Open innovation: What your heritage organisation needs to know about how to benefit from collaboration across the cultural sector

This guide explores the concept of open innovation and considers, with examples, how organisations in the cultural sector have maximised the mutual benefits of sharing knowledge and resources.

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A bridge illuminated at night with a clock tower in the distance
Image by Leo Villareal ©

Open innovation: What your heritage organisation needs to know about how to benefit from collaboration across the cultural sector

1. What is innovation?

Innovation is about developing a new way of doing things. It may mean offering a new service or making a significant change to what you offer your audience. This might, for example, involve:

  • The use of 3D scanned artefacts from museums of 3D models of building reconstructions (Historic Environment Scotland’s Frontiers of the Roman Empire UNESCO World Heritage Site)
  • Adopting new models of international collaboration to protect cultural heritage around the globe (V&A’s Culture in Crisis)
  • Projecting large-scale interactive artworks onto a building façade and controlled by the public (Hong Kong’s M+ Touch for Luck).

Traditionally, innovation was seen as something achieved in-house by research and development teams.  These were closely guarded products or services from which a for-profit company would derive competitive advantage. Companies engaging in closed innovation would undertake this work in a self-contained innovative environment. As such the resources and skills needed to create and develop these ideas resided within the organisation. In such a model, investments costs are high.

2. Open innovation

Open innovation focuses on enabling organisations to benefit from the ideas and technologies developed outside their own organisational boundaries. Whatever the innovative concept, an open model of innovation is an invaluable way for small and not-for-profit organisations to access and engage with new digital products and services.

The term open innovation was coined by Henry Chesbrough in 2003 in the book Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology. This outlined a different way of thinking about innovation involving collaboration with external parties.

In this model, skills, resources and ideas might be drawn from a number of external bodies to support and enhance the organisation’s own offering. Likewise, ideas and developments from the organisation could in return influence and support the innovative activity of others. In a not-for-profit world, where organisations hold scarce resources, open innovation is an important mechanism and approach which enables participants to benefit from external support and networks.

For the most part, non-profits are acting on already proven or quickly proven concepts. Research and development investments are difficult to justify […]
Quote by Forbes, 2020

An open innovation model involves more working outside of your organisation and existing team. This may involve discussing projects and ideas with others in order to adopt and adapt the way they have made use of digital in order to support your own activities. However, this also means finding the time to support others in the same way. Perhaps advising them on your experiences with a particular technology or approach and even working directly with them to support their development. This is a shared and reciprocal culture of innovation that can benefit your organisation greatly over time.

A chart displaying open and closed innovation models
Chart showing open and closed innovation models

The diagram below illustrates the difference between open and closed innovation models. The left of the chart illustrates the closed innovation concept and demonstrates how only a few ideas make it through to development.

On the right of the chart we see an open innovation concept. In this model, skills, resources and ideas might be drawn from a number of external bodies to support the organisation’s own offering and indeed many ideas and developments within the organisation could in return influence and support others.

3. The need for open innovation

The 2019 UNESCO report on Cultural Heritage Innovation describes the need in the sector for knowledge-sharing and collaboration to support and foster greater digital engagement and help organisations access the funding and resources necessary to support their vision:

The recurring reference to networks shows how important personal and institutional connections are in developing projects and in raising funding from multiple sources… Many of the projects are providing open access solutions or sharing their research publicly, enhancing the UK’s reputation internationally as a leader in this field. Respondents also indicate that they would benefit from learning more of others’ approaches and having more opportunities to promote their own projects.
Quote by UNESCO

4. Some examples

Leeds Libraries were an early adopter of an open approach to developing, what was at the time, a completely new and innovative way of providing archival access.  Through the creation of, the libraries were able to enhance the interpretation and context of photographic material.  Its ‘Can you help?’ function invites the public to add comments to selected photographs, allowing them to develop a greater understanding of their photographic archive.

A more recent example can be seen with the work of the Museum of Making. The museum was developed through funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England and D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership. In addition to the visitor experience, the Museum of Making offers a membership scheme for makers designed to foster open innovation between arts and creative practitioners.

The table below provides some simple recommendations on ways you could enhance innovation within your organisation and how you might work with others to make that innovation truly open.

A flow chart displaying steps to take to adopt more open innovation
A flow chart displaying steps to take to adopt more open innovation

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Collaboration Creativity Heritage Innovation
Published: 2022
Resource type: Articles


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Digital Heritage Hub is managed by Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with The Heritage Digital Consortium and The University of Leeds. It has received Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Digital Heritage Hub is free and answers small to medium sized heritage organisations most pressing and frequently asked digital questions.

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