Innovation Ecosystem: Bridging the Gap Between Digital and Offline Innovation

Innovation used to be something that would happen in a physical setting, be it in a workshop, a laboratory, research centre, etc. Now, with the advent of innovation software, the process of ideation and collaboration mostly happens online. However, there are innate benefits to innovating “in the real world”, benefits which a digital interaction will never be able to fully replicate. Here we’ll take a look at the benefits of innovating, both offline and online, and how to combine the advantages of both, to create the right digital innovation ecosystem.

digital innovation ecosystem onlineBenefits of Online Innovation

Online innovation has become very popular in the past few years, and for good reason. Foremost is its ability to bring together many different people from many different locations. This variety of perspectives significantly enriches the innovation process. It’s much harder to gather a wide range of people together in one physical location, especially if your company is spread out all over the world.

With online innovation contributors also have more time to think over concepts, and bring them into sharper resolution, whereas physical gatherings are usually intensive and rushed due to the time constraints of those who have gathered together for the event.

Offline/group discussions can often be dominated by the same talkative people. In digital forums, in contrast, everyone is equal. Digital platforms are incredibly effective at bringing together individuals who don’t have a close connection.

digital innovation ecosystem offlineBenefits of Offline Innovation

digital innovation ecosystem - Foster the right innovation eco system

But an idea can only take you so far – eventually it needs to confront reality. In a physical innovation center you can create rough prototypes to field test with real people. The accent is on action, followed by reflection on the results. Then it’s back to the drawing board and a new prototype. Each cycle brings stronger insights and more unexpected solutions.

Often the teams with the best ideas will be invited to take part in an offline innovation
experience – usually lasting 2-3 days. If the offline experience is an event such as a hackathon or an innovation weekend, all kinds of experts will often be on hand to help the teams make the best out of their ideas. There may also be a jury that looks carefully at the idea, analyses it and grades it.

Due to the time limit, participants will be intensely focused on innovation. In contrast, online innovation usually occurs in a heterogeneous environment where the participants are involved with their daily routine, a routine which usually includes a variety of tasks other than innovating.

There is also a special energy created in a room full of innovators. Offline innovation activities like this allow you to build upon the existing chemistry between individuals. For this reason offline innovation is especially effective at facilitating innovation between individuals who have an existing close connection.

digital innovation ecosystem physical innovationNew Physical Innovation Formats

Two new offline innovation formats have become especially popular: the hackathon and the innovation hub. Let’s take a look at both.


A hackathon is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software and hardware development, intensively collaborate on joint projects. They tend to have a specific focus, which can include the programming language used, the operating system, an application, an API, or the subject and the demographic group of the participants. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week. In many cases the goal is to create usable software or hardware.

digital innovation ecosystem hackathon
Wikimedia Hackathon in San Francisco

The word “hackathon” is a portmanteau of the words “hack” and “marathon”, where “hack” is used in the sense of exploratory programming, not its alternate meaning of online criminal.

Over the past few years, hackathons have taken the world by storm. This is because they provide a venue for self-expression and creativity through technology. People with technical backgrounds come together, form teams around a problem or idea, and collaboratively create a unique solution from scratch — these generally take shape in the form of websites, mobile apps, and even robots. Whatever the creation, the goal is to start from nothing but an idea and end with a working prototype.

Hackathons typically start with one or more presentations about the event, as well as about the specific subject, if there is  one. Participants then suggest ideas and form teams, based on individual interests and skills. After time runs out, teams demonstrate what they’ve built and compete for prizes. Such prizes are sometimes a substantial amount of money. Some hackathons even see a large amount of corporate sponsorship and interest.

Beginning in the second half of last decade, the popularity of hackathons grew significantly, and were quick to viewed by both companies and venture capitalists alike as a quick way in which to develop new technologies as w ell as determine new areas for innovation and for funding.

Some major companies were in fact born from these hackathons. GroupMe, a group messaging app, began as a hackathon project at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in 2010. In 2011 it was acquired for $85 million by Skype. Likewise the software company Nitobi began as a project at the iPhoneDevCamp in 2008. Nitobi was later bought by Adobe for an undisclosed amount.

Many companies, such as Netflix, Syntel, Cognizant, Facebook, Google, SendGrid, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Pegasystems and Kareo hold internal innovation hackathons to promote new product innovation by their engineering staff. For instance, Facebook’s “Like” button and Facebook Chat were both conceived at internal company hackathons.

Qmarket’s Q-hack platform is the perfect support platform for company idea hackathons. It’s specially designed to assist hackers, helping them save ideas and discoveries learned during an event.

Innovation Hubs

digital innovation ecosystem crowdFueled by ideals of openness, community and collaboration, innovation hubs are popping up all over the world and serve as invaluable components to digital innovation ecosystems). And they are spurring innovation as never before — far beyond the abilities of business incubators and R&D labs. What are innovation hubs and what makes them so appealing?

While there is no single definition, a hub is usually an open and hip co-working space with the explicit mission of fostering 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. It defines itself as “part innovation lab, part business incubator, and part community center”.

Who takes part in hubs is just as important as the actual place. Hubs convene groups of people that usually would not run into one another, bringing together people with different backgrounds and knowledge. It’s this eclectic combination which generates the sparks of innovation. It’s crucial that the people who meet each other add something new for everyone else to benefit from. With this in mind, innovation hubs are intended to act as “melting pots” where professionals from different backgrounds and cultures can meet. Here you can find entrepreneurs, designers, investors, artists, activists, techies and journalists working side-by-side under one roof, learning, exchanging ideas and seeking feedback. Such “extreme heterogeneity” is the very driving force behind the hub’s innovative ability.

