Daria Tataj - Innovation Through Network Thinking

Interview #2: Innovation through Network Thinking™ (Daria Tataj)

CEO of Tataj Innovation, international keynote speaker, author (Innovation and Entrepreneurship. A New Growth Model for Europe beyond the Crisis), a chair of High-level Advisors to Carlos Moedas (EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation), and World Economic Forum Digital Leader. It is needless to say that Dr. Daria Tataj is a very special guest to talk about innovation. In fact, her methodology Innovation Through Network Thinking™ aims to help leaders rethink growth in a digital and network-based economy. Learn more about it in this exciting interview she granted us.

Daria Tataj (Credit: Tataj Innovation)

1. In simple words, how would you define “innovation”? Why is it relevant for entrepreneurs, businesses and society?

“For me, it’s a learning process. I think beyond thinking of innovation as new products and services or solutions. I think we live in such a fast-changing world that innovating basically means learning, and you cannot learn in a vacuum. You learn in networks. This is why for me a key to success is having, being part, or growing an innovation community, within which you can innovate, meaning you can learn.

So, innovation in business is very different than innovation in government or innovation with research and universities. What is different is the purpose, why these organizations innovate, and we are coming to a question of value. Because people innovate, or organizations innovate to create value, your value…value-added. And for businesses, the purpose is to maximize value to shareholders and stakeholders. In government is to secure prosperity for society, and in academia (for researchers) is to produce quality knowledge and make an impact with that knowledge.

So the purpose, the motivation why people and organizations engage in innovating is very different. And this purpose defines how they innovate. But when we think about a general approach on what is innovation, or rather what is innovating, it is all about creating interfaces, being able to innovate together. And this is why I believe Network Thinking™ is a core skill every leader, every innovator should have today.

2. How can entrepreneurs be indispensable in a wave of disruption?

“For established organizations, whether in business or in government, there are basically bureaucracies. No matter how hard you try to make organizations more entrepreneurial, both corporations and public administration, there is a natural limitation: that they must function as structured organized entities.

Now, what entrepreneurs can afford is to think beyond barriers and to fail fast. That is to minimize the cost of learning, developing new solutions. So, in this sense, if a corporation or public administration is capable of developing the interface on how to collaborate with startups, this is how they can enhance the value they create. This is how they can accelerate their way or the speed with which they innovate. But this is a fine balance between control and trust, between competition and collaboration, between entrepreneurial organizations and bureaucracies.

So I think it’s a skill that people involved in these processes should master, can master. And this is not only a skill set, how to work in networks, but also a mindset. I do believe that having a more entrepreneurial mindset comes as you work with entrepreneurial people. And everyone who has a project (for-profit or non-profit) and wants to help customers, users, beneficiaries…well, this person needs to be entrepreneurial in terms of thinking what is their value model (in business would be business model, in government a development model) and how to unleash the network effect.”

3. What inspired you to develop the Network Thinking™ methodology?

I was inspired to develop the Network Thinking™methodology after we sponsored a hackathon in Barcelona last year. There were a group of Ph.D. and Master’s students who asked me to give them a challenge and sponsor an award. This is a special group of people I care about, they are alumni of the EIT (European Institute of Innovation and Technology) and part of KICs (Knowledge and Innovation Communities). As a founding member of the EIT, I really care that the alumni become impactful for Europe’s future.

So, we gave them a challenge on how to transform this city (Badalona), part of Barcelona’s metropolitan area, into an innovation district. As I saw great ideas developed just over one day, I wanted to take this further and help them bridge the world of ideas with the world of real life and urban transformation. So this is how Network Thinking™ was developed, to help creative and entrepreneurial people turn their ideas into something meaningful for business and society.”

4. Network Thinking™ is a 3-step strategy process: Understand, Create and Orchestrate. Can you please explain that?

“My approach was very pragmatic. I was for many years teaching MBA students, most of them engineers, I worked with hundreds of startups and I trained thousands of entrepreneurs. So out of this practical experience and my research on the network economy (network-based business models and development models), I took what I believe is essential for growth: to link strategy, innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership. This is what Network Thinking™ is about, bringing core aspects of these four elements, helping people understand how the network economy works. Why is that? So that certain places or organizations attract talent, knowledge, and funding to help them create and grow their networks. Then the third step is about becoming a leader of networks, which basically means orchestrating different networks to unleash this network effect. 

Innovation Through Network Thinking

Therefore, you need to learn how to work across silos. They can be silos within a large corporation, where business people find it difficult to talk with the research and innovation people. For this, the Network Thinking™ methodology helps advance in-house innovation. But it also helps build open innovation ecosystems, where business people collaborate in a creative manner with public servants, researchers, and representatives of civil society.”

5. You highlight the importance of building innovation hubs in mid-size cities.  How to estimate the value of potential opportunities in an innovation district? What elements and players are essential for its success?

