Can Open Innovation address more wide-ranging issues than those simply relating to the development of products and services for sale? Experts at the Suez Group and Poult Holding, who have come up with the concept of Social Open Innovation, certainly think so.

[Convergences World Forum] “Social Open Innovation Turns R&D into ‘Connect and Develop’”

Joint interview with Jean-François Caillard, Director of Innovation at Suez Environnement, and Jérôme Introvigne, Innovation Director at the Poult Group, on the sidelines of the workshop they ran on Social Open Innovation at the Convergences World Forum 2013, held in Paris on 17-19 September.

L'Atelier: Why has your company embarked on what you call Social Open Innovation?

Jean-François Caillard: Well, as far as we’re concerned, in the water industry we were already practising Social Open Innovation long before the term was coined. Our working methodology aims at creating relationships based on knowledge transfer. We’re now taking this further by carrying out our work in tandem with the community in order to ensure things work properly in the long term. For us Social Open Innovation means reaching out to external collaborators, whether we’re talking about exchanging technology with startups or exchanging ideas with customers and users. Instead of investing in startups, we prefer to work alongside them, collaborating on testing out technology. This interactive dynamic helps us to stay highly responsive to our markets.

Jérôme Introvigne: The way we see it is basically that the company of the future will be ‘open’, so you already need to be innovating constantly, especially when it comes to spotting disruptive innovations. Most of the skills that we need to build the future are external to the company. It’s therefore easier to collaborate with external providers than to contemplate hiring every person whose skills we’re likely to need. In a way, we’re no longer doing ‘Research and Development’ in the strict sense of the term, it’s more a case of ‘Connect and Develop’. We’re trying to connect up the largest and most diverse ecosystem possible in order to attain the greatest possible innovation capability.

L'Atelier: Does having a large number of people involved really help to foster innovation in the wider sense, or is it about focusing on new types of innovation, such as ‘frugal’ innovation as opposed to more complex innovation?

Jean-François Caillard: For us, Social Open Innovation implies more of a client-centred approach, whether we’re talking about the need to adapt, to develop, to be transparent, etc. Our approach is based on our company working in broad concertation with our customers and primarily building new partnerships that enable us to get more involved with community governance. We shape our contractual relationships in line with society’s needs – whether that means frugal innovation or more complex innovation. We do have partnerships with startups, of course, but we’ve also set up long-term collaborative programmes with third-party laboratories to work on much weightier issues such as desalination and recycling plastics.

Jérôme Introvigne: Whether complex or frugal, Social Open Innovation as a methodology doesn’t change; it’s only the implementation that changes. Social Open Innovation is more a set of values than a technique – enabling public-private collaboration, calling on university students without any taboos, because business-related issues haven’t come into the equation at that point, first and foremost simply enabling collaboration between firms of different sizes and with differing outlook. Whether it’s a startup or a lab, our aim is not acquisition but partnership. And it’s particularly useful for startups since we mobilise our ecosystem for them and in return, with their flexible approach, they make a useful contribution to what we do.

L'Atelier: Each of you represents a sizeable company. Do you think that this Social Open Innovation approach is feasible without the support of a major firm which has the administrative capability and the experience necessary to draw everything together and steer the projects?

Jean-François Caillard: It’s clear to me that it isn’t necessary to involve a major company. We’ve seen many examples of small social enterprises which have been very successful in social innovation. We were certainly among the first to go this route but it isn’t the exclusive province of large firms. All the methods we’ve been talking about can be applied whatever the size of the company.

Jérôme Introvigne: It’s certainly feasible. All the tools are available at very low cost. Setting up a company network to get all the parties to work together doesn’t have to cost more than an online server and an email system. Of course if the company is very small, then the public authorities might not go along with the project, but basically the only skill that Social Open Innovation requires is project management!

By Quentin Capelle