Crowdsourcing, Open Innovation, and the Future of Sustainable Cities

Two Steps Forward

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?

From those “Inspirations” come a half-dozen or so themes. Then comes a Concepting phase, where ideas get fleshed out and made visual. IDEO encourages collaboration by having people build off of, or combine with, one another’s ideas. (A cool, interactive Collaboration Map shows how the Inspirations link to each of the 11 winning entries.) Concepts then go through an Applause phase, where ideas are further winnowed down. The finalists go through Refinement and Evaluation phases before the Winning Concepts are chosen.

All told, 894 Inspirations yielded 331 Concepts, refined to 20 finalists and 11 winners. They include Decode the Codes, in which cities provide how-to guidance and a roadmap through the thicket of rules and regulations to allow citizens to, say, turn an abandoned lot into a park; ZipSpaces, a scheme allowing organizations with low capital to use unused storefronts easily for such things as pop-up art, impromptu food festivals, and music jams, making the area a haven for startups; and Vibrancy in a Box, following the example of popular do-it-yourself websites like Instructables to create a platform featuring small and easily implementable projects that anyone can start.

I encourage you to peruse all 11 of the winners.

What’s inspiring about all this is engaging the masses in the innovation process, taking it out of closed-door brainstorming sessions and into the open where it can benefit many. “Innovation is a learning process,” says Waterhouse. “The journey is often as important as the outcome.”

But OpenIDEO is more than that. Beyond its obvious do-good nature, it has real business benefits, to both IDEO and, in this instance, Steelcase.

For IDEO, it’s about engaging a bigger and more diverse team. “We built this platform as a way to learn how we can push the design process,” says Waterhouse. “How can we collaborate with thousands of people, not just small teams within IDEO? OpenIDEO is partly a testing ground for how you extend the idea of design thinking to a crowd.” Beyond that, he says, the company is now offering the software to clients. “We’re building a software business from what we’re learning in this space.”

There’s more. On IDEO’s online job application page, applicants are asked to include their OpenIDEO user name, allowing visibility into an applicant's creative and collaborative skills. OpenIDEO users are given a Design Quotient score, with points assigned as you do such things as create concepts, give feedback, and improve others' ideas. It’s a good proxy for how people think and collaborate.

What about Steelcase? First, there’s the benefit of participating in a cutting-edge collaboration and design process, no small thing for a company in a highly competitive industry focused on innovation. “We’re just fascinated with how this whole thing works, the process that goes on, and how many people are willing to throw a good idea out there and to help develop it,” says Nancy W. Hickey, Senior Vice President, and Chief Administrative Officer at Steelcase, adding, “It’s really cool.”

I asked Hickey what “wild success” from the OpenIDEO challenge would look like for Steelcase. Success, she said, would come "If, in a sooner time than nature would take, we have a revitalized Michigan, we have companies wanting to move here, our ability to attract people to Michigan increases, our education system gets stronger, and this is a place where people aspire to live, work, and enjoy.”

Okay, I asked, that’s good for the state, but what about Steelcase itself? “All those things matter to Steelcase,” she replied. “If we’re trying to recruit top talent from the West Coast or the East Coast or anywhere in the world, they’re going to look at Steelcase, but also at the community they’re going to live in.”

I’ve long maintained that the most interesting questions in the world of sustainability all begin with the same four words: “What would it take.” The rest of the sentence could be anything you want, from the local to the global. Those are the questions that test the boundaries, that provide the scale, speed, and scope we need to address our world’s most vexing problems.

What I like about OpenIDEO is that it gives those four words a platform, along with a robust community of inspired souls wanting to pitch in and find answers.