Reasons of being

What does SymCubator stand for?

The acronym “SymCubator” is composed of “Sym”, the Greek prefix standing for “together”, and “Incubator. The SymCubator aims at supporting the incubation of ventures involving Innovation, Collaboration, Education and Solidarity – ICES. ICES undertakings are essential means, in all areas of life and society, to make progress Societies and Humanity. They are interdependent and need each other to deliver progress. We already can look back at a long history of making life and society better through different mixes of ICES undertakings; altogether they have enabled progress in well-being, health, life expectancy, personal development, peace, beauty, security, cultural heritage …. New challenges have emerged – overpopulation, ageing, social and economic insecurity, climate change, biodiversity, epidemics, terrorism, organised crime …. and new opportunities to further improve the life of humans by eradicating or at least significantly mitigating many of the shortcomings of our current societal set-ups. We can and should aim at going much further in enabling, stimulating and supporting new ICES undertakings.

The importance of intrinsic motivation of individuals

Most ICES undertakings, often before anything else, require the collaboration of willing – intrinsically motivated – and creative individuals in small groups, whose members trust each other to come, brainstorm and try to develop a joint undertaking. Their individual capabilities, combined with the intelligence of the group, make innovation, collaboration, education and / or solidarity happen. But to make an impactful difference, in the complex world, in which we live in interdependence of others, these initiatives also need to be taken up by organisations and institutions that at some stage transform these ventures into undertakings owned and carried out by partner organisations, with dedicated resources, mobilising larger groups of people, taking decisions, making agreements and sticking to them.

The tension between organisation and innovation

Organisation and innovation are poor bedfellows: people, who work as employees in organisations, often face difficulties to participate effectively in innovation related collaborative undertakings. This is conditioned by the very same employment status: “innovation is not part of their “job description”; instead they have an operational responsibility and “represent” a unit within their organisation. Innovators often must face organisational attitudes, conveyed by both management and peers, ranges from low incentives to “this-is-not-your-job”.

Innovation and creativity require intrinsic motivation and protection from negative feedback to failure; alas, often the intrinsic motivation is reduced as the compensation arrives for an overview of major scientific findings in this sense) and innovators get the blame for venturing into directions that may turn out to be impasses.

Inversely, organisations exist because they create the stability and structure which are necessary for performant operations. Innovation comes as – a potentially threatening – change. However, organisations that are no longer able to change, end up dying. It is difficult, though not impossible, to design “learning” organisations, which are able to deal dynamically with their own change; such learning is necessarily exploratory and failure prone and must hence be protected against the natural mechanisms to optimise performance in the short term.

Innovation is at the nexus of the tension between stability and change. Organisations need innovation, but their very structure makes it difficult to incubate and support ICES undertakings throughout the organisation – and not only in dedicated “research and innovation” departments, which often are not fully connected to where innovation starts: people, solving everyday problems, trigger innovation by changing their understanding of the problems they face.

Also, when organisations try to cooperate with each other on ICES undertakings, the people representing them often – quite naturally – focus more on promoting and protecting the respective interests of their organisations; even more specifically, often they focus on specific performance related objectives set by their units. This distracts them from the matters that are central to success in the broader context. Repeated experience shows that these habits influence negatively the quality of project concepts and the efficiency of collaboration. The framework of an organisation is hence in many cases an obstacle to ICES undertakings by their employees.

This analysis is corroborated by the practical experience of the SymCubator instigator from over 30 years in multiple EU funded collaboration research & innovation undertakings.

The “missing link” in practitioner-led ICES undertakings

Many societal challenges require ICES-focused cooperation of different types of organisations: on one hand, practitioner-organisations look for solutions to address these challenges; on the other hand, technologists and researchers, who develop solutions and try to promote research topics. Traditionally, such partnerships have been mostly technology-push oriented, with technologists and / or researchers proposing solutions, which often seek a problem to solve, rather than to respond to a new problem understanding. To ensure that the innovation is challenge driven, increasingly practitioners-users take the initiative and lead of collaborative innovation projects and networks. However, this new coordinator role also brings its load of difficulties, especially when these practitioners are public institutions. Public institutions often face a hard time to mobilise, the necessary competent resources for such cooperation and innovation undertakings, in line with timelines and project specific needs; specific obstacles are public rules for creating new temporary positions and hiring processes. This is not only a problem during the project, but also during the consortium formation and the proposal phase.

Also, the organisational logic of cooperative projects raises further structural challenges. The first challenge concerns the relations between different practitioners: in many cases where different national and / or organisational interests are at stake, the governance of the group of involved practitioners should be ensured by a neutral body to minimise potential conflicts of interest and concerns about the transparency and impartiality of processes to develop ideas, deliberate and take decisions. The second challenge is that often the scientific and technical coordination is beyond the competencies of practitioner organisations.

There is hence a “missing link”, which can in many cases not be filled by one the partners in the ICES undertaking.