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Bridging Distant Worlds: Innovation in the Civic Space

a digital white paper by Public Innovation

2. Pursuing Innovation

In his book, How Breakthroughs Happen: The surprising truth about how companies innovate, Hargadon develops a connecting the dots view of innovation around an idea he calls technology brokering: whereby technologies encompass people, ideas, and objects; and, brokering is the act of creating connections across those technologies through robust networks:

“Technology brokering describes a strategy that firms have developed to expressly pursue such recombinant innovations. This strategy involves bridging distant worlds. By working in a range of different industries or markets, firms are in a better position to see when the people, ideas, and objects of one world can be combined in new ways to solve the problems of another. For these companies, innovation isn’t a process of thinking outside of the box so much as one of thinking in boxes that others haven’t seen before. Edison didn’t invent the electric light, but he brought together previously disparate people, ideas, and objects from his network of past wanderings in a way that launched a revolution.

That’s just the first step. Technology brokering also involves building new communities around those innovative recombinations. Rather than rebelling against the old social order, technology brokering focuses on building new networks around emerging ideas (13).”

And it’s through one or more of the following strategies that organizations are able to innovate in practice:

  1. External Innovation Firms: an organization brings in an external firm that specializes in helping organizations innovate;
  2. Internal Innovation Units: an organization forms a dedicated group or set of groups to bridge knowledge across the organization; and/or,
  3. Opportunistic Innovation: an organization creates the capacity to develop and seize one-time opportunities.

These strategies are not mutually exclusive; the choice to prioritize strategy will depend on the both the internal characteristics of the organization, as well as the magnitude of innovation(s) sought (e.g., incremental vs. disruptive).

1. External Innovation Firms

The first strategy by which organization may pursue innovation is by hiring an outside firm that specializes in innovation. Firms such as IDEO, Continuum, and Bulldog Drummond are examples of such firms. While consulting with an external firm to drive innovation may seem to implicate an organization for lack of creativity, this strategy is non-trivial; as many organizations are constrained by their size, structure, authorizing environment, or culture to effectively pursue innovation internally. IDEO, for example, hires T-shaped individuals with diverse backgrounds, the combination of which would be difficult to find within many organizations. Lastly, because external innovation firms are committed to full-time, organization-wide innovation activities, their structures are so flat that it would pose a challenge for these firms to focus on sustained implementation of new ideas, i.e., they’re better positioned to pursue the next idea. This explains why companies as innovative as Apple choose this strategy, when appropriate.

2. Internal Innovation Units

The second strategy by which an organization may pursue innovation is by creating one or more dedicated internal units. This is best exemplified by Google’s Google[x] NIKE, Inc.’s Innovation Kitchen, or VSP Global’s The Shop (located in Midtown Sacramento). These are large companies where it makes sense to carve out a space for serendipity and connections to occur across the organization. These units must discipline themselves to focus on the proper balance between short-term optimization of existing processes and long-term anticipation of and adaptation to future market trends. Moreover, the teams within these innovation units must be composed of diverse perspectives that reflect the complexity of knowledge across the organization’s structure.

3. Opportunistic Innovation

The third strategy by which organizations may pursue innovation–and most often do–is by identifying technologies that are impacting other areas or industries, and transferring those technologies into their own industry before their competitors. Essentially, this is what separates the Netflixes of the world from the Blockbusters of the world. Although Netflix started out shipping DVDs by mail, it was always part of their plan to stream video content over the Internet. In contrast, Blockbuster failed to not only recognize Netflix’s potential to steal their market share, but bring the company into a world in which the dominant method of delivering content would increasingly be over the Internet. So, opportunistic innovation is not only beneficial to differentiate an organization from its competitors, but critical to survival over the long-term.

The preceding two sections have briefly explored the innovation space generically. To understand the implications in this paper’s context, we’ll now focus more narrowly on civic innovation.

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