Learning From Innovation Hubs: Fluidity, Serendipity, and Community Combined

Innovation hubs are popping up from Addis to Amsterdam and Boston to Bangalore. Fuelled by ideals of openness, community and collaboration, hubs aim to be the next orgware for innovation—beyond business incubators and R&D labs. Managers, policymakers and investors have taken note, but are grappling with how to engage. What makes hubs so appealing and can they teach innovation managers anything new?

If you live in a major city or a national capital, try this exercise: Google the words “innovation hub” and the name of your metropolis, and scroll through the first results page. As one might expect, you will probably come across a news article or blog post that talks about your city’s or region’s innovation landscape as a whole, using the common broad understanding of an innovation hub as a wider geography (like Silicon Valley).

But these days, you are just as likely to find results that point you to a particular group of institutions and initiatives. If you click through to their About pages, you will likely read an array of buzz words such as entrepreneurship, social innovation, start-ups, change-making, empowerment, creativity, co-creation, co-working, collaboration, coding, tinkering, hackathons, bootcamps, acceleration, etc.

If this is indeed the outcome of your web search, you are witnessing the recent but speedy rise of a new type of organisation: the innovation hub. From tens of Impact Hubs in major cities around the world (including London, New York and Singapore), through about 100 technology innovation hubs in Africa, to burgeoning social innovation hubs in China, the phenomenon is rapidly expanding, taking the grassroots entrepreneurship and innovation scene by storm.

At the same time, innovation hubs have largely remained under the radar of mainstream innovation management debate and practice. So what are ‘innovation hubs’, and which ones of their features are worthwhile to consider for adaptation to other innovation contexts?

What are innovation hubs?

The innovation hub phenomenon has taken the grassroots entrepreneurship scene by storm.

The innovation hub terminology is used quite loosely, and so there is no single clear definition. The physical embodiment of a hub is usually an open and hip co-working space; yet, a hub is more than just that (Murray et al., 2010). What makes hubs different is that they have the explicit mission to foster innovation by promoting learning and the sharing of ideas. To this end, hubs bet on collaborative innovation and community, as well as on openness and diversity.

The most prominent example, Impact Hub, already has 54 locations all over the globe, with 20 more in the making. The organisation defines itself: as “part innovation lab, part business incubator, and part community centre” (impacthub.net). Other organisations of this kind that only involve one or a couple of locations include the already legendary technology-focused iHub in Nairobi, or the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. The number of hubs in China has been booming as well, reaching more than fifty in total last year (Han, 2014). Individual hubs have also started to organise and collaborate beyond their local reach. For example, African innovation hubs have formed the Afrilabs network to further support the growth of this phenomenon across the continent.

Innovation hubs offer varying combinations of services and follow a variety of business and sustainability models (Friederici, 2014). Mostly, members get access to co-working and desk space, office infrastructure, events, and the hub’s contact network (often in exchange for a recurring fee). Setting up shop in hip, vibrant, up-and-coming urban neighbourhoods makes most hubs more attractive for their target groups and supports their convening function.

A hub would usually recruit a ‘community manager’, ‘curator’ or ‘host’ to act as a broker in the network of members and other stakeholders, encourage new connections, manage the office, organise events and generally take care of the smooth functioning of the community. The physical space of a hub would normally be complemented by an active online community of its members on social networking platforms.

Which innovation approaches make hubs special?

When hubs started to emerge, they were likened to concepts well-known to innovation managers, such as incubators, science parks, research labs or communities and networks of practice. However, while innovation hubs incorporate functional elements of all of these, they also appear unique and new in the way that they combine tried-and-true methods with networking and community-based ideas.

In an informal group of researchers gathered by Tuukka Toivonen, we wanted to characterise the innovation hub term more closely, and set out the fundamental hypothetical parameters of the “hub organisation”. In this article, we identify several approaches and strategies that, we believe, make hubs special and can serve as inspiration for innovation managers.

1. Embrace fluidity and diversity

Hubs mould a community of like-minded innovators and entrepreneurs, but community membership is fluid, and passers-through from various strands of life and work are welcome. More specifically, hubs allow for new combinations of existing knowledge bases that otherwise would not happen. In effect, hubs convene groups of people that usually would not “run into” one another, while they are likely to form teams and innovate together once they have found each other. Thus, hubs have targeted everyone from technology specialists and investors to artists and activists. It is this flowing and connecting of diverse people and knowledge that is at the heart of the “hub” concept. This characteristic has important implications for innovation management, because by ensuring a constant flow of “fresh blood”, innovation hubs increase their creative potential.

2. Focus on impact

The desire to have impact can motivate people to be creative, to share and to take risks.

Whereas traditional business incubators usually focus on financial growth targets, innovation hubs often emphasize the sense of a common mission, usually in the form of ‘impact’ their members strive to have. To reflect this distinction, the Impact Hub has recently added the word ‘impact’ to its name—its original branding had been just The HUB. As another example, in Luxemburg, the local innovation hub is simply called The Impactory.

