Since 2009, the Dutch city of Eindhoven's otherwise unremarkable skyline has been punctuated by a rather unusual building. The 'blob' – which consists of retail and office space – earned its nickname due to its unique shape and is symbolic of the changes that have taken place in the city over the past few years.

For decades, Eindhoven was reliant on the activity of two companies: truck manufacturer DAF NV and electronic company Philips. With the former declaring bankruptcy in 1993 and the latter gradually moving its manufacturing operations to different locations, the city did not seem destined for a future as a dynamic, diverse and innovative industrial hub. Yet less than two decades later, that is what it has become.

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Change of fortune

In 2011, Eindhoven was chosen by the Intelligent Community Forum as the world’s smartest region and was selected by fDi Magazine as one of its European Cities of the Future in 2010. When discussing the factors that contributed to the successful reinvention of the city’s economy, Rob van Gijzel, mayor of Eindhoven, points to the city's co-operative environment. “There is a unique partnership between businesses, government and knowledge institutes,” he says.

According to Mr van Gijzel, this co-operation is based on the triple helix concept, an interdisciplinary approach that was popularised in the mid-1990s after which it was successfully adopted by various communities across the globe. In Eindhoven, the concept has been rigorously integrated to all areas of business. Head of the local design academy Annemieke Eggenkamp says: “There are places where students can create art for the sake of art. In our case, it has to be art taking into account usability and needs of the clients. That is the way everyone thinks here.”

With effective co-operation in place, another concept that has been implemented in the city in order to ensure that the private sector can thrive is open innovation. The idea of open innovation has been promoted by University of California professor Henry Chesbrough since the 1960s, but it is in Eindhoven that his theories have had the most significant impact and where he is probably most revered.

“[In Eindhoven] companies increase the speed and impact of their innovation by sharing and expanding knowledge with other high-tech business,” says Mr van Gijzel, whose commitment to the concept of open innovation is evidenced by his position as chairman of the Brainport Foundation, an entity established precisely to promote co-operation within the region and provide sustainable development in high-tech sectors such as information and communication technologies, biotech and software and IT.

Innovation on the ground

The High-Tech Campus – the result of a collaborative partnership between public entities and Philips – is synonymous with open innovation. As well as housing the most cutting edge laboratories, equipment and infrastructure, the one-square-kilometre campus also includes sporting facilities, amenities and shops. In this community-like environment, the 8000 researchers based there are encouraged to not only work on the projects assigned by their employers – which include companies such as Philips, ABB, Synopsys and Intel – but also to mingle and exchange creative ideas.

As well as the creative exchanges encouraged by these shared facilities, mingling at the High-Tech Campus has a more formal dimension. “Networking is working out here, but… it is based on [specific] projects and contacts,” says Frans Schmetz, director of the campus.

The Holst Centre, a non-profit research institute located on the High-Tech Campus, serves as a hub for these projects. “We bring together about 35 companies, among them companies such as Panasonic and Samsung, who are direct competitors. At a certain stage, companies are free to go separate ways and work on their projects," says Jaap Lombaers, managing director of the Holst Centre.

As Mr Lombaers points out, since innovation is becoming increasingly expensive and complex, there is an advantage to working, at least at the preliminary stages, hand in hand, or rather brain to brain, and that is where open innovation proves its worth. “If a company wants to work in isolation, [it] risk[s] [dropping out of the] race,” says Mr Lombaers. Working together not only helps companies stay in the race, but it also provides the momentum to set a faster pace, taking innovation to exciting new levels.