6 Brainstorming Tips for Social Innovators and Beyond

Some of the most successful and innovative solutions to global problems once started with a group of people sitting in a circle, quickly throwing out ideas. Wondering about ways to brainstorm with your team in a more effective and inclusive way? Read on.

We happen to think idea generation is an art form. It's about setting a safe, creative space for people to feel like they can say anything, be wild, and not be judged, so that new ideas can be born.

Here at OpenIDEO, we've experienced many different iterations of the classic brainstorm—in small huddles on the floor, in large groups around a conference table, and via video calls spanning multiple time zones. To help energize your next brainstorming session, we asked Program Lead Chelsea Takamine and Senior Community Designer Ashley Tillman for their favorite practices on generating better ideas, no matter the context.


A stack of Post-its or small pieces of paper. A blank wall or table (if you don’t have Post-its). A quiet space. An open mind. A group of eager brainstormers. 

1. Shhhh — start quietly

One of our favorite brainstorming techniques is to start the session in silence. Brainstorming sessions often tend to be quite a verbal process, requiring folks to speak up and insert their voice into the discussion. Optimal brainstorming processes are different for everyone, so we like to create an opportunity for folks who process and think in different ways. 


Instead of jumping right in, set a small amount of time for the group to quietly brainstorm and write ideas on Post-its. Not only does this allow for some quieter space for introverts, but it can also lead to increased diversity of ideas, as people won’t be influenced by the ideas of the group when they are generating (i.e. avoiding “groupthink”). Get creative with it! If your brainstorm stalls in the middle, you could also consider having a silent brainstorm at that point.

2. Build, but don’t dwell

In our experience, brainstorms are most valuable for generating a large number of diverse ideas. In order to optimize your time, we recommend that you avoid dwelling on your ideas. In fact, try not to discuss them at all and set that expectation from the beginning. Allow folks to share one of their ideas, place their Post-it on the wall, then promptly move on to the next idea. Start discussing only after everyone has shared all their ideas. Another way to approach this is to go around in a circle, allowing everyone to say one thought at a time, until each person has finished sharing their Post-its.


Stick to the “one idea per Post-it” rule. Steer away from crowding all of your ingenious ideas onto one single Post-it. Once you’re done sharing your ideas, you’ll be able to group all the Post-its on the wall and organize them by theme or pattern. The goal is to have as many ideas as possible.

3. Think beyond words

Whether it’s visuals or sounds, tapping into your other senses can help you get more creative. Quick drawings or sketches not only get you thinking with a different part of your brain, but they make your ideas more tangible and allow others to interact with your concept in different ways. On OpenIDEO’s Challenges, we love seeing contributors include photos, mockups, and even videos or GIFs to bolster their idea submissions and make them more memorable. This year, we saw the power of visual language in the form of our Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge, which asked designers to contribute images for their reimagined concepts of cybersecurity. 

Another non-verbal tactic is to set the atmosphere for optimal productivity and idea-generation by playing music in the background, be it the relaxing sounds of nature or upbeat, lyric-less tunes.


To help provide a clearer direction for where you’d like to take your ideas, consider doing a fun homework assignment before you meet up with the group. Create a simple digital mood board by curating a series of illustrations, graphics, color palettes, or quotes tied to the theme or question in mind. Feel free to show it to your group to help illustrate your ideas when sharing during the brainstorm session.

4. Create an inclusive, judgment-free zone

Creative spaces don't judge. They let the ideas flow so that people can build on each other. You never know where a good idea is going to come from—the key is to make everyone feel like they can say the idea on their mind and allow others to build on it. Often, in a group setting, it’s natural that the most vocal person may dominate the discussion and potentially block out some valuable concepts. Work to build a brainstorming culture that doesn’t stifle any voices by giving everyone the opportunity to speak. 


Set expectations upfront with your group before diving into the brainstorm session. Make it clear that you: 1) want all voices heard, 2) want to keep to time constraints (even when it feels uncomfortable) and 3) will only have one conversation at a time to keep people from talking over each other.

5. Ideate from the edges

Unconventional ideas can often give rise to creative leaps. When you put forth an oddball idea and it’s met with negative feedback, it actually can reduce your ability and desire to think creatively and generatively. This is problematic because we know that some of the biggest successes are slight iterations of not-so-great ideas. A wild idea might be two or three iterations away from a transformational idea. Just take a look at this idea from an innovator to put insects to work to turn food waste into animal feed, or this proposal to use drones to plant trees in vulnerable coastline communities.


