open innovation, demonstrating that it isn’t just a trend.

The origins of open innovation

The term ‘open innovation’ was only first used in 2003 in a book published by Henry Chesbrough. But the principles on which the concept is based had already proved their worth, long before the start of the 21st century.

By appealing to collective intelligence and creating meeting places, our ancestors laid the foundations of open innovation. Without knowing it, they opened the door to a new model of innovation, one which is currently booming thanks to the internet and new technologies.

1714: the first open innovation challenge

The 18th century was a period of great discovery. Christopher Columbus had already discovered America, but a major problem remained. Methods to calculate longitude while at sea remained very crude, despite frantic research by the world’s greatest minds. Worse still, the problem resulted in many fatal accidents, such as the Scilly naval disaster. Admiral Cloudesley Shovell, convinced he was navigating on the high seas, was in fact dangerously close to the coast. His fleet ultimately crashed into the rocks with full force, resulting in the death of over 2,000 men.

Finding operational solutions to concrete problems

Determined to bring these tragedies to an end, and faced with a lack of concrete solutions, the United Kingdom launched what was a revolutionary initiative for the time: the Longitude Act. The law promised a reward of £20,000 to whoever could develop a reliable method of calculating longitude to an accuracy of 0.5 degrees.

No-one managed to achieve such a degree of accuracy, but John Harrison, a clockmaker, obtained the most conclusive results. He then spent 31 years carrying out research in collaboration with the British government, ultimately achieving the necessary accuracy and creating the first marine chronometer, which is still used today. Open innovation and crowdstorming were born.

Collective intelligence, a catalyst for innovation

Publicly recognizing that the Crown’s great minds had failed and asking the mob for help could have been taken as a sign of weakness. But in fact, the initiative led to new approaches being tried, with totally innovative talents and approaches being discovered.

The savants of the age were entirely focused on astronomy. They probably never even considered the possibility of a clockmaker finding the solution to their problem. This was probably the very first open innovation challenge ever organized, proving that collective intelligence could be effective when looking for concrete solutions.

And what about world exhibitions? These international events brought together the greatest innovators of their time. They encouraged technological emergence and boosted business development.

World exhibitions: the first business development accelerators

The very first world exhibition was organized in London in 1851. The aim? To bring together stakeholders from across the whole world to show the public the very best in innovation. The event was held as a competition, and the best inventions won medals that gave the winning companies both credibility and visibility. Winning meant certain fortune.

Accelerating business creation and development

As perfect meeting spaces, these events facilitated collaboration between exhibitors and promoted technical progress. World exhibitions acted as incredible accelerators for company development. The ice machine exhibited by the company Raoul Pictet during the 1878 World Exhibition in Paris is the perfect illustration. Following this event, the Compagnie des Glacières de la Seine ice company asked to use the machine’s revolutionary process. Today, the company is known as Picard and is the leading frozen food supermarket in France.

Collaboration between major groups and startups, 1800-style

Why are we comparing these exhibitions to accelerators? Because in just a few days, it was possible to discover every invention in a given sector and to meet all the people involved. Small and large groups from all over the world finally had the chance to meet up. From then on, it became easier to forge collaborative partnerships and to innovate quickly and less conventionally.

Involving communities of innovators to accelerate growth

As we’ve seen, open innovation has been around for much longer than you might have thought. It’s a phenomenon that’s far from new and has already proved itself. So it’s important that people’s mindsets evolve and that companies appeal even more to communities of innovators (students, developers, startups, and employees) to work together on creative processes. Collective intelligence is a powerful driver of innovation. It’s a sure-fire way of forming partnerships that will contribute to a company’s future success and growth.

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Agorize comes from “Agora” and “Rise” and empowers companies and people from all over the world through Open innovation Challenges.

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