Business leaders are aware that outdated approaches to innovation cannot guarantee success anymore, and when it comes to innovation they must act quickly, invest in more and more resources, and implement methods and tools that help employees become as creative, collaborate, productive and high-performing as possible to strengthen the organisation’s capability to innovate.
Corporates are not only looking to create in-house innovation arenas where they are able to support their highly creative thinkers, but they are also starting to turn their attention to innovation intermediaries which can help them connect to various actors of diverse and dynamic urban ecosystems to catalyse innovation and accelerate learning. The term urban innovation intermediary can be defined as “an organisation or body that acts as an agent or broker on any aspect of the innovation process between two or more parties”, in an urban context. There are countless forms of such innovation intermediary organisations from corporate R&D labs being open for the external innovation “crowd”, via facilitated innovation processes (aka innovation lab methods) to collaborative workplaces (coworking spaces, innovation hubs/lofts/garages and even FabLabs and maker spaces). Innovation intermediaries are relevant for corporates because: 1) they unlock the potential of customers’ business models, 2) facilitate outward and inward technology commercialisation, 3) connect innovation requests with potential innovation providers, 4) screen firms’ external market for potential start-ups, 5) segment customers’ needs, 6) foresee and diagnose technology markets, 7) facilitate internal knowledge processing, generation and combination, and 8) assist in articulating customers’ requirements.
All the above forms of urban innovation intermediaries have benefits and drawbacks, but to make a decision about which approach to choose, corporates must understand which intermediary is used for what, and must assess their honest reason for making such move by answering questions such as “What exactly do I want to achieve?”, “How concrete are the innovation challenges that I want to tackle?”, and “How much do I want to steer the innovation process?”. This brief article aims to provide some hints for corporates to decide which innovation intermediary could be the best fit considering the desired innovation outcome they wish to achieve.
Urban innovation intermediaries – which one is used for what?
In our previous article we have identified five types of innovation intermediaries, namely, hubs, coworking spaces, innovation labs, living labs and corporate R&D labs.
Originally being secured only for corporate R&D employees, the expansion of the open innovation paradigm has inspired companies to let external ideas flow in. Today, corporateR&D labs are usually open for employees from other departments and divisions, and even for various external actors such as innovative start-ups and even freelancers to work on particular projects. In such labs, researchers and developers are often encouraged to work even on their passion projects or become intrapreneurs.
According to our interpretation, hubs are collaboration platforms for positive change for those individuals and companies who strongly believe that the future of business is found in profit that serves both people and our planet, while coworking spaces are community-focused shared workspaces that enable collaboration, shared knowledge and mutual learning, and offer opportunities to reach commercial deals among coworkers (typically freelancers, entrepreneurs, start-ups). Many hubs and coworking spaces offer accelerator and incubator programmes that allow entrepreneurs, start-up teams and even corporate researchers to stimulate the creation of new scientific, technological or business initiatives in cooperative environments that forge new partnerships, facilitate flows and share of talent, resources and market knowledge while provide access to advisors and investors. Hubs and coworking spaces also offer various events, meetups and workshops that are open not only to their members but also to the public, which supports the cross-pollination of ideas even more. They also accommodate corporate teams from time to time to tackle particular challenges. One challenge corporate employees face is the uncreative, demotivated and disengaged attitude. Thus, corporates leaders are forced to find new ways to support their staff to become more creative, break old habits and routines, empower them to approach things differently, support “outside the box” thinking, encourage them to leave their comfort zone, etc. These can take the form of facilitated ideation sessions, bootcamps, hackatons, or longer team retreats (such as coworkation) where employees work on particular projects while attending interactive sessions and mingle with the start-up community.
Innovation labs are characterised by an ambition to address major pre-identified societal challenges, to create, elaborate, and prototype radical solutions, while targeting high impact. They bring together an unusual and wide range of participants, cutting across the boundaries of industries, professions, ages and cultures, to fuel collaborative innovation via rich innovation toolboxes.
Living Labs projects form networks of organisations, in which Living Lab initiatives have a crucial role in connecting diverse organisations and putting the right actor into the right place of the innovation chain while involving the end-user into the co-creation process. According to Hakkarainen and Hyysalo (2016), intermediation work in a Living Lab project consists of a range of tasks, including configuring of technology and use practices, brokering contacts and interactions between different actors, as well as facilitating their work, learning, and interactions.
Figure 1 wraps up the differences between innovation intermediaries by looking at the focus of the goal the initiative has been established for, and the impact the initiative intends to deliver while achieving that goal.
Considering the purpose side, hubs and innovation labs usually have a clear focus on the social aspects, while coworking spaces and corporate R&D labs are established mainly with the intention to obtain economic and financial benefits for their owner(s). Living Labs lie somewhere in between, especially when focusing on smart city solutions that aim to tackle broader environmental and social challenges. Regarding the goal of such organisational forms established for, hubs and coworking spaces are usually accommodated by single professionals and entrepreneurs, and so the intention for creating collective value (either business or social, or both) is primarily driven by individual goals (member goals). On the other hand, innovation labs, living labs and corporate R&D labs are set up or utilised to achieve an a priori defined goal like the development and launch of a new product or service, or a new concept or approach.
How to choose the right innovation intermediary?
Selecting the right innovation intermediary can depend on the type and complexity of problems or needs, whether the organisation searches for partners or solutions, and the extent of the intended collaboration amongst the collaborating actors.
To understand which innovation intermediary fit into which stage of the innovation process, we first briefly overview the stages of the innovation process, and then we make recommendations which intermediary fits in which stage of the innovation process.
Broadly speaking, the innovation process has three key stages: discovery, ideation and execution.
