When innovation goes open source

Published: 4:12 AM, May 7, 2014
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When you have a problem or opportunity, in business or government, it is typical to call on two groups of people to work on it: Your own staff or external consultants. A third group is emerging as a promising source of innovation and improvement: Everyone.

In recent years, all-weekend hackathons — a staple part of the technology start-up scene— have gone mainstream through government-supported open innovation competitions. These hackathons are conducted over a period of two-and-a-half days. People of different skill sets are matched in teams to work on new ideas and come up with a working product or demo on the last day, when presentations are made. Winners are awarded cash prizes, technical support or even grants. All parties benefit from the hackathons.

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) recently worked with UP Singapore, a local organisation, on the Chinatown coLAB 2014 hackathon. The aim was to improve the Chinatown visitor experience through community engagement, storytelling and technology. The solutions presented at the end could change how millions of tourists experience the streets of Chinatown in the near future.

Metalworks’ team of computer engineers and media planners who took part in the Chinatown coLAB hackathon won the Best Technology Prototype prize by creating an augmented reality tour guide in a mobile application. However, the best reward was the experience gained by competing against and exchanging knowledge with the best and brightest minds here.

The practice of encouraging staff to participate in hackathons is ingrained in the work culture at Silicon Valley, home to innovative companies such as Google, Facebook and Airbnb. These Internet firms regularly organise internal hackathons to allow their staff to work on audacious ideas that are not part of their daily work in the name of friendly competition. Many of these ideas get implemented in some form or another.


How can we inject open-source innovation into our work culture? Working with local start-ups is one possible approach.

When our client Fiat Italy wanted a refreshing approach to launch the Fiat 500L Beats By Dre Edition car at the Geneva Auto Show this year, we curated an open innovation challenge with start-ups in the field of interactive technology.

The winning team was given the opportunity to produce an interactive DJ console board, where visitors of the auto show could arrange different blocks to create their own music track while wearing headphones from Beats by Dre. It was a fun way for visitors to sample the very same audio technology that was being installed in the car stereo system.

Start-ups and even non-professionals bring a youthful energy into the mix and help challenge traditional assumptions. With the right chemistry and fit, such collaborations can be win-win situations for both established firms and the start-ups.

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