Everybody has a role to play

Sustainable innovation, resilient innovation, and societally desirable innovation – if this sounds appealing to you, perhaps you should consider involving civil society in your innovation process.

Cross-sector collaborations in innovation – how to make them successful

Sometimes civil society steps up, takes initiative, and creates genius, resilient solutions. We have seen it before, and we are witnessing it again in the current Covid-19 crisis. People have 3D printed protective equipment in times of shortage. DIY ventilators have been built in short time. In other words, we see civil society taking steps to address societal needs and urgencies motivated by reasonings that seem to go beyond the logics of market, governance and academia.

Civil society can take part in innovation

Cross-sector collaboration between industry, academia and the public sector has long been endorsed as a means of providing solutions which are societally attractive and robust. As interest in Responsible Research and Innovation grows, so does the interest in involving civil society in such collaborations. Claims are that civil society is less occupied with profit, bureaucracy and research strategies and closer to the concerns, needs and interests of citizens and society.

Cross-sector collaborations can be challenging. We need more insights into how they work in practice. Which main challenges do they face, what works and what doesn’t? How do you actually succeed in cross-sector collaboration, particularly collaborations involving civil society?

The RiConfigure project was initialized to explore these questions and – through mutual learning, training and policy recommendations – to foster cross-sector collaboration, particularly including civil society, in innovation.

RiConfigure project provides practical advice on collaboration in innovation

If you see the potential in cross-sector collaboration, but need the tools and the routine to maintain this kind of collaboration, we in the RiConfigure project have good news. Based on results of our 54 existing cross sector collaborations, we have gathered some practical advice on how to make these collaborations a success.

Collaboration: do’s

  • Setting a goal – Define a very clear common goal for the collaboration that all partners agree on.
  • Structural tools – Establish a structure for the collaboration e.g. a steering group representing the partners, a secretariat responsible for the day to day operations, a plan with milestones, an agreement on meeting frequency or an online platform for communication and knowledge sharing.
  • Funding – Stable funding is necessary. This could be provided through public funding or private grants.
  • Building relations and trust – Social relations and trust between partners are essential, there is a need to meet in formal and informal settings in order to make cross-sector collaborations work.
  • Clear assignments and contracts – A common understanding and a legal framework regarding the activities, timeframe or roles in the project helps define the responsibilities and committing the partners.
  • Continuous shared reflection – Organizations belonging to different sectors have very different objectives, working cultures and languages. Recurring shared reflections can help align the partners’ understandings of the project and develop a shared reference framework.
  • Enabling contexts – Contexts underpinning civil society engagement, e.g. through funding opportunities, procedural requirements or outspoken strategies, are impactful.
  • Engaged individuals – Individual firebrands play an important role for the success of the collaboration, for example in overcoming potential barriers in the institutional setup.

Collaboration: don’ts

  • Lack of funding – Normally civil society does not possess the necessary funding for initiating or participating in cross sector collaborations.
  • Financial asymmetries – Economic asymmetry between the partners affects the power structure in the collaboration. This manifests itself in agenda setting, decision power and inclusion/exclusion from the collaboration.
  • Fear of inefficiency – Fear that involving civil society will slow down the innovation process due to lack of experience and routine often scares off the other partners from including civil society.
  • Lack of clear definition of civil society – A vague definition of civil society which includes everything from strong, resourceful civil society organizations to marginalized groups can obfuscate who to involve from civil society.
  • Lack of mandate or backing from organization – Collaboration among diverse actors may require organizational flexibility for each partner to work at the edge of their normal institutional practice and focus.
  • Lack of interest in collaboration – If involved partners e.g. managers are not interested and invested in the collaboration, the involvement of civil society can end up being a formal procedure rather than substantial engagement.
  • Traditional management tools and paradigms – The traditional way of managing projects does not sustain cross sector collaborations involving civil society.
  • Lack of national initiatives to support cross sector collaboration – There are no national public programs or strategies to support this kind of collaboration.