Not only should hubs have a wide range of people, but ideally they should also have a constant flow of new blood. The available pool of potential collaborators should continually change and get richer. This helps increase the creative potential. So go beyond “the usual suspects” (friends, co-workers) and look even outside of your organization. After a team and project has found itself, it should be allowed to stabilize and carry itself forward, without management trying to coerce it into specific targets and goals.

digital innovation ecosystem hubHow to Run a Hub

Once you have the “vessel” and the right ingredients, you need to know how to properly mix them. In March of this year, Analysts Marcus Blosch and Betsy Burton from Gartner Research released a report titled “Use Open Innovation to Bring Talent and Capabilities Into the Business Ecosystem” This report notes the best way to create the organizational context which is needed in order to support open innovations:

With the strategy in place, enterprise architects must turn their attention to creating the right organizational context for open innovation. To overcome potential resistance and develop open innovation, enterprise architects must deploy a range of strategies.1

Below are some of the ways in which to encourage innovation in your new innovation hub:

  • Encourage Chance Meetings

Innovation hubs go out of their way to make participants ‘bump’ into each other. New encounters are facilitated through networking sessions, informal drinks, professional speed dating meetings, common lunches and so on. In contrast to quiet R&D labs, hub premises are meant to be bustling with activity, with lively events such as innovation jams or idea jams, hackathons, pitches, innovation challenges, idea competitions and brainstorms.

  • Create Community

Community and shared purpose bring motivation and courage for innovation. Therefore, strive to create a shared culture of community and uniqueness, which the employees will feel proud to be a part of. However, you should remember to focus your community’s efforts on a shared purpose. Otherwise, you risk creating a culture where people will ‘hang out’, but with little innovation coherent with your strategy. A sense of community also helps diminish innovation obstacles such as fear of failure and reluctance to share ideas.

  • Don’t Force It

Hubs should bring people together, but then let them go their own way, in order to allow for random creative clashes of minds. They should provide a platform and facilitate, but never push, coerce or mandate innovative activity from their members. This means that a hub should rarely set rigid targets, rather it should pursue and support emerging ideas.

With Qmarkets’ Q-live workshop or even our standard platform, ideas can be submitted or integrated into a larger end-to-end process, allowing offline ideas to be gathered digitally and discussed online.

digital innovation ecosystem best practicesBest Practices for Innovation Hubs

Here are some tips to ensure you innovation hub is successful:

Clearly define the goals of your innovation center. This should include the type of programs and projects to be addressed, expectations for external relationships and the manner in which the physical space will be used.

Create a critical mass of skills and knowledge in key areas in one location.

Select location based on access to talent and ecosystems for open innovation relationships e.g. near high-tech hubs, universities, startup accelerators and VCs. Remain close to HQ but create enough distance to ensure both freedom and influence.

Ensure that funding, staffing and resources match your goals.

Clarify the relationship between internal and external partners.

Provide technology environments, tools and test-beds that facilitate rapid experimentation.

Make sure to focus innovation on strategically relevant areas of opportunity and growth.

Facilitate idea development through research, prototypes, demos, experimentation and testing.

Measure qualitative as well as quantitative outcomes in determining your innovation center’s level of success, both for creativity and business value.

digital innovation ecosystem fusionFusing Online and Offline Innovation Efforts to Achieve a True Digital Innovation Ecosystem

To draw employees to your innovation hub, have a dedicated spot in the workplace devoted to innovation. Soon everyone will know that that is the place to go for new ideas. Make sure to put up signs there announcing the prizes, benefits, etc. You should also hold occasional innovation events or galas where prizes are given out and exceptional workers are recognized, making sure that innovation is not just heard but seen. One Qmarkets’ client, a large European retail bank, runs large events at the end of every year. These have proven to be both very popular and successful at generating innovate ideas. For innovation events launch small promotional campaigns. These can include flyers, promotional t-shirts, notices on event boards and more.

It’s clear that each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Online innovation is great for generating ideas because it allows for a wide range input, provides a lot of time to discuss ideas, and facilitates contributions by providing a platform which can be anonymous and impersonal. While more limited in regards to input, offline innovation allows for more personal and hands on development of prototypes as well as their testing and evaluation.

But the best innovation environments combine the benefits of both – online and offline. In the initial phase you discuss online different interesting possibilities and come to a general consensus of what a solution might look like. Some call this the ideation stage. Virtual interaction is ideal for this phase. But after ideation you want to test out your ideas in the real world. This is best done by collaborating on in it an offline environment which allows building and testing of a prototype. Here too however you can only achieve so much – especially if you have just a few days in one location. To keep the momentum going and ensure follow through, it’s important to have a way to follow up with people and keep in touch with them. So by returning to online innovation you can continue to collaborate after the workshop or event has finished.

digital innovation ecosystem qmarketsCombine the Best of Both Worlds with Qmarkets

Qmarkets, a world leader in innovation management systems, is great at connecting the physical and virtual dimensions. Not only do we offer integration with other digital/online platforms and software, but also with real life offline initiatives. Dedicated packaging of our Q-round, a framework for online roundtable discussions, along with Q-live, a virtual idea management workshop, or Q-Hack, our dedicated hackathon tool, is great for engaging audiences with our online platform and ensuring that offline inspiration is recorded and saved online.

 Contact Qmarkets to consult with our experts and discover how your enterprise can innovate and transform ideas into results!

1. Gartner Research,. Use Open Innovation To Bring Talent And Capabilities Into The Business Ecosystem. Gartner Research, 2016. Web. 27 May 2016.

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