Innovation brokerage is the activity of connecting ideas, people, organisations, and communities to enable and support the innovation process. Working with Nesta and 100%Open, we developed a framework to better understand innovation brokerage and how emerging digital technologies are changing how it’s done.
Nesta have been exploring new methods for supporting innovation so that they can help individuals, organisations, and governments increase their ability to innovate. As part of this, they wanted to understand how emerging digital technologies might transform our ability to broker more effective innovation collaborations.
To investigate this area, we worked with 100%Open, an innovation broker. Our collaboration culminated in a report and a database of relevant tools aimed at organisations, such as governments, who want to get better at using digital tools to broker innovation collaborations.
One of our main aims was to provide clarity in a fragmented and complex field. There are many different terms for innovation brokerage, and many different fields of study and practice that bear on it. We started by developing a definition of innovation brokerage:
Innovation brokerage is the activity of connecting ideas, people, organisations, and communities to enable and support the innovation process.
One challenge we had with this definition was avoiding it becoming so all-encompassing that anything that connects two things or people together can be classed as innovation brokerage. For this reason, we focussed the definition on people and ideas.
We also developed a model of the innovation brokerage process that includes four phases: Prepare, Search, Align, and Support.
|Phase||Description||Digital tech applications|
|Prepare||The broker helps innovators understand what they are looking for.||
|Search||The broker helps innovators find what they are looking for.||
|Align||The broker helps innovators establish trust and align their motives, culture, and working practices so they can collaborate effectively.||
|Support||The broker supports the innovators to make the relationship a success in the long run.||
These phases describe the process an innovation broker might go through in helping an innovator build a collaboration. They also act as a categorisation system for different types of brokerage tools, as these usually focus on just one or two phases rather than all four. The phases aren’t strict sequential steps; an innovator may jump between phases and can take on more than one phase at once. Similarly, a broker may work in more than one of these phases.
Developing this framework helped us see that brokerage involves a lot more than just searching for collaborators. Experts and practitioners told us that the greatest challenges are often around achieving alignment between collaborators and supporting them in the long run. These phases (Align and Support) are also the most difficult phases to address through digital tools.
As part of our research, we gathered around 150 examples of digital innovation brokerage tools and categorised them by phase. We found that there were many more examples in the Search phase than in the other three. From looking at the relative strengths of digital technologies compared with humans when it comes to searching for information, this made a lot of sense. The creative thinking and relationship-building in the Prepare, Align, and Support phases made them more challenging places for digital technologies to have an impact, at least for now.
The table below outlines each phase's potential for digitisation. While there remain many tasks for which digital technologies are currently unsuitable, this is changing as the technology improves.
|Prepare||Medium potential There are plausible technical options to help with analysing opportunities and trends. Internal crowdsourcing platforms can be used to co-create strategy. However, much of this phase will still rely on conversation and human analysis.|
|Search||High potential Search is already the phase with the most digital tools available, and this makes sense given how much this phase is about processing information. This trend is likely to hold as search technologies continue to improve.|
|Align||Low potential The Align phase is largely about developing good relationships, and is thus very dependent on human skills. These challenges mean this phase may also present the biggest opportunities for technology to make an impact in the longer term since the field is still relatively open.|
|Support||Medium potential While a lot of the Support phase is likely to continue to rely on human skills, providing structures for coordination and some support with implementation seems amenable to digitisation given trends in emerging technologies.|
To help ground the framework and make our research transparent, we also designed and built an online database of all the innovation brokerage tools we found. The database allows people to search for tools by characteristics such as phase of innovation brokerage, technology involved, and location. Anyone interested in this topic can download, analyse, and build on the data we've shared, and can suggest additional innovation brokerage tools to add to the shared resource.
Most of the time, brokerage is nearly invisible. People tend to be much more familiar with innovators than with the people who connect them. This includes brokers themselves. Over the course of this project, we spoke with many people doing 'innovation brokerage' across different fields, unaware of the similarities in what they were doing. One of the more exciting aspects of this project was bringing these people together and sharing a framework they could use to talk to each other about their work.
Studying innovation brokerage also helped us realise that we do a lot of innovation brokerage ourselves. On the Good Problems team, we bring together different types of people – researchers, practitioners, entrepreneurs and funders – to develop programmes that support impactful innovations. Along the way, we often help clients through all four of the innovation brokerage phases. Working on this project led us to reflect on our role in the innovation ecosystem and on how we can use emerging digital tools to not only find valuable collaborators, but also to nurture difficult conversations or sustain relationships in the long term. We look forward to seeing how this rapidly evolving field will enhance the capabilities of the funders we work with and the innovators they support.
If you need to make sense of a complex and rapidly changing field, get in touch – we’d love to work together!
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