Community Is the Key to the Future. Here's How to Unlock It.

How did OpenIDEO grow from a Facebook post to a practice that has engaged thousands of innovators worldwide? The short answer: our community.

"I found my new home at OpenIDEO when I first submitted an idea to the Food Waste Challenge,” says Isaac Jumba, an OpenIDEO Community Fellow and Organizer who has spent years working in areas like healthcare, agricultural technology, and education in Kenya. Isaac sees his role as a way to elevate locals’ voices and ideas, so the innovations that emerge from OpenIDEO’s open innovation Challenges can thrive in Kenya.

Issac Jumba, an OpenIDEO Community Fellow, shares local insights to help ideas thrive in Kenya. Right: Isaac supporting a program that gives Kenyan youth opportunities to lead pioneering agri-enterprises.

We’ve been reflecting on how OpenIDEO went from an idea posted on Facebook to a platform that engages more than 150,000 people and sources thousands of innovations from makers around the world. The short answer? Our diverse and far-reaching community of individuals like Isaac, who in turn fold their communities into the OpenIDEO family.

We believe that solutions to today’s toughest challenges can’t scale globally without considering the many cultures and systems that make up our world. None of us can solve systemic issues from our own headquarters or region. This is why OpenIDEO invests in community—it’s a core part of how we drive broad social impact. Though we’re always learning, here are five principles that help us build, grow, and awaken community. Ultimately, these tenets support the progress OpenIDEO and our Sponsors hope to make in the world.

Bring the right people and unexpected pairings together

Our design process—coupled with technology—allows for many people to participate in our Challenges. However, if the purpose of OpenIDEO’s Challenges is to create positive change, the goal shouldn’t be a certain number of participants. It’s rather about getting the right people involved. Challenges bring different people from around the world together. Chris Berger, Director of Communications at GHR at GHR Foundation says:

“Our BridgeBuilder Challenge with OpenIDEO was GHR’s first open call process.  By reaching deeper into communities around the world, BridgeBuilder is shifting power and resources to local organizations and their innovative ideas.”

Though these innovators are united by a shared purpose—be it early childhood education or vaccine access—many haven’t met because they’re separated by artificial barriers like geography or industry. Together, these diverse groups have the power to solve societal challenges. They each hold a piece of the puzzle, but uniting the pieces must be intentionally designed.

During the Nike Design With Grind Challenge, a team needed help bringing their idea to life through prototyping. OpenIDEO matched the team with Manisha Laroria, an OpenIDEO Community Prototyper in India with expertise in making ideas tangible. “The team and I were on a video call discussing how to create a poster to help potential funders visualize their product,” says Manisha. “I sketched it out and pointed the drawing at my computer camera. They instantly understood—it was a moment of teaching and connection through making.”

OpenIDEO Community Prototyper Manisha Laroria uses her sketches to bring Challenge teams’ ideas to life and cut across barriers like language, which can prevent diverse stakeholders from collaborating.

Though living oceans apart, seemingly having little in common, and never meeting in person, this strategic collaboration between diverse stakeholders enabled progress.

Cultivate global networks to generate local insights

Taking a step back, how do you inspire these diverse and bright minds to come together? We attract the key innovators and experts by developing relationships with leaders in areas we want to work in. Ultimately, these networks allow us and our Sponsors to unearth the local insights needed to address global challenges.

Since 2016, we’ve worked to identify and empower social innovation leaders through OpenIDEO Chapters—networks of volunteer-run communities in over 30 cities around the world. Chapters bring local expertise and perspectives to global Challenges by hosting meetups, design research sessions, hackathons, and more. During the NextGen Cup Challenge, OpenIDEO Chapter Leaders—from Kaye Han in Berlin to Luis Delgado in Lima—organized 26 guided design research sessions around the world.

OpenIDEO Berlin Chapter members visited coffee shops as part of design research in the NextGen Cup Challenge. The Guatemala City Chapter created customer personas based on local findings.

These strong relationships allowed us and our Sponsors to surface local insights to design a next-generation fiber to-go cup to be recoverable on a global scale. OpenIDEO Chapter Leaders in Kenya took Challenge participants to villages around the country to observe how Kenyans use cups. They saw how cups are used in indigenous rituals and how young people in Kenya use them in cafés.

By investing in relationships and efforts like Chapters, OpenIDEO quickly uncovers findings that are typically difficult to access and helps our Sponsors better understand the complexity of global issues.

Listen to needs and give back

When different people come together, cutting-edge solutions aren’t necessarily guaranteed. We can collect insights by cultivating relationships all over the world, but we must also provide meaningful opportunities for our community to develop their ideas.  

Across topics, Challenge participants tell us that they’re looking for learning, visibility, funding, or partnerships. By meaningfully giving back to them, we ensure our practices aren’t exploitative. We see our community as people first. Community members frequently share that the people they’ve met through a Challenge pushed their thinking, or gave them access to skills like prototyping or storytelling, developed into a partnership, or even helped them get funding.

