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Open innovation has potential to revitalise the development sector, providing new sources of creative knowledge and resources, says Tara Acharya

The spirit of openness that began in the open source software movement roughly two decades ago has begun to move beyond the information technology sector. Many companies are soliciting ideas, knowledge and resources from outside their own institutions — not only from expert advisors, but also from amateur enthusiasts, customers and end-users.

Danish toy manufacturer Lego became a champion of such 'open innovation' when enthusiasts began hacking its popular 'Mindstorms' robot kits. Instead of retaliating, Lego set up a 'Mindstorms User Panel' — made up of volunteer 'lead users' — to co-create and test new toy designs. Other leading companies, including Toyota, Proctor & Gamble and Kraftfoods, have all pioneered open innovation models to enhance their businesses.

The question is: can it also create value for the world's poor people? 

According to economist Henry Chesbrough at the University of California, Berkley, United States, creative knowledge is diffuse and centralised approaches to research and development are becoming obsolete.

Today our technological connectivity gives us an unprecedented opportunity to harness global creativity for products and services. These principles should apply to serve us all, not just the wealthiest.

Encouraging signs

There is some evidence that the development sector is beginning to use open and user-driven innovation models to influence product and service design.

For example, Changemakers runs 'collaborative competitions' to solicit solutions to social problems, covering topics from microfinancing to affordable housing and healthcare. Participants can see each other's solutions online, adapt their own, and help others modify their approaches.

Last year's water and sanitation competition received 264 entries from 54 countries and mobilised investment in local innovation. One of the winners was Slum Networking in India, which exploits natural drainage paths to provide cheaper and better quality water, sanitation and drainage systems for slums.

Another example is InnoCentive, whose 'crowdsourcing' model seeks solutions from scientists and enthusiasts worldwide to specific problems, including several focused on the technological needs of rural communities. The first was for a solar-powered flashlight that villagers can use for general indoor lighting. The non-profit company behind the idea, SunNight Solar, is now distributing the lights in rural Sub-Saharan Africa.

Spreading the word

User-generated or user-driven innovation (UDI) originates from end-users themselves. It has been around for decades (the mountain biking industry grew out of user-generated innovation).

Innovation guru Eric von Hippel of the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology says users are motivated to develop and modify products and services "because they can't get from the manufacturers exactly what they want".  

In the world of development, UDI recognises that poor people are resourceful, innovative and often solve their own problems through their own means. But to have greater impact, UDI must be recognised and disseminated to other users.

The Positive Deviance Initiative (PDI) takes an interesting approach to discovering and diffusing UDIs, based on the observation that in every community some individuals find better solutions to prevalent problems than their neighbours. 

The PDI approach has been applied over the last two decades to problems such as condom use among commercial sex workers, education performance, human-trafficking and preventing infections of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in hospitals. 

An early and powerful example was in fighting malnutrition in Vietnam. In the village under study, most children were malnourished, except a handful. By following the behaviour of these children and their families, researchers found that their parents were fishing for crabs in rice paddies and adding them to their children's diet. These people had access to exactly the same resources as their neighbours but their spontaneous shift in behaviour gave their children an edge. Once unearthed, this intervention was shared and adopted by other families and villages across Vietnam.

The Rural Innovations Network, based in India, takes another approach to UDI. It identifies, incubates and distributes grassroots technological innovations that can have a significant impact on rural lives. For example, it helped an innovator develop a novel energy-efficient burner for kerosene stoves that is cheaper, longer-lasting, safer and easier to maintain than conventional burners — making it appealing to the rural consumer. The Rural Innovations Network provided the innovator with critical market research and marketing services.

Accelerating change

We can all play a role in accelerating the pace of change and bringing open innovation to the world of development. Organisations or companies that are addressing poor people's needs could add open innovation processes to their toolbox of approaches. Those who have already used open innovation successfully in the private or non-profit sectors can help make their techniques available through knowledge-sharing, advocacy and strategic partnerships. 

Funding organisations could support institutions that are seeking to experiment with open innovation methods. 

And governments could provide incentives or recognition for open innovation, such as India's National Innovation Foundation that awards a prize to grassroots innovators each year.

In a time of rapid globalisation and the current economic downturn, we should seize the opportunity that open innovation offers us to work collectively and efficiently towards a better future for all.

Tara Acharya is a program officer at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, United States.

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