The story of the Open Innovation Exchange

Case Study: The Open Innovation Exchange

This case study was prepared for a report by the NCVO Foresight Unit on how information and communication technologies are shaping how services are designed and delivered. More here on the report.

In 2007 I worked with Simon Berry, and a few score other people, to develop a bid for a £1.2 million contract on offer from the Cabinet Office to set up an innovation exchange to help third sector organisations share knowledge and improve public service delivery. Using a couple of online systems we developed the entire bid in public, inviting anyone who was interested to collaborate with us. We got quite a bit of attention, including finalist status in the New Statesman New Media awards because of the way we did it. We made a lot of new friends, and Simon and I have taken to calling it our most successful failure in 2007. Here's why.

First the failure bit. We were short listed and interviewed, but didn't get the job. It went to a consortium headed by the Government-funded Innovation Unit[1]. We were up against a strong field, and we knew that the approach we took was probably a bit challenging for Whitehall ... which leads to the successful bit.

When we heard of the tender we thought we should have a go, because we knew we could put together a good team with skills in event organising, knowledge sharing and online systems. On the other hand, the thought of spending weeks assembling a tender document in the conventional way was not appealing. If you don't win, there's nothing to show for it.

The clue to developing the bid in a creative and satisfying way came from the nature of the project. We believe that much innovation comes from open ways of doing things that allow crossovers between different sectors and disciplines, where conversations and stories complement documentation and project management systems. So why not produce the bid in that style, showing what we meant from the outset? I remember talking this through on the phone with my Edinburgh-based colleague Drew Mackie. ‘Ahhh’, said Drew. ‘You are going to do an open source bid’, referring to the way that some software developers are prepared to share the code they develop so others can build on top of their achievements. The equivalent in content is Creative Commons licensing, where you may, for example, allow people to use your material and develop it, with attribution, provided they license the result in the same way.

That's how the idea of the Open Innovation Exchange was born. Over a weekend my son Dan put together a website that allowed anyone who registered to write content, and others to comment. It also provided static pages to assemble the more formal substance of the bid. Simon agreed that he and colleagues at ruralnet|uk would turn the ideas into costed work packages to form the basis of the bid. Our friends Ben Whitnall and Gez Smith of Delib took responsibility for proposals on how the online side would work, and there were a wide range of other contributions. In addition to the public website we used an internal messaging and document system, Basecamp, for team working. The end result was that our entire bid (without the figures) was created in public.

The big challenge, of course, was that we could be giving our competitors an advantage. They could see our thinking, but we couldn't see theirs. We felt that our overriding advantage was that we were demonstrating how we would run the exchange if we won. In addition, as we got more and more enthused about the approach we found that open collaborative innovation is increasingly widely adopted in the commercial field.[2]

The project gave us the confidence and energy to do things differently. If open collaborative innovation could (almost) work in an official tendering situation, what could we do on other projects? We are now taking that approach on a number of things we are developing.[3] All it takes is the courage to say: ‘I'm good at some things, but you may be better at others. Let's work together. And if someone has already done it, let's be delighted, not jealous’.

David Wilcox

Designing for Civil Society

Visit the Open Innovation Exchange -
(no longer active but available to view)


[2] For example, NESTA’s Connect Programme supports open collaborative innovation,

[3] For example, ruralnet|uk are re-inventing ruralnet|online in public - asking potential users and clients to contribute their ideas on what's needed in the system and their next generation of services -