In your brainstorming process, try envisioning all the ideas that might be possible without the constraints of technology, materials, or finances. You never know—under the right circumstances, your wild idea just might become a reality.

6. Lead a virtual brainstorm

Brainstorming doesn't strictly have to happen in person. Having a globally distributed community—including team members, Chapter organizers, and OpenIDEO contributors spread across the world—means that we've had to become experts at ideating across great distances.

A video brainstorm call with 20+ participants isn't an unusual occurrence at OpenIDEO.

Virtual brainstorms should be active, not passive. Design the session to be both accessible and engaging for people coming from different places. To start, send out the agenda and prompts to your group in advance so they have time to digest the information beforehand—especially if anyone speaks a different first language. Make sure to leave extra time to allow for questions and discussion, and provide the recording and/or transcript afterwards to continue building on the brainstorm.


Preparation is key. For smooth virtual conferencing, hash out the details by reminding your group to join by video (not just audio) and to make sure they’re in a quiet and uninterrupted space with pen and paper in hand. For a quick energy boost, start with an icebreaker that helps your fellow brainstormers connect with each other, whether it’s sharing what time it is where they’re located, or drawing a doodle of what they’re seeing out the window. 

The key to great brainstorming is to lead with empathy, keep an open mind, and have fun. We hope these six tips come in handy the next time you're brainstorming—perhaps for one of our upcoming Challenges. After all, collaborative thinking is the engine that drives OpenIDEO's innovation platform forward.

Have a great tip for coming up with ideas to solve tough problems? We'd love to know. Share them with us on Twitter by tagging @OpenIDEO

There’s never been more momentum for change. As millions of young people flood the streets around the globe to demand urgent climate action, cities and social entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands. Feeling this rising bottom-up pressure, governments, corporations, and multilateral organizations, like the UN, are accelerating their efforts to address massive global issues. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have provided a clear framework for action, and they’re helping align more actors than ever in the systems change we need.

OpenIDEO’s leaders, Jason Rissman and Luisa Covaria, spent the week diving into events and conversations, and came back to our team (and now you, our community) with three main themes they wanted to share as we work together to build a better world:

1. Ownership.

Since kicking off the Climate Strike a year ago, 16-year-old Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg has been extraordinarily influential in striking up fierce conversations around climate change and inspiring millions of young people to start taking action. She delivered an unforgettable message at the UN Climate Action Summit, telling world leaders: 

"You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you." 

There’s a new urgency and commitment to addressing the climate emergency, and it’s translating into actors at all levels—from individual young people to national governments—starting to take more ownership. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “We have been losing the race against the climate crisis. But the world is waking up. Pressure is building. Momentum is growing. And—action by action—the tide is turning.”

Countries have moved past negotiation and toward ownership, showing up with their own commitments in unison with this year’s theme for UNGA: "Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action, and inclusion." During the week, 77 countries committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and 139 banks—representing a third of the industry—signed up to align with the Paris agreement objectives. The UN member states also adopted a landmark declaration on universal health coverage. These are just a few of many examples of stakeholders proactively bringing forward their solutions. 


Sharing his observations from listening to diverse groups of Americans this past year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told the audience that he saw a “tremendous urgency and a tremendous spirit of do-it-yourself … a deep sense that it had to become a matter of personal responsibility right down to the local level.” Echoing his statement, we’re proud of OpenIDEO's globally connected innovators for taking initiative and developing a sense of ownership around local problems. They’re tackling issues related to food waste, people on the move, education, public health, circular economy, and so much more, with dedication and ingenuity.

As we move forward, how might open innovation be a conduit for increased ownership and visibility into the work different stakeholders are taking on? How might the work of so many of the incredible innovators in the OpenIDEO community inspire leaders to develop a mindset around design and prototyping in the work they are owning?

2. Technology

"We will have wonderful machines and dumb people if we don't invest more in education,” cautioned musician and entrepreneur, will.i.am, during a World Economic Forum panel focused on the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—or the multiple technological revolutions that are transforming the way we live and work—to meet global development goals.

“It’s not about connectivity—it’s about access,” noted Kate Wilson, CEO of the Digital Impact Alliance at the UN Foundation. “How do we provide access to 50% of the world not connected to the internet? SMS and voice won’t do it. How do we create content and opportunities that are relevant?”

It's crucial that no one is left behind. While technological innovation is surely part of the answer, uneven access and unequal digital skills will lead to adverse effects. For tech to improve lives in a responsible and even way, and to avoid even greater increases in inequity, we'll need new models of targeted education, responsive innovation, and real cooperation between economic, political, and social systems.


