NESTA provided a strong boost last week to the idea that innovation comes from open, collaborative approaches - rather than just research departments and manufacturers working behind closed doors protecting their secrets with the aid of intellectual property lawyers.
To underpin this, at the launch of their Connect programme last Thursday, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts invited along Professor Eric Von Hippel, from the MIT Sloan School of Management.
In a short presentation, videocast here, he confirmed for me - and I should think everyone else there - that celebrating and encouraging bottom-up ways to improve products is one of the best hopes we have for the future. I found it enormously encouraging as we wait for tomorrow's decision on our proposals for an Open Innovation Exchange.
What I hadn't realised until now was that work on user-led innovation started 30 years ago. Since then he and others have shown that innovative designs like mountain bikes and skateboards, as well as agricultural and surgical equipment, have been developed by passionate users trying to solve a problem. They have provided invention feedstock to manufacturers. What's different now is that users don't have to work on their own ... hoping someone will pick up their invention.
As Eric explained, with the advent of the Internet, users can now very quickly form collaborative groups and innovate together without have to worry about the manufacturer tying down the intellectual property rights.
The best known example of this is open source software, and the following morning at a breakfast event Karim Lakhani explored this in more depth. In this instance some people are paid to participate ... with a core group working on developments, and others on small features or bugs. What makes this type of collaborative innovation feasible is the decoupling of knowledge from physical presence - the Net means you don't have to be in the same place in order to work together.
I'm looking forward to reading Eric's book Democratizing Innovation which is available as a free download. However, at last week's event I felt I couldn't wait to see whether he felt his ideas applied equally to public services, and grabbed a couple of minutes of video away from the bustle of the reception. As you can see, his enthusiasm really shines through. Truly inspirational.
Click To Play in Quicktime. Also available at Blip
There's further coverage here and here from Roland Harwood who is leading the Connect programme, and from James Cherkoff and Dan McQillan. James draws out the point that just asking for ideas isn't enough - you need the community mechanic to refine them. As he says:
Repeat after me : process first, product second.
... which sort-of ties in with Johnnie Moore's point about Relationships before ideas. You need to trust people before you share really good stuff - another reason for nurturing networks and communities.
In the Guardian last Wednesday Simon Parker, head of public services at Demos, updated ideas from their publication The Collaborative State, with practical suggestions for our next Prime Minister:
Three policy changes would help. The first is that the government should promote collaboration between frontline public servants and the people they serve - the public should routinely be involved in designing the services they receive. Luton and Dunstable hospital, in Bedfordshire, for instance, has been experimenting with "experience-based design" techniques that use the stories of service users as a way to create better experiences for them.
Second, ministers should encourage the emergence of a new generation of "system leaders", those heroic individuals who deliver excellent services, but who are also capable of leading networks of other organisations to meet bigger goals. Public service training and development should prioritise these skills for future managers.
Finally, central government needs to get much better at collaboration. Gordon Brown's idea of cross-departmental public service agreement targets is an important first step, but we can go further. In Finland, for example, the government sets three to five major outcome goals for each parliament, and then convenes a network of ministers and civil servants to coordinate delivery.
I was feeling very buzzed by all this, until I spotted that Shawn Callahan, over at Anecdote, had started to reblog some of his better pieces, including Why people don't use collaboration tools. The piece is spinkled with words like unfamiliar, unintuitive, awkward ... and "people we most want to converse or collaborate with aren't online." I know, I know, it's what I find too. I hope NESTA has some innovative, collaborative, open ways to grapple with these practical challenges.