Is Donald Rumsfeld an unacknowledged leader in open innovation? I found myself asking this question during a recent team-building session when we were asked for our favourite quotes.

I thought about hitting Google to find something clever but actually I didn’t need to. My favourite quote is from Donald Rumsfeld:

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.”

If you’re involved with innovation, it’s a very relevant quote. The part that really strikes a chord is around ‘unknown unknowns’. For me, unknown unknowns is about finding the opportunities we don’t even know we’re looking for – and I think that’s the really exciting aspect of having an open innovation philosophy in your business.

Venturing into the unknown

Let me give you an example. One of the first submissions to this open innovation portal was a simple one-liner from an SME:

“Using composite steel panels with a 3D locking method we have developed a new way of building houses."

This was the only line submitted and, to be honest, I think they were just testing us to see if there was anyone on the other side of the portal who actually looks at the submissions! I did a quick search, found the company and also a link to a video. That’s when I had my “wow, that’s really clever” moment.  

Basically, we’re talking about a very imaginative and innovative take on flat-pack technology, particularly suited to fast construction. At Tata Steel we have a huge interest in construction but we certainly weren’t looking for such a technology. As soon as we looked into it though, we thought “yes, we can do something new with that.”

Building something new

The most powerful way of demonstrating a new construction technology is, of course, to build something with it. That’s not always easy. But, one of the great things about open innovation is that, if you do it right, you develop strong networks and connections. So this is what happened:

- One of our partners, the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre in South Wales, have the fantastic objective of wanting to ‘turn buildings into power stations’ through the use of sustainable energy generation

- They were looking to build a demonstrator building, the ‘Active Classroom’ to showcase this concept at Swansea University’s new Bay Campus, and had secured funding for it from Swansea University and Tata Steel, the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government, Innovate UK and EPSRC.

- They were also looking to utilise a new construction technology to make the building really unique; they just didn’t know what technology (a known unknown I guess you could say!) and this is where we came in with the flat-pack technology we had found

- SPECIFIC, to their great credit, took the risk of trying this new construction technology and in October 2016, after just a 14-week construction period, the Active Classroom was opened, sponsored by Tata Steel

Innovation in action

The Active Classroom –– is a unique building that demonstrates how buildings can become power stations. It contains some pretty clever technologies:

- Photovoltaic systems from BiPVCo on Tata Steel’s Colorcoat Urban® roof

- Tata Steel’s Transpired Solar Collector – Colorcoat Renew SC® and Coretinium®- a unique steel skinned polymer honeycomb composite panel

- A floor heating system developed by SPECIFIC

- A new to the UK saltwater-based battery system

- And of course, the ‘unknown unknown’ construction technology that we weren’t even looking for!

What do you know - Or not know?

Getting back to Donald Rumsfeld’s quote, it seems to me that there’s massive potential to exploit and expand our knowledge by working, innovatively, together. Some of you will have ‘known knowns’ (you know what you know!) which may provide solutions to our ‘known unknowns’ (we know what we don’t know!) By sharing thoughts and ideas, we and you might also come across some exciting ‘unknown unknowns’.  And I know there are other unknown unknowns out there because we’re already working on some!

But you won’t know that we don’t know (and vice versa) if we don’t talk. So drop us a line through this portal and let’s take it from there.

About the author:

Pete Longdon has a PhD in Chemistry and MSc in Ferrous Metallurgy. He joined the steel industry as a researcher in 1990. He’s since led several R&D teams and managed a number of European collaborative projects for Tata Steel. Since 2010 Pete has been tasked with seeking out new technologies and encouraging collaboration.