Exploitation - the Journey From Early Approaches to Mature Concepts

Theoretical basis

The ambition of large-scale research and development projects such as Learning Layers is not just to create new knowledge and innovative prototypes, but also to make a sustainable economic and social impact that justifies the multi-million investment in the eyes of the funders and, ultimately, the taxpayers.

How to achieve a meaningful impact, however, often remains elusive to those working in such projects. Part of the problem is to see the question too narrowly as one of commercial exploitation. In this context, one has to recognise that a project such as Learning Layers is not primarily about business development, since economic value accumulation and profit motive are not its overarching goal or driving force. Rather, the strong focus on stakeholder networking, scalability, and societal outcomes suggests that the characteristics and behaviour of such a project is better understood from the perspective of an early stage social venture. The idea is that we can tap into the experiences and ways of doing things of early start-ups in the social sector to develop an exploitation agenda that is mindful of the special characteristics and constraints of our own project.

Social ventures

Social ventures differ from for-profit organisations in that they pursue economic and social goals that address pressing issues in communities and society rather than profit maximisation or shareholder value. At the same time, social ventures “use market-based solutions and businesslike models to pursue commercial and financial sustainability” (Haugh, 2007, p. 165), unlike more traditional NGOs and charities who rely to a large extent on philanthropic donations and public funding. Since Learning Layers has an explicit focus on working towards sustainability, Haugh’s affirmation suggests that we look at social ventures and social entrepreneurship as a guiding frame for the overarching exploitation process in Learning Layers.

Haugh’s stage model of community-led social venture creation

Stage or process models of social entrepreneurship that build on empirical case studies are a good starting point to get an understanding of the nature and dynamics of the venture development process. For instance, the qualitative study by Haugh (2007) highlights some of the distinguishing elements and stages of developing social ventures. Haugh (2007) builds on five case studies of community-led social ventures in rural Scotland, and focuses in particular on the earlier stages in venture creation. Discussing the process of social and economic value creation in the context of concrete empirical cases has the advantage of demonstrating more clearly the practical dimensions and potential implications of that process for Learning Layers.

Haugh’s model focuses on the pre-venture or gestation phase, when teams are put together, initial funding is secured, equipment and other resources are brought in, and so on. Since funding and available resources are scarce, this phase involves

experimenting with different resource combinations to create potential gains in relation to affordable loss, the construction of alliances with stakeholders to handle uncertainty, the exploitation of contingencies that arise over time, and efforts to control the unpredictable rather than attempting to predict an uncertain future. […] The interaction moves from a loose arrangement of stakeholders based on trust and working with ideas in germination to advancing on an idea, gathering resources, and ultimately creating an organization.” (Haugh, 2007, p. 163)

This is reminiscent of Damien Newman’s Squiggle (see figure below), which shows how organisational transformation starts out as a wild exploration through uncertain terrain, discovering patterns and creating concepts and prototypes, and so to progressively increase clarity and focus of the new design. In a way, Haugh’s description suggests a similar process in social venture creation, with the added twist that building stakeholder alliances are key to reduce uncertainty and move towards creating an organisation that can deliver sustainability.

Figure 1


Figure 1: The Squiggle (by Damien Newman)

Stage models add a certain structure to this process, commonly by identifying phases with distinct types of activities such as opportunity identification or stakeholder mobilisation. Some models further specify transition points and the conditions for progressing from one phase to the next. We conducted a similar exploratory and staged approach in Learning Layers for our exploitation work.

Process applied in Learning Layers

Our exploitation work is befittingly characterised by Newman’s squiggle, where we worked through an early stage of generating insights through exploration in a context of high uncertainty, followed by a stage where loose, emerging alliances could be strengthened and where we could move towards an approach to exploitation we all felt comfortable with, to eventually get to the stage where we have sufficient clarity and focus to help us move our work beyond the end of the project. Concretely, this abstract-sounding process was implemented using co-design approaches, design-based research, and methods from accompanying research. For details, see Co-Design Framework, Design Based Research, and Accompanying Research and Participative Design.

