The Forms of Collaborative Innovation

The opening of the organizational designs and practices implies a plurali-zation and decentralization of the sources of innovation, which requires the collaboration of a multiplicity of actors. Three aspects of this trend deserve to be underlined: (1) inventive and innovative processes become more cooperative; (2) inventions/innovations are in some cases the product of a joint effort in which it is difficult to distinguish the individual contribution; (3) these activities do not always take a market form.

Within these coordinates, we can frame a plurality of phenomena which are located in different points of the regulatory continuum that goes from the market to generalized reciprocity.

1 The open innovation model, which is a new strategy that companies engage in; both those operating in the field of economic innovation.

oriented to the profit-market and those that move in the field of social innovation.

  • 2 Collective inventions, which is a particular type of inventive process.
  • 3 Open innovation communities, which are innovative partnerships taking on ‘community' forms and are not motivated by economic incentives.
  • 4 The free innovation and democratization of innovations, which indicate a different division of labour between consumers and producers.

Let us look at these briefly, one by one.

The model of open innovation

This is a new business strategy which is opposed to the closed model of innovation typical of vertically integrated companies (Chesbrough 2003,2006; De Backer et al. 2008; OECD 2008; Lichtenthaler 2011). In the latter, research is conducted exclusively in company laboratories and leads to the internal development of products which are then marketed through its distribution network. With the open model of innovation, in contrast, management promotes the incoming and outgoing flow of knowledge, in order to accelerate innovative activity and expand the market for its products (Chesbrough 2006, 149). In other words, companies open up to external ideas and collaborations both to create and develop their innovations and to commercialize them. It is, therefore, a market-oriented model of innovation -creating value for the company - which starts from the assumption that the knowledge useful for these ends is now dispersed among a plurality of different actors. This implies an opening up of borders and the development of external partnerships.

This more open and collaborative logic, which is permeating the organizational architectures and innovative processes of the ‘private marketsector’, applies equally well to the ‘private social-sector’, in particular to social innovation (Montanari and Mizzau 2016; Barbera and Parisi 2019). This term refers to innovations that ‘are social both in their ends and in their means', i.e. ‘that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations’ (Murray et al. 2011, 3). There is a clear awareness among social innovators that some unresolved problems, from the state and the market, can be adequately addressed with a different approach. An approach which holds together managerial techniques, the use of new technologies and pro-social values and in which ‘social relations themselves become tools to be mobilized in entrepreneurial activity’ (Arvidsson and Giordano 2011, 3). In this case, the regulatory mechanisms are often of a mixed type, combining market and reciprocity principles; they also respond to unresolved social issues and/or to public clients rather than to a demand coming from consumers or private companies.

Collective inventions

This phenomenon refers to a way of implementing and regulating the inventive process, which is different from both the collective public and private market kinds. Collective inventions are based on the free exchange of information between companies in a productive sector: faced with a common technical problem, they cooperate in order to find a solution, with each making a small cumulative contribution. The final invention is collective because all the incremental improvements introduced by individual firms have contributed to the solution of the technical problem, and it is therefore impossible to attribute the discovery to a single inventor.

Robert Allen (1983), who identified this model, cites the historical example of the iron industry in the English district of Cleveland. Between 1850 and 1875, several improvements were made here in the construction of blast furnaces (increases in furnace height and combustion temperatures), which reduced costs and increased company efficiency. In the absence of appropriate theoretical knowledge, building higher furnaces and increasing temperatures was a very risky business. The solution to this technical problem was brought about through incremental changes contributed by several companies: slight changes made in the height and temperature of the furnaces, together with the sharing of information about the new developments, made innovation less risky and reduced the cost of failure (collapses, etc.). The reasons for this collaborative approach, alongside those of a technical-economic kind, were linked to the difficulty of keeping information secret within the local community and the emulative nature of competition present in the district: reputational reasons, in other words, related to the professional prestige bestowed upon successful innovators.

Other more recent examples of collective inventions are illustrated by Osterloh and Rota (2007, 161-162). These authors have shed light on how, in the exploratory phase of a new technology, economic actors might decide to work together through the action of three factors:

  • 1 the vast potential for learning - knowledge-sharing increases the benefits for everyone;
  • 2 low ‘opportunity costs’ - the absence of substantial losses resulting from information-sharing in the pre-commercial phase;
  • 3 the presence of selective benefits - thanks to acquired reputation, to the ability to guide the technological trajectory in directions favourable to their interests and to the opportunity to develop complementary goods.

When the technological trajectory is stable, and a dominant design emerges (a successful technological architecture), these collaboration-favourable conditions cease and the actors go back to economic (profit-driven) strategies - unless other mechanisms come into operation, as happens in open innovation communities.

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