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How Your Company Can Benefit from Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing

They say two heads are better than one. Here at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we like to think a little bigger. How about 250,000?

Increasingly companies are turning to open innovation and "crowdsourcing" to complement their R&D strategy, and it is easy to see why. Bringing in new ideas from a wide range of disciplines and domains -- from literally around the world -- can shorten the innovation cycle from years to months and dramatically reduce R&D costs.

So here at EDF, we asked ourselves, "Why can't companies do the same for sustainability?" From reducing GHGs in a worldwide supply chain to creating closed-loop systems for manufactured goods, the environmental problems we face are sufficiently complex that no single company -- even with the sharpest in-house sustainability experts -- can solve them on their own.

Thus we've joined forces with the company InnoCentive, a leader in what it has dubbed "Challenge Drive Innovation," to launch the Eco-Challenge Series.

How it Works

The Eco-Challenge Series is designed to create an easy-to-implement and lower-cost way for companies to tap the power of open innovation to solve specific environmental problems.

The EDF-InnoCentive team will work with participating companies to carefully craft Challenges -- each bearing a prize for the winning solution -- that will be presented to InnoCentive's global community of 250,000 "Solvers:" scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and other creative thinkers, from nearly 200 countries.

The Challenges will cover a range of sustainability issues facing companies, including:

  • Reducing water, energy, chemical or other resource inputs to operations, a supply chain or a distribution network;
  • Creating innovations in materials or product design; and
  • Reducing impacts associated with the use phase and end of life for products. 

Open Innovation Produces Results

But does this really work, you might ask? Absolutely.

None other than NASA, no slouch where R&D is concerned, has turned to InnoCentive for help.

After working for decades on improving the timeliness and accuracy of predicting solar flares, NASA scientists stalled at a four-hour advance window, with roughly 40 percent accuracy. Working with the InnoCentive team, they decided to craft the Challenge in a new way: as a mathematical modeling issue.

This broadened the possible sphere of solutions and solution providers. Sixty days and $30,000 later, the solution was provided by a retired telecom engineer whose model predicted solar activity with twice the advance window and nearly twice as accuracy as what NASA had come up with after decades of research. Not bad.

Roughly 50 percent of the InnoCentive Challenges are solved. Here are just a few more compelling examples:

The Oil Spill Recovery Institute found a way to keep oil in Prince William Sound from freezing allowing it to be easily pumped into the recovery barges. The TB Alliance found a way to simplify the manufacturing process to make tuberculosis drugs more cost-effective.

Other companies and organizations working with InnoCentive include SAP, Roche, the Rockefeller Foundation, Lilly, Proctor & Gamble, and The Economist.

To learn how your company can work with EDF and InnoCentive to accelerate environmental innovation in business, contact us at [email protected].

For more on how companies are making sustainable innovation happen, check out our upcoming GreenBiz Innovation Forum, October 11-13 in San Francisco.

Photo CC-licensed by Tony Webster.

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