The following statement from the Impact Hub’s website is emblematic for innovation hubs at large:

Impact cannot happen in isolation. It requires collective action. Impact Hubs make up a global network of people, places, and programs that inspire, connect and catalyse impact.

Impact is definitely ‘in’ these days, as business and social organisations alike have understood innovating just for the sake of pushing the bottom line will not suffice in the long run. Hubs become an expression of the wider phenomenon that individuals and organisations are redefining success as the influence they have on their communities, the positive changes they bring to their clients and the footprint they leave on their environment.

Crucially, the desire to have impact can motivate people to be creative, to go beyond the usual solutions, to share and to take risks. Innovation hubs remind us that by refocusing from short-term results to vision and impact, an organisation stands a better chance of truly engaging its employees and other stakeholders in more radical innovation.

3. Encourage serendipity

Innovation hubs go out of their way to make people ‘bump’ into each other, mingle and casually collide as often as possible. Work spaces have an open layout with a modular structure, with furniture that encourages flexible co-working, no assigned work stations, and often a common kitchen for informal interactions (Bachmann, 2014). New encounters are further facilitated through networking sessions, informal drinks, professional speed dating meetings, common lunches and so on.

It’s crucial that the people that meet each other add something new for each other. And so innovation hubs are designed to be true melting pots where different professions, backgrounds, nationalities and cultures meet. Where else would you expect to find entrepreneurs, designers, investors, artists, activists, techies and journalists working side-by-side under one roof, exchanging ideas, seeking feedback, learning and sharing connections? Indeed, such “extreme heterogeneity” might be the very driving force behind the innovation happening in hubs (Toivonen, 2013).

Such efforts have one assumption in mind: one simply has to bring the right people together, and serendipity and personal initiative will take care of the rest. This is exactly where traditional organisational setups often fall short. Serendipity, by its definition, is not something that can be instigated by top-down management. The art of serendipity lies in bringing people together but then ‘letting go’ and allowing for random creative clashes of minds.

A sense of community helps diminish innovation obstacles such as fear of failure or reluctance to share ideas.

4. Create a sense of community

The members of innovation hubs don’t self-identify as just any group of people. They see themselves as communities of like-minded people, sharing common beliefs, jargon and even a common lifestyle. Quoting an Impact Hub member: “It’s this strong personal connection—our having built something together—that unites us.” (Bachmann, 2014).

While innovation hubs are quite easily accessible to new members, their common mission and organisational ‘subculture’, combined with the trendy office design in cosmopolitan surroundings, allow them to create a shared feeling of being exceptional and unique. Such a sense of exclusivity and community does not only motivate the members, but it also helps diminish typical innovation obstacles such as fear of failure or reluctance to share ideas.

5. Intensify collaborative innovation

Besides enabling unplanned collaborations through serendipity, innovation hubs deliberately stimulate collaborative activities in a variety of ways. Co-location and co-working principles are some of the basic methods they apply. Innovation hubs also share online spaces and collaboration technologies. Co-creation is perceived as part of their DNA and methods such as crowdsourcing (Howe, 2006), co-creation (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2013), design thinking (Buchanan, 1992, Rowe, 1991), service design (Shostack, 1982), user innovation (Von Hippel, 2009) or their variations are applied on a regular basis to further stimulate it. While traditional organisations also occasionally use these methods as part of open innovation paradigm (Chesbrough et al., 2006), the uniqueness of innovation hubs lies in the high intensity, frequency and openness of collaborative activities they pursue, to the degree that collaboration has become almost a mantra of most innovation hubs.

The uniqueness of innovation hubs lies in the intensity, frequency and openness of collaborative activities.

6. Dynamise the innovation process

Innovation hubs are constantly on the hunt for new ideas. Instead of housing quiet R&D labs, their premises are meant to be bustling with events such as innovation jams, hackathons, pitches, innovation challenges, idea competitions and brainstorms. The value of such a dynamic and lively approach to the innovation process lies not only in the actual ideas created on the way. What is at least as, if not more, important is that through frequent activity and outreach, hubs increase their visibility and put innovators in the spotlight.

Another rationale is that events create the needed ‘shaking up’, energy and momentum. Indeed, research shows that stagnation is the enemy of innovation and one of the key ways of making an organisation more dynamic is keeping it in a constant “flow” or “movement” (Gryszkiewicz, 2013). The event-centred approach of innovation hubs illustrates how such dynamism can be purposefully induced.

7. Enable, rather than force, innovation

Our final hub characteristic is often forgotten but crucial to the innovation equation: hub members need to be self-determined and empowered to take initiative. This is where innovation overlaps with grassroots entrepreneurship: hubs firmly believe that, for innovation to occur, independent individuals need to organise and then take inspired, bold decisions and risks.

