To the moon and back – how collaboration drives breakthrough innovation

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” This quote supposedly coined by Henry Ford has never been truer than what it is today. The greater the challenge, the bigger the need for multi-disciplinary collaboration. President Kennedy famously initiated Project Apollo not only because of the American ideological and geopolitical race against the Soviets but also because he wanted to create a national project so big, that it could only be solved through seamless cooperation of a vast amount of organizations and brilliant minds from across society. Some years later, 1969, man landed on the Moon (and got back safely) and in the process of this human spaceflight program emerged a number of life-changing unintended innovations, such as water purification, breathing masks, polymer fabric, and cordless devices.

Today, ecosystems, platforms, collaboration, and network effects are some of the key words on the lips of researchers and practitioners alike globally. While the forms and stakeholders involved in business ecosystems are likely to be different, it is generally recognized that networking across disciplines and sectors is needed for innovation and future business resilience. Although they all have their own specific roles to play, the lines between businesses, public sector institutions, and third-sector organizations are blurring and all stakeholders including higher education are increasingly positioning themselves as part of society. 

Organizations are no longer only comparing themselves in relation to their respective competitive environments. Many argue that we are witnessing the dawn of a new era in the interaction between businesses and their stakeholders and societies. The list of examples is long and growing: the Financial Times initiative to redefine capitalism; the Business Roundtable stance on the roles of companies in relation to their stakeholders; the European Commission initiated University Business Cooperation programs to foster societal innovation and entrepreneurship; the Science Based Targets Initiative developed by the UN and citizen organisations to support companies in their emission reduction pledges.

It is generally recognized that networking across disciplines and sectors is needed for innovation and future business resilience.

New markets and business platforms emerge as a reaction to this new era and are powered by opportunities provided by digitalization and scalable technologies. This development is driving all organizations to rethink their strategies and visions through strategic partnerships. As a consequence, we are witnessing closer collaboration between business and academic stakeholders. Companies are turning to universities for crowdsourcing and innovation ventures together with multidisciplinary research teams. Similarly, researchers and scientists are looking for relevance in their research and access to in-depth market data.

A recent EU-funded project indicated that university-business collaboration initiatives foster the strategic mission of universities; provide a closer connection between education, research and innovation; respond to the evolving needs of the labour market; improve the quality of human resources, and facilitate the flow of knowledge transfer from universities to companies, regions and society at large. My own collaboration with large companies and research centres in Finland such as the KONE Corporate, Fiskars Group and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland support these findings. As Senator Fulbright – the initiator of the Fulbright program for international exchange – put it: “Of all the joint ventures in which we might engage, the most productive, in my view, is educational exchange”. Being a Fulbright alumnus myself from the University of Massachusetts, I can certainly concur with the importance of educational exchange between different, sometimes unplanned connections.

50 years after Apollo we are again confronted with a daunting task – combat the effects of climate change, and rethink and redesign the ways in which we go about our daily lives. This can only be done by mimicking the collaborative and concentrated efforts five decades ago. Successful innovators ask new kinds of questions, seek actively for new types of collaboration forms, and look broadly for new forms of impact. Curious and collaboration-seeking researchers and business leaders will play a pivotal role in the change ahead.

My best collaboration wishes for the New Year and many inspiring new ventures!

Kristina Heinonen
Professor, Director of CERS