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The concept of innovation has been widely discussed these days in all areas and markets. However, are companies really nourishing a breeding ground for innovative solutions? Are they truly aware of the market timing and opportunities for their novel products? How to work (and think) like an ecosystem from a demand-driven innovation perspective? Margot Nijkamp, the Ecosystem Thinking Institute's co-founder, has the answers to all these questions and more. She talks to us about the Institute's development and goals, their strategies during the fastidious 2020 crisis, and gives us insights into how important it is for companies to keep an eye on the outside world.

It is safe to say that Margot Nijkamp knows a thing or two about innovation. For instance, as a member of the startup team of Packard Bell EMEA, she helped bring the very first home computers to the world. In her fourth startup, she was the first non-Philips resident on the High Tech Campus when the Ministry of Economic Affairs designed a new applied knowledge institute: Holst Centre. Margot in her role of HR & Operations Director was the very first person to make quarters on HTC. "It was very challenging, and I'm very proud to have been part of it," she describes.

The search for demand-driven innovation
After a life-changing experience with a severe health condition, Margot decided to pursue her dreams - one of them being to create a startup with zero Euros. She left Holst Centre and spun out with the Red Bluejay Foundation, which began its efforts in January 2011 as a place to work with young talents on cultural elements for innovation.

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As the High Tech Campus was very much interested in the project, it evolved into the Open Innovation Academy and further: "Eventually, we discussed that if we wanted to make big demand-driven innovation trajectories, we had to make sure that we promoted challenges for big corporations, for the public sector, and other fields," Margot explains. Ultimately, this all progressed towards what now is the EcoSystem Thinking Institute, an organization that helps companies rethink their strategies through demand-driven innovation from a shared-risk, shared-result perspective.

The EcoSystem Thinking Institute
ESTI is a non-profit foundation described by Margot as the new entity where all the programs, challenges, consultancy, training, and implementation efforts have come together. ESTI works towards bringing ecosystem thinking perspectives on the process steps companies need to take to achieve successful innovation with the outside world. The main idea is to help them think of how they can do demand-driven innovation. "If you do technology push, you don't know if someone is out there waiting for your product or service. So it's much better to start at the demand side, making sure that there is a real problem that must be addressed," Margot claims.

The Retrofit Insulation Challenge, created for about 25 Dutch housing corporations, is an interesting example of that. Margot says that the insulation packages commonly used were about 30 centimeters thick resulting in huge integral project costs. However, by exploring and thinking together, the companies managed to find a new insulation solution, a material derived from the aviation industry, which measured a tiny fraction of that. The outcome: housing corporations did not need to change the window sills or the door frames, resulting in a much lower total cost of ownership and thus rent. "This is a compelling example of how this ecosystem thinking brings you new perspectives from cross-overs," she reflects.

The clock-speed of innovation requires…asking the right questions
ESTI's philosophy underlines the importance of having a good problem or a good question. Something that might be absent in organizations that lack established innovation departments. "Very often, you see organizations looking for a solution – an 8x8 vehicle to overcome rugged terrain. They don't say: ‘We need to transport something or someone from A to B.' By not describing the effects that they want to reach, but the solution, they remove every kind of thinking on innovation," Margot describes. Helping guide this thinking process and taking the right steps to absorb new knowledge: that is the role of ESTI.
Meanwhile, the clock-speed of innovation, as Margot defines, keeps going faster. According to her, individualistic thinking, or a closed innovation culture, can be true only for organizations who think they can afford to keep it that way. Nevertheless, in the real world, if companies do not look outside, they miss the timing.

The team
Margot has worked together with Rick Wielens, ESTI's second co-founder, since 2011. As she explains, "Rick is the technology-driven and process-driven person. And I look at the human factor, the cultural elements, bringing the right diversity and mindsets. So we're very much complementary in that aspect."
In total, ESTI's team has around 15 people, seven of those involved in the projects regularly. Margot describes it as being "very diverse," with people of all age groups, religions, and distinct backgrounds. "We have people coming from the corporate world; others who've done very in-depth landscaping into technology; we have fantastic program managers to guide the challenges. I am currently working mostly towards the public sector, education, and labor markets,” Margot declares.


A serious(ly fun) and enlightening game
One of ESTI's flagship projects is the Ecosystem Game. Its beginnings lay on an early, simpler version of an interactive experience, written by Margot without any intentions of seeing it turned into a product. "Instead of me standing in front of large audiences explaining the Holst Centre model," she explains, "I thought I could give people a little challenge to put on their thinking caps and give them an experience. I called it the Open Innovation Game." She says it was an uncomplicated enterprise, where players would have to work towards a central objective together. Margot was caught by surprise when people started to ask her to bring the game to their companies, realizing she had built a fun and powerful experience.

Now known as the Ecosystem Game, the activity has been updated and expanded. It elucidates the basis of ecosystem thinking and open innovation, challenging players with a number of exciting modules to tackle common ground ideas and shared beliefs or concerns. Through the session, it is possible to learn about and reflect upon several challenges that companies face on their road to thinking like an ecosystem, both internal, such as conflicting interest among departments, and external, as in absorbing knowledge from outside.

Growing strong amidst the crisis
The Ecosystem Game used to be held in physical sessions only. As ESTI was preparing 12 extensive training sessions for Unilever Food R&D, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The client, wishing to have their people trained nevertheless, asked the Institute for virtual sessions of the game. The idea brought Margot serious discomfort: "I firmly believe in the power of personal interactions. So, this was completely against my own gospel. However, we realized that we were going to be very much hit by COVID if we didn't do something in a digital format," she discloses.

Accordingly, ESTI thoroughly tweaked the Ecosystem Game to a digital platform. The response was very positive, and the new format turned out to be a successful experience: "The way we lead people through the game, and the steps that you need to take to come to a successful ecosystem work digitally as well. And the good news is, in this Ecosystem Game, every single time, we tell the story of the High Tech Campus," she states. 2020, which was rough for so many initiatives due to the pandemic, was a growing period for ESTI.

For 2021, the Institute plans are focused on expanding the number of demand-driven challenges in both the private and the public domain. As they look into the societal problems that need attention in energy transition, social equality, sustainability, and others, the organization explores ways to address these matters with a fitting ecosystem. Margot says that the fact that they are a non-nonprofit organization is beneficial in this aspect and adds: "It also helps that we are housed on the High Tech Campus, working with the ecosystem on the campus. I absolutely still love it here!"

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