Put differently, hubs provide a platform and facilitate but never push, coerce or mandate innovative activity from their members. For instance, a hub would rarely set rigid targets, but rather pursue and support emerging ideas. At the same time, taking initiative and responsibility is supported and encouraged, and role models and emerging community leaders are celebrated. Innovation hubs aim to provide the space where entrepreneurship can be lived and experienced.

What, specifically, can innovation management practice learn from hubs?

While the approaches utilised by innovation hubs cannot be simply copy-pasted into the context of traditional organisations, some of them can surely serve as valuable food for thought and possibly inspiration for mainstream innovation managers.

Taken individually, they are not very likely to cause a true revolution in what innovation managers already know. After all, when PostIt notes were born during one open-ended ‘innovation day’ at 3M, or when Gmail was created as a result of Google’s famed “20% rule”, didn’t we witness ‘enabling innovation’ (approach 7) in action? Yes, we did. When a start-up such as Berlin-based Wooga managed to create a ‘cool’ aura of exclusivity people want to be part of, couldn’t we speak of ‘creating a sense of community’ (approach 4)? Yes, we could. When Steve Jobs famously redesigned the Pixar’s offices, creating a large common atrium where people would keep ‘bumping’ into each other, wasn’t that all about developing environments more stimulating and conducive to ‘serendipity’ (approach 3)? Yes, it was.

Innovation managers can get inspired by combining the different innovation approaches of innovation hubs.

However, where innovation managers can get inspired by innovation hubs, is by combining these different innovation approaches. Rather than looking at any method in isolation, hubs have been learning to orchestrate a wide array of them simultaneously. For the most successful hubs, it is this combination of different elements that stimulates virtuous circles.

While it is early days and we do not yet fully understand what hubs actually do very well, there are some lessons that seem valuable to consider for adaptation to other innovation management contexts:

Community and shared purpose together bring motivation and courage for innovation.
Therefore, strive for creating a shared culture of community and uniqueness, which the employees feel proud to be a part of, but remember to focus your community’s efforts on a shared purpose. Otherwise, you risk creating a culture where people will like to ‘hang out’, but with little innovation coherent with your strategy.

Prompting serendipitous meetings of heterogeneous minds is more likely to yield innovative outcomes.
The potential of serendipity can be leveraged if the ‘clashing minds’ are diverse to start with. Think of heterogeneity as early as when recruiting your staff and selecting your suppliers. But then, keep in mind that no one can be coerced to go out and meet others. Heterogeneous minds will often not “voluntarily” find each other, so build channels that are comfortable and convenient.

Balancing fluidity and empowerment can help create innovation teams.
Open up team formation and encourage people to go beyond “the usual suspects” (friends, co-workers) and even outside of the organisation. The available pool of potential collaborators should constantly change and get richer. Management traineeships, invited external ‘innovators in residence’ positions, internal exchange programmes or rotation principles for innovation tasks and roles are examples of other ways to implement the idea of fluidity in practice. But once a team and project has found itself, let it stabilise itself and “let it go”, without trying to coerce it into targets and goals. Rather, create mini-start-ups where team-leads have sense of ownership.

Dynamising your innovation process works better when it is activated bottom-up.
How often have you participated in a corporate ‘brainstorming’ session, or worse: a ‘fun’ creativity game completely lacking the sparkle, with participants looking confused, feeling forced to think out-of-the-box? While the obvious advice is to be more creative with your innovation events and have different kinds of them taking place often, it is a good idea to empower your employees along the way. Following the example of hubs, let your people come up with ideas of events to boost your organisational innovativeness and let the employees themselves organise them. In this way, you will not only prevent any cultural misfits, but also ensure high employee involvement.

Conclusion

Innovation hubs are still very much underexplored and should not be idealised, as they are faced with many challenges of their own. However, we argue that the world-wide emergence of hubs is a phenomenon innovation management should have a close eye on in the coming years.

Tuukka Toivonen provided valuable comments and feedback to this article. Participants of the first workshop of Entrepreneurial Spaces and Collectivities group that took place in London on September 1-2, 2014 can be found on twitter @Andrejcisneros @friedema @IrinaVPopova @KindaAS @LGryszkiewicz @TimsWeiss @Tuukka_T @queaky @williamhan.

By Lidia Gryszkiewicz & Nicolas Friederici

About the authors

Lidia has a Ph.D. from Louvain Academy and currently works for the Luxembourg Institute of Science & Technology. She has 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 has served the European Commission as expert on innovation topics.


Nicolas is a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute. He studies technology innovation systems and networks in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in particular the role of technology innovation hubs. Earlier, Nicolas was consultant for the Mobile Innovation for Development and ICT Policy & Regulation programs at infoDev (World Bank). Nicolas was a Fulbright scholar at Michigan State University, where he received an MA in Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media.

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