Early stage - Exploring different approaches to exploitation

During the first years of the project, we made progress along several dimensions of the exploitation task using four loosely linked approaches. First, we created the notion of Layers offerings to engage stakeholders in the project and create early results that represent clear value to them. Second, we built sustainability scenarios that provided the context in which exploitation of promising project results could take place and that brought external stakeholders and resources into the equation. Third, we used the business model canvas and the value proposition canvas to draw the attention of partners to key aspects of exploitation that are commonly neglected in Research and Development projects. Finally, we developed an incubation model that conceptualises exploitation as an ongoing process involving the whole project rather than a planning exercise of the exploitation lead partner. All these activities built on existing knowledge (e.g. structures, apprenticeships and further education, needs, problems, challenges), experiences, partnerships and appropriate (micro-) methodologies in the health and construction pilots.

Middle stage - Reflection on the early stage and reconceptualisation

The early stage of exploitation with its different tools has helped us focus people’s attention on key aspects of exploitation. However, on reflection of what was achieved during that stage, we were able to identify a number of lessons learned:

Drawing on the lessons learnt and the experiences of our past exploitation and sustainability activities, we created the concept of an exploitation journey. Teams that coalesce around particular project results are central to the approach in that they have full ownership of their exploitation journey and are free to shape the process and outcomes in accordance with their needs and capabilities. At the same time, there is full flexibility in terms of the level of individual engagement and partners can opt for the fallback option of a standard exploitation plan that requires less commitment and involvement but still creates a valuable contribution.

Mature/late stage - Exploitation journeys

As part of the Learning Layers design conference in Espoo (Finland) in the third year of the project, we ran a half-day workshop to kick off several exploitation journeys. An important goal of the workshop was to focus partners’ minds on how to create new opportunities and sustained impact from the results that come out of Learning Layers. An explicit aim of the kick-off was to think the teams that would drive the different journeys forward.

Figure 2


Figure 2: Drafting exploitation journeys in the Espoo Design Conference 2015

The activities of the launch workshop had three main aims that went beyond undertaking a standard business model canvas exercise:

During the workshop, the six teams progressed on these objectives to different degrees and at different levels of concreteness.

Figure 3


Figure 3: Presenting exploitation journeys in the Espoo Design Conference 2015

Connecting and expanding - The project-wide exploitation and sharing model

In the second half of year 3, the different teams worked collaboratively on developing and evolving the exploitation journeys that were started in the Espoo meeting. Since these journeys tended to be highly focused on technology development and to reduce the risk of fragmentation of efforts, for instance by creating parallel and only weakly connected initiatives around these technologies, we decided that we had to enable a broader involvement in these journeys by those who have a shared interest in them and provide partners with some guidance of how the work and the roles could be organised more systematically. To this end, we have created a project-wide exploitation model and developed the collaborative and sharing element of that model further into several concrete approaches.

The exploitation model incorporates the different roles and interests that project partners might have in participating in activities that continue beyond the end of the project. It also tries to make visible the links between the roles so that it is easier to identify the kind of collaborations that are needed to progress with the exploitation journeys. The model is not intended as a blueprint for an organisational structure, but wants to support meaningful conversations around exploitation by helping partners to locate themselves within the space of possibilities of further collaboration and exploitation without being unnecessarily restrictive.

The model has three key activity areas: the advisory area; the research and development area; and the commercial exploitation area.

Figure 4


Figure 4: Layers Exploitation Model

The advisory area covers emerging follow-up activities with different intensity of advisory input from partners. The “Learning Layers Association” is a lightweight umbrella to continue the cooperation across project consortium as an interest group that promotes the tools and ideas of the project in new contexts. The “Learning Layers Cooperative” is a more committed service alliance of partners that are ready to support new initiatives with technical advice and facilitation in project creation.

