How innovation can solve society’s problems

An innovative commons model can be exemplified by something as high tech as a new app...or something as traditional as alpine cheese-making. Keystone

When you think of innovation, you also may think of patents and profits. But two Swiss researchers argue that we should be focusing more on people and places.

This content was published on August 29, 2017 - 11:00

Excellence in innovation is as synonymous with Switzerland as cheese, chocolate, and luxury timepieces. Just last month, the World Intellectual Property Organization ranked it number one in the world for the seventh year running.

But two Swiss researchers argue that the current system for managing new knowledge and ideas needs a radical transformation if it’s going to help solve increasingly complex environmental and societal challenges like climate change, environmental pollution, and global income inequality.

“We must think about new models of regulation and access to knowledge – who is contributing to it, and who can exploit it,” says Tina Haisch, head of the Centre for Innovation and Regional Development at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland.

Haisch and her colleague, University of Neuchâtel sociologist and innovation policy expert Hugues Jeannerat, recently launched the INNO-Futures project with the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation. As part of this project, Haisch and Jeannerat have published a proposal calling for a national policy of ‘innovative commons’ in Switzerland.

The concept encourages actors in business, research, policy, and society to cooperatively use, share and develop the nation’s common innovation resources – including scientific knowledge, cultural heritage, natural landscapes and energy sources – to create solutions to today’s social and environmental problems.

The inspiration for the project comes from the digital world, and notably from open-source tools like the Linux computer operating system and Creative CommonsExternal link licences.

From the regional to the global scale

Haisch explains that the innovative commons model is a global innovation scheme that can also be developed at the regional level.


“Innovation is too much understood as a technical process between companies, R&D groups, universities, etc. We need to integrate society in their respective regional contexts, because one solution doesn't fit everyone,” she told

At the regional level, some Swiss parklands are already a living example of innovative commons, Haisch says. At the DiemtigtalExternal link nature park in canton Bern, for example, tourists can visit a traditional Swiss cheese-making operation to see how local specialties are made.

“Tourists can buy the products and become connected to the local people, to the economy, to the innovative processes – how they made cheese many years ago, and today,” says Haisch.

In addition to creating sustainable solutions at home, an innovative commons strategy must also strengthen the impact of Swiss innovation abroad – for example by creating online tools and resources that can be used globally, while still tracing their origin and identity to a particular Swiss region.

“Innovative commons are becoming more important in the age of digitalisation,” Haisch notes.

However, Swiss entrepreneur and digital innovation practitioner Sylvie Reinhard cautions against concentrating too much on exporting innovations. Rather, she recommends limiting ‘brain drain’ by finding ways to better support Swiss tech start-ups, which often struggle to find funding beyond early seed money at home.

“I think it's great to do open innovation that integrates Swiss regions. But when we talk about innovation policy, we should talk more about how we can keep talent in Switzerland, so these start-ups can continue to give back, and invest in other start-ups around them,” says Reinhard, a managing partner at crstlExternal link and board member of the media start-up Republik.

She also argues that a successful innovative commons strategy would require focusing on just a few, specific areas of innovation. For example, she says that Switzerland’s rich tradition of democracy makes it an especially fertile location for developing civic technologies like e-voting platforms.

Costs and incentives

The opportunities associated with an innovative commons model in Switzerland are similar to those of the global #OpenScienceExternal link, #OpenInnovationExternal link, #OpenAccessExternal link and #OpenDataExternal link movements, all of which prioritise information sharing, decentralisation, and transparency – versus secrecy, exclusive ownership and control – as an approach to scientific and social progress.

But the challenges facing these movements include the costs of providing access to information – such as scientific publications and data sets – for free, as well as how to create incentives for scientists and entrepreneurs to share and collaborate versus patent and privatise.

For her part, Haisch argues that just as much profit – if not more – can be made using an innovative commons strategy, so long as players look at the big picture.

“Patents can be a good instrument to stimulate innovation, but a lot of potential is lost. Companies want to exclude competitors from the market, so they patent everything, and society cannot progress,” she says. “The incentive to contribute [to an innovative commons] is that you get a profit out of it in the long-term – the goal is to create sustainable resources.

Reinhard believes that the need to share knowledge is growing – and not just in science.

“There are more and more problems in the world where open innovation is the only strategy that works. For example, without open science, CERN wouldn’t be able to process the massive amount of data coming out of the Large Hadron Collider,” she says.

“Today, open innovation usually just means tapping into the potential of large communities to generate ideas. But more radically open approaches to tackling big challenges are becoming necessary – also in the world of business.”

However, she thinks that the INNO-Futures authors should define more precisely what an innovative commons would look like in terms of intellectual property management in Switzerland.

“Their approach sounds very promising, but it's not clear if it would be truly open-source. If they gave examples of how they would open up the commons or unused patents, that would be really provocative,” she says.

Open Switzerland

In May 2016, the Swiss National Science Foundation reported that about 40% of scientific publications produced with public funding support in Switzerland were accessible free of charge, making the nation comparatively “progressive” on the national stage. But Switzerland wants to advance open science even further: in February of this year, swissuniversities, the umbrella organisation for Swiss higher education institutions, approved a national Open Access strategyExternal link. The goal: for 100% of publicly funded research publications and/or data to be publicly accessible by 2024.

“Open Access policies are gaining increasing significance worldwide: They indicate that publicly funded research results are a public asset, whose full utilisation rests on free and unlimited access,” swissuniversities wrote in its press release.

Already in 2014, the cabinet adopted an Open Government Data StrategyExternal link [site in French, German, and Italian], which includes an online portalExternal link for federal agencies and offices to provide freely accessible datasets for public use. The portal contains over 2300 datasets from 37 government organisations, ranging from population statistics to weather information and historical documents

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