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Italian innovation should be "open"

Digital innovation gets the best results when it's open to different approaches and ideas. This open innovation is probably the right choice for Italian companies.


We all have different ideas on how innovation is created. Some believe it comes from special people, unique innovative minds like first Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. For others, innovation it's the outcome of an inclusive process, where different people bring their own points of view, instances, experiences. Today, when we think about digital innovation we describe more the latter than the former dynamic. Digital innovation is, or should be, more and more an open innovation. No company can solve by itself all the challenges it faces. It needs ideas, skills, solution coming from "outside": other companies, startups, Universities, freelancers, researchers.

This is not new. Many companies have been talking about open innovation for years. In their vision, innovation comes more easily and faster from technological startups: traditional (and bigger) companies absorb innovation through a "contamination" between them and selected startups. To innovate faster, startups and their creativity can be acquired. This is happening also in Italy, where many big companies say they are working on open innovation programs with startups. Even those companies that, a few years ago, firmly believed to have already, thanks to their history, all what they needed to innovate.

Open innovation is a wonderful concept. Can it also be the right way for Italy to innovate? Probably, yes. Italian companies, big and small, have been adopting for decades an approach where different companies of the same geographical area cooperate in extended - and very efficient - supply chains for vertical applications. This approach - the "district" - is a form of inter-company sinergy that can be applied also to innovation. Italian companies, especially SMEs, by themselves can't innovate so deeply and so fast as they should. But together with other companies, they can.Easier said than done, of course. Open innovation often requires hard changes in company culture, organization, processes. Old industrial districts were easy to understand: a group of complementary companies in a well identified, often small, area. Open innovation is by definition delocalized, fragmented, cooperative. Companies must learn to share information, work seamlessly together, think logterm, be a team. In Italy, it's not so obvious.

That's why most experts think that, for Italian companies, the hardest part will be managing open innovation, not innovation per se. Companies must change their approach to innovation and accept new leadership models. Being a leader today does not mean being the one who makes the right choices, but helping others in doing so. And fostering change.

Furthermore, today there is no innovation without sustainability, in the broadest sense. An innovation process must take account not only of innovation benefits - that usually translate, directly or indirectly, in more money for who's innovating - but also of innovation costs. The often mentioned "externalities". And there can't be "innovability" (innovation and sustainability) if the innovation process is not so open that it actually involves all who are impacted by that specific innovation.

Again, this is not easy. In the "quadruple helix" model, which is now quite popular, technology innovation must come from a sinergy of research centers, private companies, public sector and communities. This way, citizens are more than simply consumers (for private companies) or passive users of services (for governmental agencies).

But involving, like, a local community in the development of a new digital service doesn't simply mean asking citizens if they like or not something that was already designed and developed elsewhere. This is the old innovation "from above". A real engagement implies that communities of interest join the development - and decision - process from the very beginning. It takes more time, but it works much better.

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