The importance of the Research & Development area lies in the need for R&D projects to develop the products and services of Learning Layers to a more mature stage. Here we have a more differentiated look at the R&D agendas to pursue, including comprehensive follow-up projects that focus on further development of integrative toolsets for and with specific application partners and more specific R&D projects that link the further development of Learning Layers tools and similar toolsets to technical innovation programs.

The commercial exploitation area differentiates between three kinds of organisational entities. New enterprises (social/commercial) that dedicate themselves to further develop Learning Layers tools, software, and services as their core business. Existing partners (private/public organisations) that continue to work on the basis of their business models or institutional frameworks. Here the model suggests that if new entreprises emerge, preferential ‘giving back’ partnership relations should be agreed in the founding processes. These ‘giving back’ relations are further developed in the sharing model below. Third party organisations (SMEs, training providers, service providers, cluster organisations) can be involved with appropriate partnership agreements.

A key idea in the exploitation model is that project results are in some way the product of all efforts in the project and that commercial and non-profit exploitation should account for this in some way. This ‘giving back’ part has been developed as a set of roles that partners can opt for around the exploitation initiative. Below is an example of a company exploiting a Layers technology, but this also applies to a project consortium or a non-profit organisation. Layers partners in any of these roles would have preferential terms, for instance in higher fee income, higher discount, more free licenses, more free services, and so on.

Figure 5


Figure 5: Layers Sharing Model

Example of application: Construction sector

During the second year, the Learning Layers partners developed an exploitation model that linked to each other scaling up activities (referring more closely to the contexts of the current project) and spin-off activities (that go beyond current contexts). The exploitation workshops at the end of Y2 and during the Y3 have equipped the partners to launch parallel exploitation activities and to link them to each other. During the Y3 the partners in the construction pilot have engaged themselves in the following kinds of exploitation initiatives:

Cluster- and network initiative “Bauen 4.0” (funded by German Ministry of Economy)

ITB and Bau-ABC are involved in the construction sector network initiative “Bauen 4.0” (Construction 4.0) that was submitted in December 2014. (The selection has been delayed until Autumn 2015, and a new call will be published by the end of the year 2015.) This is a two-phase selection procedure, in which the approved clusters or networks are eligible to submit specific project proposals that contribute to the work program of the network. Altogether the network seeks to contribute to digitised production technologies (including the contribution of BIM), to ‘intelligent construction sites’ (including such digital tools as Learning Layers is developing), BIM-compatible platform development and shaping of appropriate training models.

R&D projects with application partners (funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research)

In Spring 2015 ITB and the application partners submitted parallel proposals for the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) to be funded by the programme ‘Digital media for vocational education & training’ (DiMeBB 2) or by the programme ‘Future of adult education/ continuing vocational training). The following two proposals were shortlisted for final selection: Bau-ABC and ITB proposed with partners from the “Bauen 4.0” network a project (DigiProB) to support use of digital tools and platforms continuing vocational training. The project will focus on the on-the-job training of general site managers (Geprüfte Polier). ITB, Agentur and the affiliated training provider BiWeNa proposed a project to develop a didactic framework for self-organised adult learning processes - with emphasis on different learning venues and on the support by digital media and platforms. The project will focus on training and learning processes linked to ecological construction work.

Developmental projects with relevance for Learning Layers

In addition to the previous ones the application partners have proposed or acquired funding for developmental projects that have more specific contexts but may serve as pilot contexts for Learning Layers tools or closely related tools. Agentur has got together with ITB funding for a project that develops training in renovation and sanitizing for craftsmen with emphasis on ecological construction work (NaBuS). Bau-ABC (in collaboration with partner enterprises) has received an invitation to submit a full project proposal on domain-specific language support for apprentices coming from other European countries to be trained in Germany. In this context there is a possibility to adapt the use of Learning Layers tools and platforms for the special target group in vocational and workplace learning.

Contributing Authors

Gilbert Peffer, Raymond Elferink, Pekka Kämäräinen


    Haugh, H. (2007). Community‐led social venture creation. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 31(2), 161-182.


    Examples of application in Learning Layers

    Materials derived from Learning Layers