Tech needs to facilitate inclusion in addressing societal problems, by involving those who are most proximate to the problems that well-intentioned new technologies are aiming to solve. We believe that collaborative thinking leads to greater innovation, and that including the voices of those with lived experiences will generate even stronger solutions. Open innovation is in its infancy, and we’re excited to help it advance to better surface and support the social innovators our future needs.

3. Collaboration

Today’s problems are interconnected, and only through systems change can we hope to make real progress. This will require more cross-sector collaboration than ever, but first, we need to improve how these collaborations are created and sustained. It’s time to introduce new models of collaboration that distribute leadership and allow all sectors to pitch in.

The SDGs have provided a powerful framework for what needs to get done, and some of the biggest players in the public and private spheres are putting their heads together to unlock the resources necessary to meet them. During UNGA, Google and the UN launched a partnership to develop real-time maps on weather patterns and SDG development activity, while the Gates Foundation and the World Bank announced a multi-million dollar commitment to support small-scale food producers in the face of mounting climate impacts.

Public-private partnerships are a necessary ingredient, as are new collaboration models that offer participants more shared ownership and flexibility.

The road to healthy collaboration is fraught with challenges, from getting past cultural differences to agreeing to common goals to making the long-term commitments needed for systemic change. Making collaborations work is hard work -- it takes empathy, grit, and a real understanding that it’s the key to sustained progress.


We’re excited for open innovation to provide a unique opportunity to rally diverse stakeholders and together explore new possibilities. By providing shared learning opportunities, clear timelines and processes, along with compelling incentives, open innovation holds the potential to mitigate against these common obstacles and to quicken the pace at which solutions are being developed by scaling the design process globally. Direct competitors collaborating in a pre-competitive space to address environmental challenges is a promising sign, but we need to go further. We all need to adopt an experimental mindset as a collective and work to continuously improve our ability to collaborate.

The NextGen Circular Business Accelerator, which culminated in a pitch event at UNGA, was one such collaboration, with leading brands, industry experts, and innovators coming together to eliminate single-use food packaging waste by developing a more sustainable cup. 

It is incredible to be in a room where you can feel a community reach a turning point. This year at UNGA we felt that shift tangibly across fields and sectors. We look forward to a year of collaborations with our partners and community that reflect this movement. 

What Do We Hope To Accomplish?

The Rockefeller Foundation has partnered with SecondMuse and OpenIDEO to amplify the discourse on the state and the future of the world’s many food systems, and to empower communities globally to develop actionable solutions and become protagonists in their own food future. Creating a compelling, concrete and actionable Vision for the future of our food system requires a culture of collaboration that rallies industry, policy, academia, and society to act as one. When we come together, we can deliver sustainable, nourishing diets for people and the planet by 2050.

Why Food Systems?

Aside from air, food (including clean water) is the most vital resource for life on Earth. And when you look at the food systems data and 2050 projections, the future does look bleak. But Humanity has more knowledge, technology, social intelligence, and human capacity than ever before—all of which can be harnessed to create a food system that nourishes all people, grows the global economy, and nurtures a thriving environment.

A Systems Approach

The Food System Vision Prize invites organizations and entities (called Visionaries) to imagine a hopeful, inspiring Vision for their chosen Place—town, state/province, region, bioregion, watershed, or country—through a systems approach. The goal for the program is to develop Visions that reflect the views of different stakeholders and that address the following six Themes:
1. Environment
2. Diets
3. Economics
4. Culture
5. Technology
6. Policy

Our Goal

Successful Food System Visions will be stories of contrast. They will illuminate the difference among food systems as they exist today and as they could be in the year 2050 “if we get it right” (science, policy, advocacy, behavior, etc.). Visions will unlock inspiration, knowledge, networks, and innovative solutions that have the potential to transform the future course of humanity and the planet. The purpose of the Food System Vision Prize is to light the way for populations across the globe to realize a more promising, nourishing, and healthy future.

Sign up to stay tuned for updates!


1 . National Institutes of Health (NIH). Handout on Health: Atopic Dermatitis (A type of eczema) 2013. 2. NA Gandhi et al., Targeting key proximal drivers of type 2 inflammation in disease. Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2016;15(1):35-50. 3. S. Weidinger et al., Atopic dermatitis. Lancet. 2016;387:1109-1122. 4. T. Zuberbier, et al., Patient perspectives on the management of atopic dermatitis, J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2006;118(1):226-232.

Header Image © 2018, Lurdes R. Basolí / EFA Atopical Lives Project

SAGLB.AD.19.08.1277(1) | September 2019