The Oslo peace process of innovation

My personal highlights of 2017? One: seeing Oslo in New York, winner of this year’s Tony Award for Best Play; and two: brokering a collaboration between one of Australia’s largest companies and largest universities. There are plenty of similarities between the two, and it’s no coincidence.

Oslo is the story of the secret back-channel talks that began in January 1993 between two Israeli academics and three Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) officials; discussions that would ultimately grow to become the Oslo I Accord in September 1993 (the one where Rabin and Arafat shake hands outside the White House).

The play, however, centres on the facilitators—Terje Larsen, Director of the Fafo Institute, and his wife Mona Juul, an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry—and the dramatic and comical line the two maintain to bring the warring parties together. And they bring them together just to talk, about anything at all, even just the food. The New York Times put it this way in their April 13 review:

“Their approach in bringing together two seemingly irreconcilable sides was rooted in the theory of gradualism (as opposed to the more traditional model of totalism), which is far less academic and more emotional, and common-sensical, than it sounds.”

That is: counterintuitively, small steps taken by people who trust each other can achieve the impossible. Hold that thought for a moment. The historian Hilde Waage described the Norwegian role in the Journal of Palestine Studies (2005;34:6-24) as follows:

“Though the Palestinian participants were all PLO officials, the talks at this stage were entirely informal and exploratory, almost ‘academic’. The only Israeli official aware of the meetings was [Deputy Foreign Minister] Beilin, who was deeply involved from the beginning and watched progress closely, with [Foreign Minister] Peres (who became enthusiastic) and Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin (who was very skeptical) informed only after the first round. … The Norwegians saw themselves not as mediators but as facilitators. They never interfered in the negotiations or even were present when they were going on. Their contribution consisted of getting the parties together, booking flights and hotels, paying the bills, arranging meetings and, not least, keeping the negotiations going and secret. … Most important, they used their good offices to promote trust between the two sides. This involved providing shelter, a small-group setting, food, drinks, and outdoor walks—an informal and cozy atmosphere that would foster the development of friendships between the main players. The emphasis was on breaking down stereotypes, smoothing over existential obstacles, clearing misunderstandings, and overcoming a lack of willingness to talk.”

Informal and exploratory; breaking down stereotypes: the relevance to innovation is uncanny. If only the two sides would make a start and talk!

Now to the industry-university collaboration, which took me four months to put together. A big deal then you’d think? No, not at all: a total of two academics for ten days. Yep, that’s it, only ten days. Just another proof of concept? No. In fact, there was no concept. The whole point of the engagement was to explore concepts.

The essence of an industry-university collaboration—indeed any collaboration—is to exchange ideas in a way that enables innovation. No more, no less. When a business and a university meet for the first time (or second, or third, in an infinite loop), it really isn’t possible to get past the small talk without a framework that allows true immersion in real problems. That means: enough time for both sides to understand each other and understand the problem domain; secure access for both sides to relevant data; and legal protections for both sides regarding IP and liability.

You really can’t do those things without a formal contractual arrangement that goes beyond a mere non-disclosure agreement. If the project size is too large, it’s too risky for both sides to enter into the contract without fully understanding the problem. But on the other hand, it isn’t possible to achieve that very understanding without a formal contract.

Going back to Oslo, the answer is the theory of gradualism: a small contract with no other deliverable than a discussion paper on innovation opportunities. Critically, a small contract allows so many barriers to be lowered (true story: “You want to own all the new IP? Sure! It’s only ten days work”).

If the collaboration isn’t successful, there’s little harm done. If it is successful, the parties can negotiate a new arrangement with far greater clarity and goodwill. Like Oslo, the key is simply to start talking.

By Andrew Botros
Andrew Botros

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