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Crowdsourcing and open source: where we are now

Posted by: Helen Walters on April 01, 2010

We just published a collection of articles on the state of play within open source design and innovation. It’s an interesting bunch of pieces, with op eds from the likes of Red Hat CEO, Jim Whitehurst, who makes the case that Toyota should open source its cars’ software systems, and San José State innovation and entrepreneurship professor Joel West, who explains precisely why many big companies find collaboration and sharing control so challenging.

How business can really channel the power of a crowd in a useful manner has been a topic that’s occupied smart minds for some years now. It’s interesting to observe the evolution of the discussion and watch as businesses, with their myriad existing internal processes and cultures, figure out what might feasibly work for them. Unilever, for instance, commissioned a London-based “co-creation” firm to bring together a bunch of potential consumers to work on new product ideas. The results weren’t quick: discussions about a new men’s fragrance started back in July 2008. Twist, the eventual product, hit the market in late 2009. But in this piece by Venessa Wong, “Co-Creation: Not Just Another Focus Group”, Unilever marketing insights group category director, David Cousino makes it clear that in this day and age, customer engagement needs to be about way more than just paying lipservice to the idea of the existence of consumers.

Many designers have balked at crowdsourcing and the idea of open source design, concerned that its principles strike at the core of everything they hold dear. (“The barbarians are at the gate!”) I understand the concern, but railing at a situation reminds me of the Kevin the Teenager character immortalized by British comedian Harry Enfield, who would huff and puff at how life was so unfair. Just as adolescents come to terms with the fact that life sometimes is unfair and that there are smarter tactics for dealing with that reality than pitching a fit, so too must professionals look to evolve, acknowledge the shifted playing field, and figure out how to work it to their advantage. As Roland Harwood and David Simoes-Brown, co-founders of the new British open innovation agency 100%Open put it in their piece “Thinking About Open Design”, “the very real challenges and barriers to the adoption of a more open approach to design and innovation should not hide the emergence of a set of tools and techniques that are showing how these tactics can create new and better value.”

The conversation is by no means over. For now, I hope you enjoy the pieces in the report. Let me know what you think.

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Reader Comments


April 2, 2010 11:04 AM

The Global Innovation Commons is a collection of thousands of open source innovations, most in the form of patents, which have either been abandoned, expired, disallowed, or are unprotected in relevant markets. The major topics addressed in the G.I.C. are Clean Energy, Water, Agriculture and Health Care, the key infrastructure challenges the world faces today. Learn more at:

Joshua Howell

April 6, 2010 10:00 AM

Sometimes the good ideas come from customers, sometimes from employees, but the notion that a company isn't at least willing to listen to those not involved in the closed internal process of innovating is a bad sign.

Erica Orange

April 13, 2010 02:16 PM

What we are seeing here is the democratization of innovation. An increase in new, ever-decreasing-cost technology is providing the platform on which innovation is riding. Technology is increasingly characterized by individual involvement and participation. As a result, crowdsourcing will undoubtedly have a big impact on areas ranging from marketing to product development. Executives will have to listen very carefully to influential individuals whose opinions and behaviors can persuade consumers and voters even though they hold no positions of power.

Yuan Tian

April 20, 2010 05:16 PM

I believe that the “crowdsourcing”is a future trend in terms of problem solving. tWO heads are better than one; four eyes see more than two. However, the practical problem is that how to manage the power of the crowd, like who to decide which idea is more innovative and how to make incentives for people to do this. Like democracy, increasing people’s participation in the process is definitely a good one. What really matters is to build up a mechanism that would really be effective.

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What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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