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Open innovation is a popular technique for coming up with breakthroughs to solve tough problems. A team of specialists in a single field will approach the problem in much the same way, leading to a finite list of possible solutions. Add in experts from different fields and the problem is opened up to much more diverse and creative thinking, and a much longer list of possible solutions.

A perfect example of this approach can be found in an article for Harvard Business Review. The author describes how a leading tech firm was tasked with designing a sensor to detect underwater pollutants at very small concentrations. A team of microchip experts was set up to tackle this complex problem. However, it was only when a marine biologist got involved that the breakthrough occurred. Planting a bag of clams onto the table, the biologist explained that clams open their shells when they detect pollutants at the levels the team was interested in. The solution, therefore, was to design a sensor that looks for clams opening rather than one to detect pollutants.

One of the great challenges of modern times, autonomous vehicle technology, is also benefitting from open innovation. In the news this week it was announced that Fiat has joined BMW’s self-driving car development programme. The programme, which also includes Intel and car parts maker Delphi, is aiming to become the blueprint for the technology.

The vast development costs and complex problem solving needed to bring this technology to market requires a wide range of expertise and huge resources. This is where open innovation comes in. The project, which already includes big names in engineering and technology, is expected to grow further after an open invitation was extended for other vehicle and tech companies to sign up.

It’s important to remember, however, that open innovation isn’t the solution to every problem. A tough but well-understood problem, such as extending the range of an electric vehicle battery by 30%, would benefit from a team of battery experts and most likely not from a marine biologist.

We’ll have to wait and see whether this programme and its focus on open innovation will lead to a breakthrough anytime soon. Autonomous vehicle technology remains a massive challenge in ways most of us will never understand. Maybe open innovation is the key to a breakthrough in these early stages of development.

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