Last Saturday I happened to watch a TV program on the Hampton Court Flower Show. Among this year’s winners of the garden design competition was the Bangladeshi Allotment, a small garden designed by Jeff Travers with help from the Adelaide Community Gardening Club in Camden, N. London.
As Jeff explained, about 20 years ago the central Camden residents were offered a gardening plot in an attempt to counter the effects of the visually appalling derelict buildings and tall blocks of flats that dominated the area. People started growing vegetables, and over the years the plot became the hub of a thriving gardening community.
Bangladeshi women in particular became effective users of these allotments. They grew vegetables for their daily needs using techniques they had learned from their parents and grandparents in Bangladesh. For them gardening was a key source of food, and over the years they became experts in producing sustainable gardens with minimal financial investment. One way of increasing cultivation space was to build ramshackle supports that favoured the 3D expansion of the plants.
It was these string-bound wooden structures that intrigued Jeff Travers in the first place. He examined them with his architect hat on, but at the same time he was curious about their role in increasing vegetable production. By growing his own plants next to those of the Bangladeshi families, Jeff learned a lot about sustainable gardening using traditional techniques, such as saving seeds and using recyclable natural materials.
Jeff’s collaboration with the Bangladeshi women gardeners brought him a silver medal. The right topic in the right place at the right time, one might say. However, according to Jeff, designing and building the garden was not such a simple task:
It’s quite an architectural problem to translate Bangladeshi allotments to suit the Hampton Court setting. We’ve used the intensive Bangladeshi horticultural techniques in the growing of the plants, but we’ve arranged them in a way that conforms to the written rules of 18th century potager of which the garden of Hampton Court Palace was modeled.
This story is a good illustration of open innovation facilitated by connecting groups with apparently disparate sets of skills. To design his prize-winning garden Jeff put together the knowledge networks of the traditional Bangladeshi gardeners, the skills of their British offspring who adapted these techniques to the London context, and his own ‘architect-cum-gardener’ ability to translate these in the lingo of a professional garden design competition.
In fact such processes happen all around us at various levels. As Roland Harwood pointed out in his recent keynote at TransferSummit:
Many organisations are beginning to embrace more open and collaborative approaches to innovation. Inspired by the success of open source products such as the Apache web server and the Firefox browser, many multinational companies such as Procter and Gamble, Orange and IBM have made ‘open innovation’ – the sharing of the risks and rewards of the product development process with partners – a top strategic priority.
Academic institutions had been there long before the businesses:
The open source software movement has been a pioneer in product development which many others have sought to emulate. Like the open source movement, academic institutions have laid the foundations for a model of shared knowledge and incentives based upon reputation rather than ownership.
Increasingly however this academic model is fading out. As recent evidence demonstrates, especially in academic research funding and publication-driven assessment distort the natural balance between peer recognition and institutional hierarchy:
Research assessment exercise encourages individuals to publish independently, to keep things secret while there can be many advantages to their career, no matter if they have been funded publicly or not, because by doing that they appear to be better by the criteria used for measurement of the research assessment exercise. That’s a major cultural problem, because it makes it too difficult to persuade scientists to be open with their data, they fear losing it, and therefore their current position.
TransferSummit revealed that both academic and business teams are seeking inspiration from open development practice. More and more academic departments and businesses understand that by pooling together the expertise of their diversely skilled people they maximise opportunities for mutually beneficial innovation.
But understanding diversity in terms of domain or product expertise is not enough. While brainstorming with inter-disciplinary or professionally diverse teams can be productive, we need to bear in mind that innovation is not just generating new ideas. In fact, as Roland suggests, in the context of our expanding access to global knowledge, one’s expertise is becoming less important:
The cost associated with finding new knowledge is falling fast, to a point where in the not too distant future we can reasonably assume that all knowledge will be in principal accessible […]. In this scenario our knowledge will no longer differentiate us as individuals or organisations.
The professional diversity of the innovation teams will remain important, but increasingly cultural diversity will become their true unique selling point. As Jeff’s success story implies, his prize-winning garden was less the result of him acquiring in-depth knowledge of Bangladeshi gardening techniques, and more of him experiencing this knowledge in action, in the ways his Bangladeshi gardening mentors had internalized and used it for their daily needs.
In other words, what is becoming important is the diverse cultural practice of the innovation team members, rather than just their external expert knowledge. More than just being clued in about growing veggies differently, the ideal candidates for open innovation will be eating their own grown.