How do you get a whole nation thinking about the challenges which lie ahead of it?
How can you help a community to solve seemingly intractable problems?
Which institutions need to be part of the discussion about society’s future directions?
I visited Norway this week to speak and run a workshop at the national library conference, #biblkonf2018. I asked these questions, and more, with a focus on how libraries might serve the innovation agenda articulated by Norway’s innovation agency, Innovasjon Norge. (You can see slides from the keynote here).
Today I want to focus on one idea, which comes from the work of the British innovation agency Innovate UK. In a 2017 blog, the agency’s David Hytch describes the Offshore Wind Innovation Exchange, an initiative designed to help problems associated with generating electricity using offshore wind turbines.
For example, what do you do about the erosion of turbine blades’ leading edge?
You might not be an offshore wind generation expert, but perhaps you know something about materials, or the climate, or the sea, or physics, or data, or processes, which could help address this issue.
If only there was a way for the wider community to know the problem was out there, many perspectives could be brought to bear on finding a solution.
The Offshore Wind Innovation Exchange (OWiX) programme has a simple process:
- The problem owner chooses two real challenges that would benefit its business if solved.
- The challenges are translated from an industry specific form to a general challenge.
- The generic challenges are promoted to alternative sectors through a call for ideas.
- The businesses with the best solutions are introduced to the problem owners and therefore given the opportunity to enter a new supply chain through direct access to the end customer.
Now imagine extending that approach to national innovation challenges and opportunities, of the kind articulated in Innovasjon Norge’s “Dream Commitment” – a vision statement for the future of a country which must consider life after the exhaustion of its oil reserves.
What would the Norwegian Library Innovation Exchange look like?
- Norway’s innovation agency would identify two real challenges in Norway’s future.
- The challenges would be translated from an industry specific form to a general challenge.
- The general challenges would be promoted to alternative sectors via the public library network, with Norway’s librarians convening events, encouraging dialogue, reaching out to users, and developing partnerships within their local communities to address the challenges.
- Innovasjon Norge would evaluate the solutions and share the best responses with the problem owners, connecting the nation’s brightest ideas with its most pressing problems.
This approach might lead to new business opportunities: around the world, libraries focussed on start-ups and entrepreneurship have provided a space for budding business leaders to “stand up before they start up“, in the words of Australian library leader Jane Cowell. Libraries offer an easy first port of entry to entrepreneurship and innovation for all sectors of the community.
This approach might also help to transform the notion of innovation in an age when innovation agencies are reviewing their missions and considering how inclusive they are.
Traditionally, innovation agencies have focussed on trade and technology, but Innovasjon Norge’s priorities also include health, tourism, and creative development. What if the challenges were drawn from these sectors? What perspective would Norway’s thousands of information professionals bring? What other communities, traditionally untouched by the innovation agency, would the libraries’ network reach?
A small-scale experimental innovation exchange with one region or a large library service would help to test the model. If it worked, it could be extended nationally or internationally. Professor Mariana Mazzucato’s 2018 report for the European Union, “Mission-Oriented Research and Innovation“, emphasises the need to find bold, cross-sectoral missions across nations and communities which enable bottom up solutions and experimentation. A Library Innovation Exchange could provide vital informational & engagement infrastructure for such a mission.
And of course, this Library Innovation Exchange need not only be Norwegian. Many nations have innovation agencies, and public library networks; all communities have difficult future challenges ahead.
There is a huge and untapped opportunity here. How can libraries of all kinds – including the public branches located in many communities – extend the reach of innovation agendas, engage new people in innovation dialogue, and help every community to find and develop the bright ideas it needs to face the world to come?