“So we live in the digital economy or in the transition to a digital economy, I should rather say. But we are still humans, we need to have a place to live, work, learn. What is happening is a natural phenomenon that people cluster around large metropolitan areas because there are more opportunities to work basically, and to learn. And I think that midsize cities if they are part of a large metropolitan area or within a few hours commute, they suffer from brain drain meaning talent outflow, as well as money outflow due to a shortage of talented people. So our approach is helping build ecosystems in those midsize cities, to create a more tightly local ecosystem and then build connections to other ecosystems.

This is the growth model for entrepreneurial innovation ecosystems around the world. I researched this in Europe, in the United States and saw how China build entrepreneurial innovation ecosystems. Basically, it comes down to uniting research, innovation, education, and entrepreneurship, which tend to work in silos. This is to bring them and help them develop projects locally, together and then help them connect to similar entities in other ecosystems, creating larger partnerships, larger collaborations.”

6. Let’s talk about culture. Do you think Network Thinking™ can be replicated anywhere? How to scale it across Europe and globally?

“I believe so, this is the generic growth pattern, which is typical for the network economy. I don’t believe anyone can replicate the Silicon Valley, there were many attempts but all failed. The same with Route 128 around Boston. You know, you cannot create M.I.T. in the 21st century, but you can surely experiment with all the networked growth models. And this is where Network Thinking™ comes in.

People need to think in a different way. They need to think in terms of networks, understand how to build their capacity, how to develop this Network Thinking™ capacity in their ecosystem. Because it’s not enough that you are able to connect. If other people are not able to connect, if other organizations do not have the capacity to collaborate, nothing will change. And to drive change you need leadership, it’s all about people, it’s all about leadership. The Big Data will surely create tools to help make good decisions but ultimately, it may change in the future, till today change is driven by leaders. And networks allow every single individual to become a leader. It’s no more about formal hierarchies and titles, but people usually do not know how or do not dare to lead across networks.”

7. What is your view on collaboration, at a global scale, between innovation districts?

“There are many cities with deteriorating post-industrial zones and Barcelona was one of them. What has happened in the city over the last 30 years developed a strategy to change the district of Poblenou into a project known as 22@Barcelona. This today is a colocation of university campuses, large corporation offices, startups, coworking spaces, but still, there are modestly priced living areas.  All this makes a melting pot where people work in digital channels, but also have this physical interaction, which still matters a lot.

So if you’re able to transform part of your city it’s fantastic. There are a few success stories but then there are dozens of failures and projects that are not advancing as fast as they could. And the cities could learn from each other, could get inspired. So this is why we’re working with a couple of mid-sized cities in Europe, experimenting with how our methodology can help them build this leadership, this Network Thinking™ approach in their ecosystem. Then they can partner with similar cities to develop those ties, to develop these collaborations.”

8. Can you describe one major social cause tackled by Network Thinking™?

“For people to be happy they need to have work. I think having a rewarding, decently paid work is important. When I look at the younger generation, though, it is not enough that they have this kind of job opportunity. They are searching for meaning, they’re asking the questions: Why are we working? Why are we destroying the planet? How can we grow differently? What will happen in the future?

To me Network Thinking™ allows people to realize that we’re all connected. Also, that growth is not growth at all price, that it should have a direction, a strategy leaning to conscious choices. Why do we choose to specialize in an industry sector, such as creative industries or biotech? Why are we developing urban mobility solutions, transforming the city with citizens, with participatory budgets?

Because, especially in developing countries, this is probably the last generation we can afford to still make choices that will truly impact the future of the next generations. I do believe that some changes, like climate change, will become irreversible. Of course, you can claim that humans have a limited ability to impact climate change, but I do believe there is a deteriorating climate in cities where it’s so polluted you cannot breathe.  And we’re spending three hours commuting to work. Without these things, we would make our life much, much better.

Network Thinking™ allows people to have an honest discussion, to build trust and empathy, understanding the different values people strive for (their dreams). Then they can develop a capacity to communicate better, collaborate better and ultimately to gain power on how to get things done.”

9. What is your life’s mission and what helps you achieve it?

“Well, I come from a post-communist country (Poland), so my perspective is that we’re a very lucky generation, who was born in poor times in terms of economic standards and political instability. I hope that every nation goes through such a positive transformation as Poland did. And now I am dedicating my efforts to help people think differently, to become more entrepreneurial and understand they will need to create opportunities for themselves. I want to help them learn how to become successful in this network society, network economy. Because we all live in networks, this is a dominant structure today, and you realize that certain actions gain viral effect, others don’t.”

So, I believe that equipping people with an entrepreneurial mindset and a skill set to work across silos, unleashing the power of networks and solving complex problems together, this is my mission. I am doing this to translate my research into impact, to use my experience to the best cause.”

10. Thank you for your time. Is there anything else you would like to add?

“Thank you very much! I would like to wish good luck with your project and keep me posted.”


Key Takeaways:

  • Nurture an entrepreneurial mindset.
  • Work beyond silos.
  • Learn and collaborate, therefore innovate.
  • Lead with empathy.
  • Build and grow innovation ecosystems.


It was a pleasure to talk with Daria and learn more about Innovation Through Network Thinking™.

In case you have suggestions for our next interview or if you wish to be interviewed yourself, contact us here.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *