Our experience with The Future Of programs – Partnership research beyond the industry-research couple (1/2)
Diversifying its research and development partners is crucial. This is the key ingredient of a successful innovation process. Everyone knows that, but it’s not that easy to do.
The problems are known (actors with divergent interests, not the same vocabulary, not the same time horizons…), the solutions a little less so. There are countless conferences and webinars that attempt to answer the central question: how to innovate successfully when the partners are very diverse?
Since 2016, at SoScience, we have been setting up multi-stakeholder innovation programs. We have had failures and successes. We iterated on many topics. From the valorization of biomass in an industrial environment to the environmental health approach applied to pandemics.
We designed and managed 13 sector programs that brought together nearly 400 actors. On each program, we bring together industrial groups, researchers and actors from civil society. Our unique methodology allows these actors to collaborate successfully: we are at the origin of a hundred such collaborations.
Here I tell you about our experiences, the good and the less good, and above all I give you the tips that will be useful to you! Creating impactful partnership research cannot be improvised. Enjoy the most comprehensive review on this unique program.
BIRTH AND EVOLUTION OF THE FUTURE OF PROGRAMS
During the creation of SoScience, we discussed with many industrial groups and research institutions on their valorization strategy to have a societal impact. We very quickly made a major observation. To adapt to industrial and social transitions, to planetary constraints and limits, research actors and large companies must transform the way they work.
One of our historical partners, the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), was in a real institutional reflection on this subject. The whole question that arises is how to change innovation practices to better meet the Sustainable Development Goals? At the IRD, the answer lies in the diversification of partners: “From 2015, we have a multi-actor positioning in the institutional strategy. Today, this is also the case in scientific strategy.” reminds us of Alexandre Bisquerra, in the Innovation and Valorization Department of the IRD.
At SoScience, we agree. We have a strong hypothesis: to respond to social and environmental issues, it is absolutely necessary to create a bridge between the world of societal impact and that of research and its development.
The Future Of (TFO) program is the first tool we have developed to do this.
1) START WITH THE KEY ISSUE: PARTICIPANT DIVERSITY
At the time, a number of observations emerged:
- bringing together diverse actors boosts creativity and innovation
- social and environmental issues cannot be addressed without involving civil society
- manufacturers are more and more open to looking for solutions outside their walls
- researchers want to commit to solutions for the transition but find it difficult to find the right partners
All the ingredients are there to create multi-stakeholder consortia at the service of the transition!
But if it was that easy, everyone would have done it by now. Besides, there are a large number of attempts. Incubators, schools, open labs, everyone has their own program or idea.
In practice, the results are inconclusive. Denis Guyonnet, Scientific & Innovation Director at Diana, observes: “Open innovation is a very overused term. With incubators, you only have start-ups; with universities, only academics. The initiatives are bilateral. It is very rare to be able to exchange with all the relevant actors. TFO programs are really open innovation, it becomes very concrete. We can bring together a very varied set of actors across the entire value chain. The added value is there.”
So how did we do it?
At SoScience, I had an experience in 2015 that gave me clues about the problem. I am in the Netherlands, invited to a conference on responsible innovation. I see a presentation of the national agency that funds research and innovation. The latter recounts an attempt at partnership research with civil society actors, which failed. She wanted to bring together industrial players, researchers, civil society organizations and citizens around the same table to talk about the energy transition. The subject had first been defined with knowledgeable people: researchers and industrial groups. The invitation sent to civil society actors was already well framed. The subject was worked on upstream and the major technological directions chosen. It was therefore proposed to citizens to come and bring grist to the mill and enrich the process. However, no civil society organization accepted the invitation. Nobody is moving. The agency is distraught and on the verge of concluding that citizens
- are not interested in the topic, or
- are inherently reluctant to work with the private sector
For me, the problem is elsewhere. I have extensively exchanged with associations and social entrepreneurs. I have noticed that these actors do not want to “go after” or “serve as a guarantee” without at any time being placed at the heart of the research and innovation process.
When we decide to launch our own program, we pay particular attention to:
- attract various players, and to do this speak to everyone. We always approach the process through the social or environmental issue, never through a technological choice that has already been made.
- put everyone on the same level. Everyone can bring their piece to the building, there is not one brick more important than another to make a house that stands up. In our programs, all types of actors are integrated into the process on an equal footing.
We are in 2016, we are launching our first TFO.
The theme: food, and in particular new sources of protein. We manage to mobilize widely. Our speech, humble and accessible, hits the mark. We have in our participants Mark Post, academic researcher, the spawn of artificial meat. But also, Algama, a rising start-up, which has become essential today on the subject of algae, or EntoMove, a citizen project around the consumption of insects. The appetite of people to meet is immense. The participants are delighted. They want to continue the discussions. On the SoScience side, we focused on connecting actors who do not have the opportunity to meet, to exchange freely. We hadn’t thought about the aftermath. In last minute, we create a LinkedIn group to keep the conversations alive. But without dedicated human resources, the experience does not last long. Without given perspectives, these formats will remain what they are: beautiful encounters.
We made a small feat by bringing these actors together from scratch, but we are not satisfied.
We put the work back on the job.
2) WE MEET AND AFTER?
At the end of 2016 we launched our The Future Of Water program in partnership with the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) . The IRD was indeed one of the pioneers to embark on multi-actor open innovation programs within the French research landscape.
The effectiveness of the program on diversity is still there: for Alexandre Bisquerra, “these programs allow us to find the right relays and the right actors to integrate into the collaborations. We are also expanding our stakeholders, particularly with players in the social and solidarity economy.” The methodology also makes it possible to bring in identified actors that the institution is unable to mobilize for lack of a framework or appropriate tools: “On the theme of urban agriculture, the TFO gave us the framework to bring together actors that we would not have managed to attract without it.”
But once the right actors are in the play, how do you get them to collaborate?
We are repositioning our tools to create consortia! Our objective: we will not leave the meeting day without the participants having formulated potential collaborations. It works beyond our expectations: in less than a day we get 102 intentions to collaborate for 38 participants! Some groups form in consortia. Our collaboration creation tools are working.
Unfortunately, we realize very quickly that, even formalized, collaborations are difficult to achieve if they are not supported.
In 2017-2018, we are reworking the format again for our program The Future Of Waste, in collaboration with the industrial group Diana. The formula have worked well so we reproduce it. But this time, we are introducing an additional step: we are asking consortia to formalize their project on collaboration sheets. In return, the most promising projects will receive implementation support. Out of 110 desires to collaborate, we receive 20 structured sheets! We select 3 of these projects to ensure their launch. For Denis Guyonnet: “This type of program has real impacts: the resulting projects make it possible to remove obstacles that we were unable to overcome internally. It is these hyper-concrete outcomes that demonstrate the interest of the programs to R&D and innovation units of an industrial group.
3) PARTNERSHIPS FIRST, IP THEN
Over the years, this continuous improvement process has enriched our programs, with three clear objectives:
- The diversification of research and innovation partners. Our first goal is to meet actors who are not used to working together. Our consortia bring together industrial groups and researchers, but also associations, NGOs, branches of professionals, social entrepreneurs, players in the social and solidarity economy… For Denis Guyonnet, “this is where the real added value lies. Using SoScience selection criteria allows greater openness to a network of actors to which the industrialist does not have access.”
- Innovation objectives are impact and societal-oriented. We do not launch any theme that is not in direct response to social or environmental issues. Our methodology is designed for this. Despite our discussions with major manufacturers, with many technical or innovation issues, we refuse to launch programs without this objective. We keep our specificity, which has been the core of our expertise since 2014.
- Collaborations beyond the meeting. We do not conceive our programs as places of inspiration or debates only. Priority is given to the launch of prototypes, research projects and field actions. In short, we do not do events or communication. We launch projects, and deploy concrete actions between actors.
4) FINANCING, A “MUST-HAVE” OR A “NICE TO HAVE”?
Likewise, be careful not to project yourself – or project participants – too early in the search for funding. This type of program aims to create new collaborations to serve the challenges of transformation and transition. Remember the 3 objectives mentioned above! So be careful not to turn into a funding desk. It is indeed a tool allowing the emergence and structuring of projects.
You will tell me that no project can be launched without funding. It’s true! This is what the support offered to emerging collaborations is for. Raising funds is a second step, and SoScience teams – or the teams behind this type of program – can help projects with this. In our recent TFO One Health program, a new innovation has appeared on the initiative of our partner IRD. During the selection of the winning projects, funding opportunities and tools that correspond to the theme are presented. This further strengthens support for collaborative projects.
You will tell me again that it is impossible to mobilize busy actors if they are not sure of having funding at stake. Here it is false. We have done it and do it daily. The keys to success are (1) the alignment of stakeholders around a well-defined problem where everyone finds their interest and (2) participants who have a real desire to collaborate. The financing of consortia is important, but it comes after the “why” (the subject) and the “with whom” (the collaboration).
Denis Guyonnet agrees: “In industry, we want to move too quickly to actions in the field. However, on complex, multi-factorial, multi-actor subjects, the phase of calling on different actors is essential. It is necessary to identify the stakes of its theme, then to open widely. The time spent exchanging with a large panel actually saves time. Once the right players have been identified, everything moves so much faster.”
To summarize :
Phase I: the meeting
Phase II: the structuring of the partnership then the IP
Phase III: seeking additional funds
Taking the path in the right direction and without skipping steps is the best way to spare your horse. And above all, to ensure quality collaborations with fit participants (and not drained by endless conversations).
📣 In part (2/2) of the article I give you our learning in 7 key points.