Insights, Projects

Funding Small Scale Innovation for Collaboration and Problem Solving

Uli Botzojorns
Author: Uli Botzojorns

Beginning in 2020, Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation created an innovation fund. The initiative provides startup funds to CFI employees, often partnering with other University staff, researchers or lecturers to create innovative projects. The projects address educational, systemic or technological challenges staff face in their day to day work.

More than fifteen projects have been completed across the CFI’s four themes Digital Solutions for Education & Research, Lifelong Learning, Data & AI for Social Impact and Learning Experiences. The outcomes of these projects range from implementing solutions to identifying challenges and roadblocks to innovation. For all projects, CFI team members and partners were given the opportunity to explore new technology, methodologies and ways of working. Collaboration was key for all projects, and project teams worked with more than thirty students and teachers to help them realise ideas, implement solutions or test new technologies.

Even in projects that didn’t achieve the intended results, project teams gained important skills, knowledge and were able to collaborate with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries. Across all the projects, there have been many lessons learnt and outcomes shared.

Starting Innovation Projects

The first step in any innovation fund project at the CFI is ideation. This process can range from a few days to months. It will often happen organically as individuals or project teams identify and research a new technology/method or run into a roadblock while working with University researchers, lecturers or support staff. As people collaborate on existing projects they slowly begin to identify how the technology could be used in education or how a small, quick solution could solve an issue they’ve identified.

CFI Learning Experience Designers Daniek Bosch and Emma Wiersma describe how they came to the idea for their multimodal thesis innovation project: “In an episode of the Design Thinking in Education podcast we spoke with Annebeth Simonsz, an educational advisor at Humanities. Annebeth told Daniek that it’s currently not possible for their students to submit their thesis in another way than text. However, students and teachers have indicated that there is a wish to do so. Annebeth asked us to facilitate a design thinking project. In 4 design thinking sessions we set the goal to map the needs and wishes of students, teachers, staff, members of the exam committee and alumni around different formats of the final project.”

Leontine van Melle describes how she developed the idea for the microlearning innovation project Kickstart Hybrid Work: “In an article I was reading for my role as a trend & innovation analyst, the problem of lacking time in our busy work schedules to make room for learning was mentioned and the solution could be placing learning in our e-mail inbox where work is already done. I had previously participated in a blended mini-course offered via e-mail, which I found very useful. Connecting that experience to trends like hybrid working and microlearning, I pitched the idea for a microlearning course using e-mail, with the goal of sprinkling a small learning moment into daily work practices. With this idea I wanted to inspire new learning routines.”

Online Learning Expert Tanja de Bie and Data Analyst Robert Sokolewicz share how they first created the concept for their innovation project Sustainability Dashboard: “We’ve had frequent discussions on how to make our university more green, and how the CFI can contribute to that goal. Through our contacts with “Vastgoed” (facilities) in the Sustainability Network we were aware that many recycling and circular interventions had already been implemented on the campus, but what remains are seeking ways to reduce the impact of travel and the use of electricity. We wanted to create a way for individual employees of the university to see the impact of their choices at the office on their carbon footprint and thus on reaching a more sustainable workplace. We envisioned providing data to show the impact before and after new choices had been made, but in such a way that the data was anonymized enough so individuals could not be traced back. An active group of astronomers were willing to help us test a prototype of this “work carbon footprint” sustainability dashboard, with an eye to perhaps rolling it out in the entire faculty if changes of behaviour could be detected.”

Some teams, such as the CFI’s Learning Designers, took a more structured approach to their innovation projects by determining an Innovation Topic for the year. In 2021, the learning design team spent time exploring Playful Learning and collaborated with Leiden University Lecturers to apply their research.  

Once a person or internal group has a concrete idea of how they can innovate, they come together and create a project proposal for the innovation fund. The proposal is presented to the CFI director and fund coordinators, and will often be tweaked to align with the University strategy or to ensure that it can fit within the scope of funding or timeline. If approved, the applicants are ready to start experimenting for a 3-month period with a fixed budget. Unlike other projects at the CFI, innovation fund projects are rarely assigned a project manager (PM) as they focus primarily on experimenting. Instead, the innovation project team meets periodically with PMs if they have questions about process, are stuck or need some advice on how to structure their way of working. This process set-up allows for a high level of creativity and flexibility, and teams are also encouraged to reach out to colleagues with diverse expertise.  

CFI Learning Experience Designers Daniek and Emma share their approach to playful learning pedagogies and how they developed their escape room pilot for Anthropology students:

“While researching and talking to others we were motivated by the innovative ideas and projects that are already circulating the university. With our blog series on playful learning and the escape room project we hope to reach other teachers and make it easy for them to put new ideas into practice. A proactive approach in this helps to ignite the sparks that are already everywhere around us.

Through a LinkedIn post on the topic of playful learning, we came into contact with Anne Veens who was looking for innovative ideas to redesign the Personal and Professional Impact (PPI) course to make the course load more manageable and help students put into practice what they have learned. […] During a couple of brainstorming sessions, the idea arose to let the students create an online escape room during the first three lessons. We are helping the teachers to set this up. [..] The teachers realised that playful learning can really add value for students. […] Therefore we chose the approach of letting students design an escape room for each other instead of the teachers designing it for the students.”

Data Responsibility

The CFI has fully integrated responsible data use into our way of working. It’s a common myth that responsibility gets in the way of fast, flexible innovation. These projects show that by empowering staff to understand how to use data and ensuring that the organisation provides the necessary resources and expertise to support those innovating, innovation projects are, in fact, much more likely to result in a viable solution or product. Want to learn more? This What if Education episode goes into some of the considerations we take when exploring new digital tools, this article discusses personal data in remote teaching and here you can find more about what to keep in mind when choosing tools.

The Innovation Process

Once a project has been approved and organised, the process to completion varies widely depending on the team members and the type of project. Because the projects are small scale and are driven solely by the team members, there is significant flexibility to execute as it best works for the team.

The What if Education Podcast, for example, was led by one staff member who collaborated with a different expert per episode. The process was driven by topics which ranged from Extended Reality in education, to sustainability, to imagining education in 2030. The Playful learning pilot, in contrast, was built alongside an Anthropology course and CFI staff partnered with lecturers to help them solve challenges in their course. Thus, the process was driven by the needs of the students and teachers and fit into the course design process.


Innovation Fund Projects resulted in three main outcomes: a problem was solved, a technology or methodology was successfully tested or the project team tested an idea and learned it wouldn’t work as they thought it would.

Problems Solved

As we all think about how to manage our work during the ever-changing reality of COVID, there are significant challenges to successfully executing a hybrid workplace. There is a myriad of problems that come up in a hybrid setting, from technical issues to workplace culture. CFI staff decided to address this problem head-on and create an innovation project with the goal to set up a well-designed, inclusive hybrid workplace.

The project team did extensive research into hybrid best practices and reached out to CFI staff through surveys, workshops and team days. They emphasised being realistic about the technology available, and were able to come up with a comprehensive model and set of standards for how to transition to a hybrid and virtual-friendly work model.

As of September 2021, the CFI has successfully started to implement this model, with continuous iterations since then based on employee feedback. In this context, the innovation fund gave the project team the time and resources to consciously design a workplace where everyone had flexibility to work in ways that fit individuals’ needs. The ongoing outcomes from the project are being shared with both Leiden University and other partners, with an upcoming article in Tijdschrift voor Ontwikkeling in Organisaties.

New Technology and Methods Tested

For the past few years CFI staff have been testing escape rooms as a learning tool. While the concept appears significantly different from traditional educational formats, (online) escape rooms can be a highly effective tool to help students work collaboratively, think critically and learn complex information. In one innovation project, CFI learning designers partnered with the Personal and Professional Impact course at Anthropology to solve a challenge the teachers were facing with student workload.

“Personal and Professional Impact (PPI) is a course given at Leiden’s Anthropology programme to all third-year students. In this course, students learn how to apply their academic skills as a professional. In a relatively short time-period, they need to come up with a possible solution for a fictional client. Last year, the students experienced the final PPI project as extremely challenging. This year, the teachers want to make the programme lighter (no big long-term assignment). That’s why they want to incorporate playful learning in the course. It can encourage students to think out-of-the-box and fail.” – Daniek Bosch

After a series of brainstorming workshops, both the teachers and CFI staff identified an escape room as a final project for the students. For their innovation project, CFI staff assisted the courses’ teachers to research and set up escape rooms as a final project for students. The course is still underway, but thus far the project has been successful for both teachers and students.

Failed Projects

A few of the Innovation Projects resulted in a “failure”. Unlike other contexts, failure in innovation can be a positive thing, and even fl-awesome, as it allows project teams to quickly and efficiently learn if a proposed solution or technology is worth pursuing.

One project was to create a sustainability dashboard that allowed University employees to anonymously track their decisions around sustainable actions (e.g. recycling, transportation, using reusable materials). The Dashboard could then assess how the university as a whole was preforming. The project arose from requests, as identified by the Sustainability Network and Faculties, to get a better understanding of how employees could individually improve their sustainable actions. Initial research ended up showing that, at this time, such a project wouldn’t work due to the immaturity of an available data infrastructure.

What made the most impact was the realisation that for now the project was impossible due to a lack of granular data at the level of an institution. Measurements cannot be taken as institutes share buildings, or certain data is only collected at the university level… Additionally, there is a growing consensus among climate activists, including those active in the Sustainability Network, that to focus on individual carbon footprint may be a form of greenwashing that deters from actual impactful change.” – Tanja de Bie

While the initial idea was unsuccessful, outcomes from this project motivated faculties to make recommendations to be able to measure energy use on a more granular level. Additionally, the project identified the need to promote stricter archiving of data and other measures to reduce use of computer servers. This can help solve the problem worded by innovator Tanja de Bie, that “the internet doesn’t run out of paper, but universities do run out of energy.” Combined with the realisation that individual action is less effective than institutional change, even though the original project idea was a “failure” there are clear next steps for the project teams and those they collaborated with.

When Does Innovation Finish?

Innovation Fund projects are, by definition, short lived. The budget and timeline for these projects creates a clear boundary around their scope. However, it is often the goal to scale and continue successful projects. Once a project finishes, the team assesses the outcome and decides if it makes sense to continue. There are a range of methods to assess effectiveness depending on the type of project. For a project working directly with students – did students show more positive learning outcomes via traditional assessment? Was there positive course feedback? If a new technology was being tested – did the focus group successfully use the new technology? Is there a clear need for further implementation? Was the technology easy to use and did it positively affect learning outcomes? For new methodologies – what was the response of the target audience? Did staff or students have a more positive experience? Was the project team able to do their job more effectively?

If projects have a clear case to continue, the project team then has the challenge of turning their innovation pilot into a full project, which can mean finding funding, including more expertise, building stronger partnerships and oftenbringing on a project manager. Examples of projects that have successfully continued and scaled include the CFI’s What if Education Podcast, which has more than 1200 listens, the Learning Mindset which started as exploration into reflection as a learning tool and is now nominated for De Nederlandse Hogeronderwijspremie and the Hybrid Work exploration, which continues to successfully redefine how we design and structure our workdays.  

If you are interested in learning more about innovation projects or want to collaborate with CFI staff, reach out to us via email.