Embrace open sustainability innovation at the InnoDays

5 min readFeb 14, 2020


The business world is experiencing increased pressure to embrace sustainability as a guiding principle within its innovation agenda. Achieving social, environmental and economic impact is paramount to sustainable development. However, finding a balance between these three areas is not always easy. The complexity of sustainable development arises from several dimensions that need to be considered when designing sustainable products and services. Open Innovation provides an opportunity to leverage the experiences and expertise of diverse actors to bring sustainable change to the industry.

Participants at the InnoDays Bregenz 2019 in the Rhomberg Bau Group & Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group category

The opportunity: Provide a pathway for sustainable change

Open sustainability innovation describes the use of open innovation methods and practices for sustainable development. Through open sustainability innovation, new products and services are co-created by companies, customers, and external partners. The objective is to create shared value for society and business, which involves controlling for negative externalities and making sure the products and services developed to improve the lives of communities.

Hackathons are one method for open innovation, during which external actors engage with complex innovation problems in a limited timeframe that typically varies between 24 and 48 hours. Hackathons may be of different nature: technical or non-technical, corporate or public, online or based in a specific location. In the past, most of the hackathons were strictly technical and aimed at solving software development challenges. In time, we see more and more public and corporate hackathons aiming at involving external innovators for the betterment of urban life and corporate impact on society. For instance, the Swedish engineering consulting company Sweco is organizing a “Sustainability Hackathon” to tackle future challenges of the city with young experts and students from Sweden and Japan. Another example, the American telecom conglomerate AT&T and the Japanese digital provider Hitachi included an “Environmental Sustainability Challenge” during the annual Developer Summit Hackathon in Nevada.

The InnoDays are a corporate hackathon format that involves students and young professionals with diverse backgrounds to tackle pressing innovation challenges. Acknowledging the potential of hackathons to bring positive impact, we are working with our company partners on including sustainability as part of their open innovation agenda. In this case study, we present the experience of Rhomberg Bau Group & Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group at the InnoDays Bregenz 2019 to provide insights on how companies can leverage corporate hackathons as part of their sustainability strategy.

Case Study

Company partners: Rhomberg Bau Group & Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group

Challenge question: How might we reimagine the course of action of a construction and railway company in ways that are ecologically, economically and socially sustainable?

Event: InnoDays Bregenz 2019

Outcomes: 25 participants generated 5 prototypes

Participant at the InnoDays Bregenz 2019 in the Rhomberg Bau Group & Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group category

The Rhomberg Bau Group and Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group, headquartered in Bregenz, Austria and Zurich, Switzerland, are operating in the construction, resources and railway sectors. The group currently employs around 2800 people and has locations and subsidiaries in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. In its construction division, the Rhomberg Bau Group acts as a full-service provider and offers solutions and services for all phases of the life-cycle of public and private buildings. As a full railway engineering service provider, the Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group offers an almost complete range of services in the fields of railway construction, infrastructure, and services.

The two Rhomberg Groups joined the InnoDays Bregenz 2019 to explore new ways to bring sustainable change to their organizations. The construction industry accounts for 40% of the world’s waste and CO2 emissions and 40% of resource and energy consumption. Therefore, it is especially important to bring about sustainable change to this particular sector. Sustainability has thus long been considered as one of our most important corporate values. Every day, the Rhomberg Bau Group and Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group deal with the topic of sustainability and strive to meet ecological, economic and social demands through innovation and passion.

Daniel Leeb evaluating the solutions during the final prototype expo

Daniel Leeb, an innovation project leader at Rhomberg Group, explains the origins of the challenge: “As the innovation team, we aim to encourage all parts of our organization to get involved in the innovation process. We were delighted that this challenge originated from another department and is relevant for our entire organization.” The challenge question asked: “How might we reimagine the course of action of a construction and railway company in ways that are ecologically, economically and socially sustainable?

Five teams took on the challenge from different perspectives. The solutions included new ways of transportation, ecological buildings, and digital services. “The projects included the full spectrum from physical to digital solutions to our challenge. The variety of approaches showed what is possible if you are not caught within the constraints of the company,” highlights Daniel. The InnoDays participants looked at the problem from all possible angles and they were free from constraints.

“You can’t recreate the creative freedom of InnoDays teams internally.”

Comparing the InnoDays experience with the traditional internal way of generating innovation, he points to the inspiring creative freedom: “If you tackle such a challenge internally you quickly run into legal or structural issues. You have to do a lot of work around the idea, but can’t actually work on the idea itself. Working for a company you accept constraints and you often narrow down your search for a solution too early. The external team does not face these constraints. You can’t recreate the creative freedom of InnoDays teams internally.”

Prototype model developed by one team

To select the winning idea Daniel sensed the passion the team has for the project. Daniel and his team are currently supporting the “ExoGreen Team” to bring their prototype to life. To test the critical assumption behind the idea, two containers are placed at the technical highschool of the team members. One has the green wall elements the team envisioned during the InnoDays. The difference in temperature will allow the team to make conclusions about the cost-saving potential of their solution. This experiment can grow into a research project and lead to an internship. Rhomberg continues to support the winning InnoDays team by providing mentoring and resources for the validation experiment. In terms of recruiting, the event provides a new way. Instead of applying with their grades they show what they can do with their skills and passion.

“The InnoDays allows companies to answer questions based on the actual question, not based on the company structure or culture. Organizational units might be afraid to come up or support an idea. The young participants were not afraid. This can take the fear of employees as well, ” concludes Daniel.

Find out more about InnoDays on our website.

Winning team members on the stage sharing their idea




InnoInsights aims to be a source of inspiration and guidance for how organizations can collaborate with external innovators.