Today’s social, economic, and environmental global challenges ask for radically different ways of working in order to transition towards a more sustainable society. The current systems that our society has been built on are increasingly under pressure. Differently put, we can no longer rely only on optimizing these systems and instead we need to be searching for radical alternatives [1
]. So far, governments seem unable to cope with these challenges and are looking for new ways for innovation [2
]. The fact that public sector organizations are oftentimes ‘silo’-structured and generally defined by top-down, closed, hierarchical processes negatively affects the innovative possibilities within and beyond the boundaries of the organization [2
]. Therefore, governments are increasingly looking for different governance mechanisms that open up this process by including interaction with citizens [3
]. Almirall and colleagues [4
] even state that the public sector has already largely adopted open innovation processes, mainly on the city level.
In the current work, we elaborate upon open innovation in urban contexts, with a focus on sustainability. Hence, cities put a great pressure on the world’s energy and material resources, and in this way, cities negatively influence its sustainability [5
]. Moreover, cities are vulnerable for climate disasters and environmental risks, such as floods and strong weather, since they are oftentimes located close to riverbanks or coasts due to economic reasons [6
]. To become more sustainable, cities need to adapt to possible climate changes and work towards creating desirable futures [7
]. Addressing sustainability in the city level requires an understanding of complex systems and the way they develop; to achieve it, an integrated approach is needed where, for instance, social and political systems are also taken into account [8
]. Fortunately, cities also offer many opportunities for innovation [5
] and consequently, cities can be referred to as “places where creative problem-solving flourishes” [9
]. Cities are identified to a greater extent as “strategic arenas for climate change action”, not only in the 2015 Paris Agreement for Climate Action, but also by several mayors of large cities like Paris, Rome, and New York [10
]. By successfully addressing these issues on a local scale, cities can have impact on a global scale by inspiring other projects elsewhere [5
]. This requires an ongoing conversation between the different actors, disciplines, and cultures that are working in that same area [9
] and, therefore, a participatory way of working is needed to combine both bottom-up and top-down innovation processes through creating co-creative partnerships [1
]. In the next section, we dive deeper in the concept of open innovation to scope its relevance in the public realm.
The Concept of Open Innovation
Open innovation finds its origin in the corporate context. Consequently, most literature on open innovation describes the concept from a business context. The shift towards open innovation can be defined as accelerating an organization’s internal innovation processes by purposively using external knowledge and the outflow of internal knowledge [11
]. In keeping with Chesbrough, an open innovation business model creates value from both internal and external ideas and creates internal mechanisms to claim a portion of that value [11
]. Without going in too much detail, three types of open innovation can be distinguished: (1) outside-in, (2) inside-out, and (3) coupled processes [3
]. With the first type, resources outside the firm are incorporated inside the organization. Doing inside-out innovation means to put resources from within the firm outside its own boundaries. In the third process, the first two are combined by working with partners and stakeholders that are complementary to each other [3
]. Obviously, open innovation in the private and in the public sector is different in many ways. While open innovation in the private sector usually has new product development as a main goal, open innovation in the public sector generally focuses on improving service performance and creating public value [3
]. Other motives that drive open innovation in the public sector are to reduce expenses, to let citizens participate in decision-making processes, or to advance economic circumstances for civilians [4
]. Furthermore, open innovation is not often defined as a nationwide strategy, although most countries are experimenting with the concept in creating a separate unit or department for it [3
Even though open innovation strategies have emerged in corporates, open innovation is also increasingly referred to in literature as a new way of governance to tackle sustainability challenges (e.g., [2
]). We, therefore, elaborate upon the three different types of open innovation mentioned before and discuss how these can also be better framed in the public sector context. Exemplary outside-in open innovation strategies for the public sector can be found in the concept of citizen sourcing [13
], which is defined as “the act of taking a task that is traditionally performed by a designated public agent (usually a civil servant) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an ‘open call’.” Hilgers and Ihl [12
] distinguish three levels of open innovation in the public sector. As a first tier, ‘citizen ideation and innovation’ has been introduced, where citizens are involved through ideation and innovation challenges through online platforms to utilize the creativity and knowledge of the crowd. The second tier is referred to as ‘collaborative administration’, which means that common administrative tasks are improved through involving external actors in a systematic way. The third and final tier is entitled ‘collaborative democracy’, where larger groups of people are involved in policy making and implementation processes.
Other examples of open innovation in the public sector that next to outside-in also address inside-out open innovation strategies can be found in the literature on collaborative innovation [2
]. Here, collaborative innovation refers to an opened-up innovation process, where “actors from within the organization, other organizations, the private and third sector, and citizens are integrated into the innovation cycle (idea generation, selection, implementation, and diffusion) from the earliest stage onwards” [2
]. At the basis of this strategy is the assumption that actively involving different types of stakeholders with both tangible and intangible assets “will increase the quantity and quality of innovations”. In addition, Lee, Hwang and Choi [3
] describe a similar concept, citizen-centered governance, where a collaborative network of citizen experts is harnessed by the government to deal with problems more rapidly and precisely. They highlight that these networks can be both government-led and community-led.
