Companies Increasingly Turn to the Collective Intelligence of Crowds for Innovation
By Karyl Scott
The collective intelligence of communities is far greater than the work of a single individual. That’s why so many organizations are turning to crowdsourcing for innovation.
According to social scientist Nicolas Christakis, the collective intelligence of groups provides a powerful problem solving capability. “Groups are great at identifying the optimum path to a solution,” says Christakis in his “Big Think” video on YouTube. Christakis is a sociologist and physician who conducts research on social networks and biosocial science and directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University.
There are a number of web sites that elicit innovative ideas and solutions to difficult scientific and mathematical problems such as Foldit and Quantum Moves.
Foldit invited the general public to play protein-folding games to discover new research strategies. A group of video-game players solved a molecular puzzle that had stumped scientists for years, figuring out the detailed molecular structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from a virus found in rhesus monkeys.
Corporations are also turning to the public to solve intractable problems. Dell IdeaStorm website launched in 2007 to try out its ideas on the public and to engage with consumers on innovative new products. To date, over 20,000 ideas have been submitted and more than 500 implemented.
A number of large corporations have held crowd source competitions with monetary prizes for the winning idea. Network equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc. launched the I-Prize contest for the most innovative business plan. A husband, wife and her brother won the prize in 2008 for a plan that showed how TCP/IP technology could be used to increase energy efficiency. They won a $250,000 prize.
Energy giant Statoil of Norway has launched an innovation portal and a LinkedIn Knowledge Network group in its search for solutions to specific business and engineering problems. Statoil, which is the largest corporation in Northern Europe, recently awarded a prize for an idea that will help it increase the speed and safety of inspecting offshore oil and gas production equipment.
Well-known tech investor Chris Dixon, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, suggests that great innovation no longer originates in traditional R&D labs at large corporations, such as the fabled Bell Labs, but from distributed communities.
That notion is not lost on 100-year-old telecommunications giant AT&T, which is using crowdsourcing across its entire employee base to mine for innovative ideas. AT&T conducts an internal innovation program called the Pipeline in which all employees can contribute ideas, undergo a peer review and potentially receive funding for product development. AT&T calls this the crowdsourcing of innovation. Since the program was launched in 2009, some 5,000 ideas per month have been submitted.
Waze Ltd. was founded in 2006 in Israel and was acquired by Google in 2013 for $1 billion. Waze uses crowd-contributed data to power its traffic app. A community of 100,000 users contributes real-time information about traffic, construction zones, accidents and road closures. Contributors can also clue users into speed traps. Google recently integrated the Waze technology into Google Maps, providing real-time traffic information.
Just as open source software development has been embraced by major computer companies such as IBM (which now uses the Linux operating system to power its mainframe computers), the crowdsourcing of ideas will likely become a commonplace practice in corporations’ quest to innovate, disrupt and dominate new markets.