30th May 2014

GeoVation Alumni – why it’s got serious heritage


A round table on Open Innovation Challenges


GeoVation alumni Round table 1

Today’s Guest blog is from Quentin Johns. Quentin has been a Judge for Ordnance Survey’s Geovation Challenges and is the Head of Business Development  the Impact Hub Westminster. Quentin has a degree in Social Anthropology from Sussex University. Quentin chaired a round table panel discussion compiled by  Ordnance Survey’s GeoVation team and the Impact Hub Westminster, hosted after the GeoVation Alumni event.

Open Innovation challenges are becoming a bit of a thing these days.

As far back as the Victorian times (and probably long before) prizes and competitions have spurred innovation. From 1839 to 1939 the Royal Agricultural Society of England used what we would now label ‘open innovation challenges’ to encourage technological advances in  farming in the UK. More recently though there has been somewhat of a boom in this area.

Take for example Unilever, the multinational ever-present peddler of everything; on their web page they have a “Challenges and Wants” page. Here they publicly announce topics, problems and conundrums that they wish to find solutions, innovations and ingenious thinkers in and it works.

There is also the UK governments £4m pot of money for technological health solutions or probably more prominently the X-Prize Foundation awarded a $10 million prize for suborbital spaceflight in 2004. And, most recently the Longitude Prize 2014, a £10 million prize fund challenge to help solve one of the greatest issues of our time developed by Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board.

These are all wonderful examples of Open Innovation Challenges, the basic premise of these being:

In the UK (where the Royal Agricultural Society championed this technique in the 19th century) we are fast adopting these tactics again, but with a slightly new twist, we are trying to use this tried tested and engaging process to solve social, economic and environmental problems.

That’s why on Thursday the 15 of May 2014, as a conclusion to a day helping introduce the GeoVation Alumni to the support network based at Impact Hub Westminster, some serious players in the world of social open innovation were invited to sit on our panel. We only thought it fair that they too partake in some open innovation across their own sector.  That’s how we ended up sat down having a very frank discussion about what they had learned from running these challenges, and more importantly, what they thought the future best practice of open innovation challenges might look like.

Present that evening we were very pleased to have the following people present:


GeoVation alumni Round table 2


After everyone had introduced themselves we discussed briefly what each of us was currently working on. This alone was extremely enlightening, I have included links to all the relevant projects or the participants websites next to their names. We then moved on to discuss the learning’s each person had from their own experiences. When for me it became really interesting though was when people shared their weaknesses or where they wanted to improve their programmes for the future. We heard some common themes start to emerge from the conversations. These are the key points I picked up from that discussion.

Both Alison at Solve and Ed from Nesta spoke of their desire to measure the impact of their challenges and that this they were almost sure was through a narrative structure, although exactly what that looked like hadn’t emerged yet.

GeoVation alumni Round table 2


Carlos from Data Science London and Chris from GeoVation both talked about finding more support for the winners of their challenges. This included funding, incubation and further learning and mentoring opportunities to scale their ventures.

Roland expressed a desire (through his very fun birthday game) for each of the challenges to be more open about their own needs and to then help each other more with finding the
collaborations/connections/contacts that will help the projects succeeded.

Chris also articulated very well the importance of focusing on well researched problems worth solving and the need for the larger social challenge community to communicate more openly about what they are working on so that they could join more of the dots before they planned the challenges.

The GeoVation Alumni also brought some very through provoking items to the session:

Sam from OpenPlay raised the issue about many challenges being closed to private initiatives  and only open to not for profit organisations, such as charities, (which these days, have to run at profit) and pointed out that GeoVation is open to all, for example.

Richard of AR Carbon highlighted the issue of the tight criteria people see as innovation, limiting people again to accessing other funding sources. Richard pointed out that low-tech doesn’t mean it’s not innovative.

The major conclusions that I walked away with from the discussion were:

I think that the most important learning of the evening was that by providing spaces like the one created by the GeoVation Team that evening, what we actually do is create more conversation. I am a strong believer that proximity breeds collaboration and whether any future collaborations happen, perhaps on the next GeoVation Challenge for example, or whether they don’t, I think everyone present felt more capable of picking up the phone or dropping an email to each other, it may only be a pigeon step towards more open collaboration themselves, but that’s how every great journey starts right?

Quentin Johns
Impact Hub Westminster
Business Development