The Discovery stage involves looking for inspirational ideas that can be turned into value propositions and business opportunities. At this stage, structured and facilitated workshops, hackatons and bootcamps are particularly invaluable for organisations to take advantage of the energy and creativity of their employees, and collect as many ideas as possible and identify which of them is promising enough to move forward with. Recommended innovation intermediaries to consider are innovation lab sessions for structured, and coworking spaces and hubs for more informal and organic discoveries. Corporate R&D labs are also relevant for discovery activities as such innovation arenas aim to support all the different phases of the innovation process, spanning from focusing on the front-end of innovation to the later stages of product development as well as implementation.
The Ideation stage involves defining the exact product, service, or process to grasp the opportunity (a new market, an unmet customer need, strengthening a core competency, or a technical improvement). Similar to the discover stage, facilitated innovation lab workshops, and the use of coworking spaces, hubs and corporate R&D labs are recommended for ideation activities.
Execution means turning ideas into reality. After validation of the chosen idea, organisations attempt to obtain the knowledge resources, execute the project, launch the innovation, and sustain adoption in the long-term. Corporate R&D labs alike Living Lab environments are also highly recommended at this stage, especially during the product development and testing phase.
Considering the specific goals the corporation defines and sets before considering any of the innovation intermediaries, we argue that coworking spaces and hubs serve a talent pool for corporates and so can guarantee access to promising start-ups and ideas. Coworking spaces that are more the incubator end of the collaborative workspaces spectrum represent a market entry point for large corporations seeking to acquire high-potential early-stage start-ups. When developing the product or service idea requires the involvement of end-users but also various other organisations such as universities or medium-sized companies, it is recommended to join a Living Lab test environment. Innovation labs can be utilised regardless if the challenge is concrete or still fluid, and can typically well support all three stages of the innovation process.
A ‘lighter’ alternative: innovation bootcamps
Our proposed concept of innovation bootcamps, like the Limitless Innovation FactoryTM, combines the best of the above innovation intermediaries for those looking for a ‘lighter’ solution in a way that it provides facilitated sessions where both leaders and experts can learn about mega-trends and grand-challenges that influence their industry and sector, as well as creativity and innovation techniques in a fun and stimulating cross-sectoral environment (such as a coworking space). Innovation bootcamps are unique as they guide participants step by step with techniques, tools and best practices during the main stages of the innovation process from idea generation to idea implementation. At the same time, while providing opportunities for networking among representatives of different organisations, they bring in the possibilities of serendipity like innovation hubs and coworking spaces do. Such an approach, while ‘lighter’ and not suitable for those with very advanced innovation systems and innovation stage gate processes, guarantees that participants leave the innovation bootcamp with hands-on knowledge, concrete tools, techniques and templates, energetic and positive attitude, with the potential to shake-up traditional approaches and challenge existing mindsets. This is key to influence a more contemporary company culture that empowers people to think outside the box, and supports them to feel happy and valued. Most importantly, innovation bootcamps leverage some benefits of innovation hubs and coworking spaces, are much less engaging in terms of budget or organisational commitments compared to innovation labs, and perfectly compatible with R&D innovation labs or living labs.
In the era of multifaceted reality and interconnectedness, innovations need a broader view, a wider ecosystem, and a much greater and systematic use of external knowledge to become successful. As a response to this challenge, innovation intermediaries play an important role in open innovation endeavours of companies. They offer a diverse set of capabilities, and different levels of support during the innovation process. This brief article brought together five types of innovation intermediaries with the intention to support corporations to understand which form is used for what purpose, and in which stage of the innovation process. As a result, we presented our own approach to the innovation bootcamps, the Limitless Innovation FactoryTM.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 739636. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Agency and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
 Howells (2006). Intermediation and the role of intermediaries in innovation. Res. Policy, 35 (2006), pp. 715-728
 Freelancer, entrepreneur, start-up, company, etc.
About the author
Anita is an Innovation Associate at Limitless. She holds a PhD in Management from Cardiff Metropolitan University, and a Master in Economics from the University of West Hungary. She was a Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked closely with the MIT REAP team. Earlier, Anita worked at the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (Health KIC) where she was responsible for managing innovation and business development projects. Her work has been featured in academic publications such as the Regional Studies, Regional Sciences. She is a regular contributor to the Cowork7/24 Blog, and often speaks at international conferences, including Coworking Unconference Asia and ISPIM Innovation Conference.
About the author
Lidia Gryszkiewicz is a co-founder of The Impact Lab. She holds a Ph.D. from Louvain Academy and a certificate from Harvard Business School’ Creating Shared Value programme. Previously, she worked as R&D engineer at the Luxembourg Institute of Science & Technology, advised clients around the world in innovation management as strategy consultant with Arthur D. Little and worked on strategic projects for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Amsterdam. Lidia is an advisor of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community hub in Luxembourg and of Participatory City initiative in London. She regularly serves the European Commission as expert on innovation topics.
About the author
Dariusz Sikora is the co-founder of Limitless. He holds a certificate from Oxford, a Master in International Business from University of Maastricht and a Master in Management, Marketing & Entrepreneurship from University of Lodz. Dariusz has experience in innovation management, (social) impact assessment and strategies. He is currently leading the Social Innovation Academy project aiming to become the first fully online programme focused exclusively on social innovation. He held management positions at multinational groups in Benelux, including PwC, serving mobile and tech sectors, among others.
Innovation is the Holy Grail of business success that can supercharge any kind of organisations from corporates to start-ups and shift them towards growth. Nevertheless, many organisations on the creative edge are struggling how to make innovation happen due to the rise of new work processes, changing demographics and new technologies.