For example, Bertha Jimenez was interested in reducing food waste by repurposing spent grain from beer production. She felt alone and uncertain how to proceed, so she attended an OpenIDEO Food Waste Challenge event, which was designed to help participants find partners and collaborators. There, Bertha met Ashwin Gopi, who ultimately became her co-founder. Later, when seeking funding for Bertha’s original idea, the two met Aitan Mizrahi through OpenIDEO, who works at an organization that promotes environmentally-progressive projects.

Ashwin Gopi and Bertha Jimenez, left, were students seeking partnership who met at an OpenIDEO event. They launched RISE, a company that upcycles by-products into ingredients like flour, receiving funding through OpenIDEO's community.

“We shared the big dreams we had, but realized we couldn’t afford to implement them,” says Bertha. “Aitan offered to pitch the idea to his boss for some grant money—a $1500 request. Aitan’s boss immediately provided the check.” With Aitan’s support and this first check, Bertha and Ashwin launched RISE, a business that upcycles used grain into nutritious ingredients. Today, RISE has secured $150K in funding, developed partnerships with breweries, restaurants, and bakeries, and been accepted into leading food Accelerators to scale operations and impact.

When we listen to what our community needs and give back, everyone can win. Whether it’s learning a new skill or finding a co-founder, winning isn’t only about taking home a share of the prize money.

Create a sense of belonging

Fostering belonging supports our work and allows design to have greater impact in the world. We experience less burnout when we’re connected to others, which helps us work on tackling challenges for longer periods of time. In addition to making us feel healthy emotionally and physically, belonging creates the conditions for more effective collaboration. Ultimately, stepping away from our silos to collaborate is required to address systemic issues.

We do many things at OpenIDEO that seem unrelated to our work at first glance: community check-in calls, community retreats, and small moments of ritual and joy. But these activities develop intimacy, nourish and sustain people, and create belonging.

One of OpenIDEO’s primary goals is to build a culture where people feel seen, heard, and supported as humans.

We’ve found that creating a physical space and inviting others inside is a powerful way to create belonging. In January, we invited OpenIDEO community leaders to a retreat called Gather. “At Gather, I realized that we are connected beyond what we can possibly imagine,” says Isaac. “I felt a sense of belonging, authenticity and intentionality. It was a reaffirmation of the work that we do every day. After Gather, I felt reassured, excited, and more collaborative."

We move beyond pixels to meet in-person through community retreats like Gather, where we focus on engaging our community and fostering the culture of belonging that makes OpenIDEO’s work possible.

One of OpenIDEO’s primary goals is to build a culture where people feel seen, heard, and supported as humans—it’s a need we all have. For us, this feeling is the truest definition and manifestation of community.

Practice new models of community leadership

Who leads a movement or community? Many say there’s a single individual at the center who makes decisions and whom others rally around. However, when we rely on a single person, team, or organization, change is unsustainable—there’s too much risk and stress on one plate. If that leader shifts priorities, withdraws from the work, or the movement crumbles.

Many folks in our space talk about “leaderless” movements. But we rely on a “leaderfull” framework that’s existed for hundreds of years in indigenous communities, women’s cooperatives, and social movements.

We invest in distributed groups of leaders around the world and work to provide them with frameworks for collaborative and more transparent decision-making, giving more power back to the community for the allocation of key resources like grant funding.

We recently expanded our core Community team by adding four new freelance positions. These Community Fellows from Kenya, Lebanon, and the Netherlands, expand our ability to serve the larger OpenIDEO community. Through their leadership, OpenIDEO recruited the largest cohort of volunteer Community Prototypers for a Challenge to date, to help bring participants’ innovations to life. We hope to continue to scale this model in the coming years, transforming not only our business model but the way we continue to engage innovators and connect them to opportunities around the world.

OpenIDEO Community Fellows are a distributed group of leaders around the globe who help our core team make key decisions, like how to best utilize grant funding and engage their local communities in Challenges.

“At OpenIDEO community events, there are people who are passionate about creating a better world,” says Naman Mandhan, the OpenIDEO Detroit Chapter Lead. “We come together to learn, grow, and strengthen each other and our communities to address the social challenges of our time.” Imagine the power of this purpose when it extends across five continents. Though we don’t know what the future holds, we know one thing: We have a purpose-driven community that is eager to co-create a better future with us.

These five tenets are not exhaustive and are often difficult to keep in balance—we don’t apply them perfectly each time. However, we hold ourselves accountable to these principles because our community is one of the keys to our success. Community has made OpenIDEO’s and our Sponsors’ impact greater than we ever could have accomplished alone.

During our community check-in calls, we usually conclude with a gratitude share. So, in conclusion, we’ll share this: Being surrounded by purpose-led, talented, and diverse people in this work—what a gift. May we never lose sight of this.

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