Harnessing the collective mind.


Daniel Nowak, Graduate Research Consultant

Innovation in an evolving world.

Innovation does not just change our lives, it is how we make a living. We are seeing the pooling of research, of risk, and the potential for breakthroughs that only happen when we bring everyone together.

– Barack Obama.

The built environment faces a monumental challenge ahead: meeting the needs of human wellbeing and supporting a good life for all within the realms of what our planet can support. On top of this, technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, with artificial intelligence (AI) currently at the forefront of this, accelerating us towards an uncertain future. In today’s rapidly evolving world, knowledge is becoming increasingly dispersed and interdisciplinary and traditional closed innovation models are no longer enough to move forward at the pace required.

Open innovation can play a key role in helping thrive in this dynamic landscape. It’s a paradigm shift that breaks down siloes and harnesses the collective intelligence through the diffusion of knowledge. For an organisation, this means encouraging collaboration internally, as we have started through Pollinate, and externally through engagement with the academic and entrepreneurial spheres. The aim is to bring together as many diverse perspectives, experiences, and skills to develop transformational solutions that would have been impossible to achieve in isolation.

Technology and the rise of AI

There is no doubt that breakthroughs in (AI) are going to completely change the world of work. Although AI is currently limited in its ability to fully design and implement complex systems, organisations that fail to adapt to these technological advancements risk obsolescence, even in highly specialised fields.

Open innovation is likely to be strategically important to minimise disruption from these technological advancements and maximise their benefits. Not only does it allow organisations to adopt them more quickly, but it also opens opportunities to pivot, adapt or diversify in completely new directions. In the services sector, this process of creative accumulation means new competencies can be developed through open knowledge diffusion, expanding an organisation’s domain of expertise. With the advent of AI, human knowledge, experience, or wisdom is now more valuable than ever.

Sustainability and the race to Net Zero

To achieve a sustainable future, the built environment is facing an imperative to make huge leaps in innovation. In the UK, a significant acceleration in progress is required for the built environment to meet the target of Net Zero by 2050. These challenges are inherently globally systemic and extend far beyond just one sector. Take the example of electrification in the built environment; this should have immediate emissions savings, but the true potential is only really achieved in tandem with energy grid decarbonisation. It is going to take collaboration across industries and professions to achieve this future, as the IPCC puts it: ‘everything everywhere, all at once’. This is where the force of open innovation can really be harnessed: multi-disciplinary action mobilised around a mission. It was this approach that delivered a Covid vaccine in an unprecedented time, where urgency spurred systemic transformation that could break bureaucratic hurdles. The power of this intrinsic motivation can provide glimpses of optimism in times when it can be difficult to find. This may well be already in motion; swathes of the industry (including Hoare Lea) have declared a climate emergency, opening the door to these open radical discussions.

Inclusive innovation

On the topic of radicality, there is a certain irony in talking about the race to Net Zero, electrification and grid decarbonisation, when there are still 775m people in the world(and is actually currently rising) that do not have access to electricity. The traditional closed model confines innovation behind closed doors and is reflective of a system that perpetuates these injustices, and limits access to the benefits of innovation. While this may seem like a reach, Bill Gates once aptly highlighted this by claiming that more money is spent on researching baldness than malaria. Open innovation has the potential to break down systemic barriers, allowing people to be included in the process and the outcomes. As a result, this should make innovation more democratic, in tune with the needs of all people and accessible. The concept of living labs is a great example of this approach, where people are empowered to move from the role of passive end-users to co-creators.

Collaboration in a competitive world

While competition and collaboration may seem like opposing forces, open innovation can embrace both. This does bring certain challenges, for example finding a reasonable balance in intellectual property protection to promote fairness. However, the ultimate goal is to foster an environment where diverse perspectives and expertise converge to drive innovation forward. ‘Hackathons’ have become a prominent feature in Silicon Valley innovation, where collective but competitive curious minds are tapped into to offer companies access to new ideas while minimising cost and risk. Breaking down how innovation actually occurs explains why these events can often have remarkable results (such as helping NASA with Mars missions).

True innovation can only occur when something ‘new’ is introduced to the process, whether that be ideas, ways of thinking or something else entirely. It is inclusion and the broadening of horizons that drives and fuels this. By embracing open innovation, we can achieve remarkable results on so many levels, so much that it is both an opportunity and an imperative, perhaps even a responsibility. With this paradigm shift, we can respond to the challenges that face our rapidly evolving world and build the foundation of a sustainable and equitable future.