Thirdly, examples of coupled processes can be found where it is not straightforward inside-out of outside-in, but where stakeholders are complementary to each other. Urban Living Labs (ULLs) elaborate upon open innovation at the urban scale, while deliberately including the civil society in co-creation processes. Differently put, ULLs [13
] can be seen as a coupled process and have the aim to experiment and collaborate within an “open innovation ecosystem” between different stakeholders in a specific socio-spatial context. ULLs can be initiated bottom-up or top-down and are aiming to co-create with governmental stakeholders, educational institutions, corporates, and citizens (the quadruple helix) [13
]. In an elaborate study, Puerari and colleagues [13
] distinguish different levels of stakeholder involvement in co-creation processes: a core group, the inner circle, and the outer circle. The first level has the most intense co-creation, the most frequent interaction and has a formalized form of cooperation. The next group is actively involved in co-creation, has regular communication and a mix of formal and informal collaboration. The outer circle only passively co-creates, has sporadic interactions and the collaboration is more spontaneous. A ULL can be targeting one of the groups more or less for collaboration and co-creation. ULLs can be valuable for both municipalities, to expand their capacities, as well for active citizens, who can better express their voice in urban innovation and decision making processes. In similar vein, Almirall and his colleagues [4
] propose an integrated eco-systems approach to manage external sources of innovation, in which both the competitive market and collaborative community are addressed. The competitive market has more formal relationships, is more profit-oriented and there is less sharing between stakeholders in the process. The collaborative community, on the other hand, shows more casual relations, more sharing among parties and a broader range of (intrinsic and extrinsic) motivations [4
]. In this way, different stakeholders with their own motivations and skills can be accounted for better. Almirall and colleagues [4
] distinguish six types of open innovation used simultaneously in different city governments: (1) open data, (2) hackathons and application development contests, (3) crowdsourcing, (4) embedded change agents, (5) urban labs, and (6) civic accelerators. Some of these types are overlapping with earlier described concepts of open innovation and are more typical inside-out or outside-in innovation, while other types such as urban labs and civic accelerators show a more coupled process. Almirall et al. [4
] seem to have the business context as their reference, since they explain what businesses can learn from civic open innovation. Consequently, their contribution remains on product level and stresses the value of technological innovations and does not elaborate on the value of open innovation to drive societal and/or political change and how open innovation can contribute to the development of sustainable cities.
To summarize, many authors have proposed open innovation strategies for the public sector, and these strategies are being used on different levels of government. While some strategies focus on a national level and aim to include as much participants as possible, other strategies focus on a local level, stressing the diversity and quality of urban stakeholders. Moreover, a difference between the proposed strategies can be found in the type of interactions, ranging from digital interactions between government and citizens (citizensourcing) to using intermediaries (partly in integrated eco-systems approach) or face-to-face interactions in co-creative sessions (hackathons or ULLs). Lastly, the quality of the exchange of resources differs as well. In some initiatives, there is one leading party (usually the government) collecting multiple resources (e.g., ideas, time, knowledge) as a way to improve their own public services, while in other initiatives the input from the different participants is more equal. To tackle wicked problems such as creating sustainable cities, not only technological innovation is needed, but also a societal change, in which open innovation can be a helpful strategy as all levels of society can be involved in the innovation process. In general, the value of open innovation is usually explained from the perspective of the company or organization that is initiating the open innovation and that aims to improve its own products or services by inviting other companies, citizens or public sector in their innovation process. However, in the current work, we stress the inclusion of the civil society as the main objective is to innovate society as a whole. We, therefore, elaborate on open innovation strategies for sustainable urban living that address these societal challenges. We conclude that coupled processes are most valuable in transitioning towards more sustainable cities; it requires a variety of partners that are complementary to each other and are (more) equally contributing to and participating in these elaborate processes. However, we also envisage that a more fine-grained understanding is needed to define open innovation strategies for the public sector that can be used to tackle wicked societal problems, like strengthening a city’s approach towards sustainability.
The main aim of the current work is to gain a more fine-grained understanding of open innovation strategies that can be valuable for transitioning towards sustainable urban living and elaborate upon the role of the public sector, while including the civil society.
In the remainder, we move from theory to practice and explore what open innovation strategies are used on a city level that contribute to sustainability in the city. The city of Rotterdam, well-known for its rich variety in actions towards sustainability has been chosen as context of study. The next section describes the method and further details on the research context; the city of Rotterdam and its vision on sustainability issues. This vision is illustrated through seven exemplary initiatives. These initiatives highlight urban innovation with an ambition of tackling societal issues related to sustainability, think CO2 emissions reduction, air quality or flood management. The results show a variety of challenges these examples are tackling as well as the different formations of stakeholders that took place in these examples. In the discussion, open innovation strategies are described, which the municipality of Rotterdam can use in opening up these innovation niches to other stakeholders in their innovation processes, while aiming for societal impact and to become a more sustainable city.