Crowdsourcing, Open Innovation, and the Future of Sustainable Cities

The idea of fixing Detroit—or any other city in desperate need of revitalization—is overwhelming, to say the least. And legions have tried, with various levels of success.

What if you could harness the best and brightest ideas from around the world?

That was the mission of a recent crowdsourcing exercise put forth by IDEO, the iconic design firm, and Steelcase, the Michigan-based producer of workplace furnishings and solutions. By itself, it is simply one inspiring story, but it's also a prototype for all that’s possible in creating a more sustainable world.

In 2010, IDEO created an online platform called OpenIDEO to help solve pressing societal challenges by engaging the masses. It’s certainly not the first effort in crowdsourcing, but it is one of the more ambitious and open platforms aimed at fostering sustainability solutions. Over the past year or so, the company has partnered with a number of nonprofits and for-profits, including Amnesty International (human rights), Oxfam (maternal health), and celebrity chef and food activist Jamie Oliver (childhood nutrition).

More recently, Steelcase, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., sponsored a challenge near and dear to the heart of its President and CEO, James P. Hackett: to help cities like Detroit find their way back from the brink. Hackett is part of a group of Michigan CEOs seeking to revitalize the state, which has been hammered by the loss of manufacturing jobs, automotive and others.

The challenge asked, “How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline?” The response to the challenge was overwhelming.

First, some background. OpenIDEO was an effort to bring IDEO’s process to global problems. One aspect of that process is to engage a diverse group of individuals to any design challenge. “The idea is that multidisciplinary teams can help to solve problems much faster, much richer, and in more collaborative ways for better solutions for our clients,” Nathan Waterhouse, who co-leads OpenIDEO and is one of the founders of the platform, explained to me recently. “Not just designers but also sociologists, ethnographers, economists, and writers, just to mention a few.”

OpenIDEO takes that to an extreme. In issuing a challenge, it invites anyone, anywhere, to submit ideas. But it’s not simply community voting or judging that makes the crowdsourcing work. It’s a multi-step process of collectively winnowing down the ideas while simultaneously improving them.

In an OpenIDEO challenge, individuals are asked to submit “Inspirations” — essentially, insights and ideas that help define the problem and possible solutions. “It’s really about trying to understand what’s already been tried in cities in regions around the world,” says Waterhouse, explaining what the process looked like for this challenge. “What are the best examples of how cities have begun to turn themselves around.” IDEO encourages people to go out and speak to communities — what are their hopes and fears? What are they doing to effect change where they live?