Open Innovation: A New Operating System for the Social Sector

Five years ago, I was part of a team that applied the resources and ambition of Google to global problems. I’m proud of what we achieved through building technology that engaged millions of Google users. But it also became clear to me that no matter how deep our pockets were or how ubiquitous our technology was, truly moving the needle on the world’s biggest problems required not just new apps, but a whole new operating system.

Today, I lead OpenIDEO, an open innovation platform that uses design thinking and collaboration to develop solutions for the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges with a global community. Together with our partners, we’re exploring how to build global ecosystems that can address long-term threats such as climate change, as well as extreme shocks, like the zika epidemic.

We believe that a key to a new operating system for the social sector is to change how innovation is surfaced and supported. RFPs that flood funders with applications behind a firewall concentrate knowledge in silos. Both funders and recipients can benefit from making grant giving more collaborative, transparent, and iterative.

Currently, we’re in the early stages of the BridgeBuilder Challenge, a collaboration with GHR Foundation in which we’re looking for solutions for global challenges at the intersection of peace, prosperity and planet. There is a deep need for dialogue and collaboration across these issue areas, and our challenge platform provides a space for that. The BridgeBuilder Challenge is therefore not organized as a traditional challenge with winners and losers, but as a quick and inviting way to build an impactful community.

Already over 190 solutions have been submitted, ranging from Pioneer Valley Renewables, that  makes underwater turbines to improve electricity access in rural communities, to BanQu, a software technology that connects refugees and the world’s poorest to the global economy through digital identity.

Unlike traditional RFPs, these initial submissions were published openly online. Initially, they are very rudimental, often no longer than one or two pages. In the coming months, the applicants will go through a process in which they refine their ideas in collaboration with a global community, which includes the other participants, experts from GHR foundation and IDEO, and leading experts in their own fields. Through this process, we encourage participants to collaborate from an early stage, allowing for iterations and interactions, which often lead to long-term collaboration after the challenge. 

The prize for the top ideas thus goes beyond the financial reward of a share of $1M in funding and a partnership with GHR, but participants also gain visibility, learn about design thinking for social innovation, and collaborate with others—important assets necessary to tackle complex, global challenges.

The process is beneficial to funders too. It allows them to quickly source diverse perspectives and map the innovation landscape on a topic. They’ll get to know prospective grantees better than through an RFP, by seeing how applicants incorporate feedback and iterate, in real-time. The process also enables other funders to connect with the participating organizations, and potentially fund ideas that are outside the scope of GHR Foundation. Rather than be hidden on the hard drives of a single grantmaker, the knowledge gathered through the challenge process will remain open and accessible for other funders to access at any time.

In the case of the BridgeBuilder Challenge, our objective is not just to find and foster the best ideas, but also to advance the mindset of the participants. In the words of GHR Foundation CEO Amy Goldman: “This open challenge allows us to find solutions we’d otherwise never discover, and aims to inspire more organizations to innovate by developing bridge building concepts.”

In the past six years OpenIDEO has learned a lot about bringing open innovation to the grant giving process, but our quest to reinvent the social sector’s operating system is far from over. We’re currently exploring how the ecosystems we build can be nurtured for the long term, and how to better unlock and share the power of what is learned in the process.

And we don’t want to do that in isolation! We hope you’ll join us:

  • Submit an idea or help spread word of the BridgeBuilder Challenge (deadline is April 14!).
  • If you’re a funder, sign up here for a behind-the-scenes call to hear our insights from the Challenge.
  • Share your insights on a new operating system for the social sector in the comments below!

About the author(s)

Managing Director