I had the opportunity to talk to futurethink about NASA’s Open Innovation Program. This is a cross-post of the interview from their website. A longer version of this interview will be published (and linked here) in a few days.
1) How does a large organization like NASA manage its innovation process? (And more specifically, the Open NASA initiative?)
For the last century, we have relied on governments to tackle the grand challenges of our time and to manage the innovation process within government by themselves. For the average citizen, participating in government was extremely limited – you could show up to vote on election day, express your concern by protesting about a cause, or if you really wanted to make a change, apply for a government job.
Most people had very little influence on how business in government was conducted and how innovation was managed (if it was managed at all). This severely limited not only the number of people working on solving our nation’s toughest challenges, but also limited the diversity in perspective contributed towards the solutions.
Over the past few years, we have witnessed the emergence of technology that is slowly starting to change the way governments approach innovation and opening up new ways to participate directly in government. At NASA, we are just beginning to rethink what this means for how we manage our innovation process. We are starting to embrace openness as a catalyst to innovation and providing unprecedented access to our raw data, software and technology to a wide base of potential contributors. We are also starting to shift away from purely competitive approaches and also embrace new paradigm shifting collaboration.
Because of this shift, we are starting to enable breakthroughs to proceed at a faster rate than was possible before. We work with others to show how they can leverage distributed collaboration to focus the investment of thousands of individual effort hours by citizens across the country towards constructive projects that benefit both NASA and the nation.
2) How do you select which ideas to invest in and move forward with?
Government agencies must find groups of people, bring them together around an issue or problem that needs to be fixed, then step out of the way and let the collective energy of the people involved solve problems in creative and imaginative ways that we would never have done ourselves. It’s not just about individual participation; it’s about mass collaboration. It’s about creating platforms that allow us to take advantage of the exponential power of what happens when a thousand eyes look at our toughest problems and we collectively develop a solution.
The key to this is to build a platform for collaboration that doesn’t prescribe our own solution and then rewards the best ideas with the recognition they deserve. Our approach within the Open Innovation Program has been to identify and prioritize the challenges most worth solving, build a platform to engage a large diverse group of participants around the challenge, incentivize them (through collaboration) to develop a solution, and then let the best ideas rise to the top naturally.
3) What are some collaborations the program has facilitated that have led to new ideas and solutions?
An amazing collaboration that has come out of our work that has led to new ideas and solutions is the Random Hacks of Kindness project. Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) is a rapidly growing global initiative encompassing a core team of collaborators including NASA, World Bank, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and HP, an ever expanding ecosystem of supporting organizations, and a community of over 5,500 innovators in over 30 countries collectively working to make the world a better place.
Based on our experience with Random Hacks of Kindness, we developed the International Space Apps Challenge which is an international mass collaboration focused on space exploration that takes place over 48-hours in cities around the world. In April of 2012, we hosted the first International Space Apps Challenge. The event embraces collaborative problem solving with a goal of producing relevant open-source solutions to address global needs applicable to both life on Earth and life in space. The event took place in 25 countries around the world and resulted in over 100 solutions. It was the largest government-led mass collaboration event to date, and a testament to what people can accomplish together if given the permission, opportunity, and resources.
The event demonstrated that the creativity and innovation that used to take place primarily behind closed doors within large institutions is increasingly taking place by people connected together online. By tapping into a global community of expertise, partnering with leading researchers, scientists, technologists, academics and entrepreneurs as well as collaborating directly with citizens and innovative organizations on projects like Random Hacks of Kindness and the International Space Apps Challenge, we are able to develop solutions that we would have never came up with on our own. Solutions that may have a lasting impacts on both NASA and the world.
3) What is the single biggest challenge to making innovation happen at NASA? (And how do you overcome them?)
The single biggest challenge to making innovation happen at NASA is simply “culture.” If you want to see how innovative an organization truly is (not just how people perceive it to be), simply take a good hard look at its culture. To move beyond this, we must challenge long-standing business management orthodoxies – even the cultural ones.
The grand challenges today are too complex – the ones worth solving will require all of us. But changing the culture of an entire organization as big as NASA seems like a nearly impossible task at first, so you have to lead by example and start small. Innovation is all about challenging prevailing assumptions about the way we have done things in the past and suggesting better approaches. It’s about staying nimble by minimizing complexity.
5) What is your favorite innovation that has come out of the Open Innovation Program?
My favorite example is that of the VICAR2PNG project which helped unlock some valuable NASA data. NASA really has an unparalleled trove of scientific and engineering data that represents an incredible asset that we want the public to utilize. At the 2012 International Space Apps Challenge, we offered a challenge to improve access to NASA data. As it turns out, much of the image data from NASA’s missions in the Planetary Image Atlas was in an very outdated VICAR format. As the developers soon found out, VICAR was unreadable by any existing open source image conversion tools, so they set out to create one! They wrote and packaged a solution called “vicar2png” so that anyone can view, enjoy, and remix NASA’s mission image data easily by converting VICAR files to the popular PNG image format. To demonstrate the potential of the solution (and the data), they then created movies using PNGs from several segments of raw images from the Cassini-Huygens mission. The solution showcased the potential of what’s possible by making NASA’s data more accessible.