What is open innovation?

The term open innovation was coined by Henry Chesrough in 2003 and has been widely adopted by businesses around the world to develop new ideas, products and services.

Open innovation is based on the notion that knowledge is widespread and no single organisation has a monopoly on great ideas. This also means that every organisation – no matter how original internally – needs to engage with external knowledge and communities to innovate. Organisations that practice open innovation not only use external ideas and technology in their business but also allow their internal ideas to go outside and be used by others. Although open innovation practices started in large companies like Philips, Nike and Unilever, they can be applied to small companies in all kinds of sectors, both high and low tech. Open innovation has even spread to the public, educational and not-for-profit sectors, which apply it to solve societal challenges, understand the needs of citizens or crowdsource ideas for new research topics.

Open innovation has spread so widely because it better meets the needs of today’s industries, which are highly connected to and influenced by the outside world.

Traditional innovation approaches used to mean an entirely closed-off funnel from idea to market through a single, vertically-integrated process managed entirely within the firm and in many cases under a thick blanket of secrecy. These approaches assumed that useful knowledge was scarce, so one had to innovate by creating the useful knowledge that was needed from within.  


By contrast, open innovation assumes that useful knowledge is widespread and that organisations must establish effective mechanisms to access it and share their own knowledge with others.


Open innovation and applied research

Like businesses, researchers and knowledge institutes working on applied research also have much to gain from connecting their research to the outside world, particularly to businesses and consumers for whom their research results are relevant. If focused on solving the innovation challenges of a particular business or working on an innovation sought after by a particular target group, research questions become much more specific and results easier to measure, especially if the business or target group remains involved throughout the research process. This approach means that knowledge insitutes need to create and maintain strong ties with their surroundings, which the #guide2innovate can help with!

Learn about some successful examples of open innovation in a variety of sectors below to get you inspired. Do you know of others? Go ahead and add them at the bottom!

Examples of open innovation



Open innovation was adopted by NASA to build a mathematical algorithm that can determine the optimal content of medical kits for NASA’s future manned missions. In order to develop innovative software that can solve this problem, NASA collaborated with external partners – including TopCoder, Harvard Business School and London Business School – to crowdsource the right software for the challenge. The challenge was met with over 2,800 code submissions and the winners were offered $24,000 in cash prizes plus seats to watch NASA shuttle mission launches.



When faced with a dramatic decline in sales in the early-1990s, LEGO vowed to focus more on its consumers by linking business and creativity. They have since launched many exciting initiatives, including LEGO IDEAS, a co-creative open innovation program that allows consumers to design their own LEGO sets using either LEGO bricks or  3D applications. Other users can then discuss and vote for the ideas developed, which are considered for production when they meet a certain number of votes. If actually produced, the creators of the design even receive a small part of the revenues from the sales of their set.


Project Hiroglyph

Can science fiction serve as inspiration for actual innovation? Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination believes that it can and has started the Project Hieroglyph to help bring those ideas to fruition. The project challenges students to think inventively and imagine a better future ,  gleaning inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, including the science fiction stories and content that provide a bit of a roadmap for future innovations. Learn more about it here.


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