Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats by contacting us.
Traditional models of research are evolving in an increasingly collaborative world. Crowdsourcing, which taps into the skills of the crowd, is becoming popular as a means of solving problems and creating innovations. Could having access to the collective mind revolutionize the practice of science?
Last summer, P.E.I. engineering professor Andrew Trivett set aside his academic research on coastal estuaries to tackle a problem for a consumer goods manufacturer — what to do with 300 tons of water used annually to wash down processing equipment? After being contaminated by product residue, the water was considered a hazardous waste and the company was paying outside contractors to haul it away and dispose of it.
“I proposed something that improved their processes,” he says, “and hopefully they were able to make a useable product out of it.”
The engineering professor and the manufacturer came together through InnoCentive, a Massachusetts-based company that posts technical, scientific, business and organizational challenges on its website and offers cash prizes for solutions. InnoCentive, whose customers include Eli Lilly, Procter & Gamble, NASA and the Rockefeller Foundation, bills itself as a pioneer in “open innovation,” a type of crowdsourcing that involves presenting a challenging technical problem online so that many people can offer possible solutions.
Regardless of the label, the underlying principle is the same, says Anthony D. Williams, co-author of the 2010 bestseller Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World and a visiting fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “The common thread is that the Internet allows you to search globally for talent and good ideas,” says Williams.
“In the past,” he adds, “the resources available to companies, government agencies or scientific teams were limited to the people who showed up for work every day. Now they can tap individuals or expertise anywhere in the world.”
Seeing problems with different eyes
Academics who have followed the emergence of crowdsourcing believe that it’s going to become much more popular with businesses, governments and research institutions.
What is crowdsourcing?
Crowdsourcing is an open approach to problem solving that involves taking a task normally performed by specific people (usually employees) and outsourcing it to an undefined group of people in the form of an open call.
“Studies have shown that people on the outside or the margins are sometimes better at solving problems than people inside an organization,” says Daren Brabham, a journalism and communications professor at the University of North Carolina who has written a number of academic papers on crowdsourcing. “If you have a chemical engineering problem, you assume a chemist has to solve it. Research is showing that a botanist or a geoscientist might do just as well, because they can see the problem differently.”
InnoCentive is one of many open innovation providers, but it has proved to be extraordinarily popular — and successful. Since 2001, InnoCentive has posted 1320 challenges. Approximately 250 000 solvers from nearly 200 countries have registered with the site. A total of 1015 cash prizes have been awarded.
As of mid-October 2011, the website offered 111 challenges in need of solutions. There was $8000 up for grabs for anyone who can develop an effective system to monitor institutional corruption, and four $1-million challenges, including a call for DNA and RNA sequencing of a single cancer cell.
Dr. Andrew Trivett in P.E.I. has tackled seven challenges in the past two years and has twice submitted winning solutions. However, he can’t reveal how he solved the problems, because that information becomes the intellectual property of the company that puts up the prize money. Likewise, InnoCentive does not disclose the names of companies seeking solutions, because that information might be useful to competitors.
These restrictions don’t trouble Dr. Trivett. He’s a big fan of InnoCentive and open innovation. “It’s worthwhile even when my submissions don’t win,” he says. “I get to consider interesting problems outside my area of specialty, and this helps to enliven my teaching and research.”
In fact, he has asked his first-year engineering students to enter challenges as part of their coursework. “It’s a great way to teach students what engineering is all about,” he says. “You’re attempting to solve real problems for real people.” Several of the students now enter challenges on their own, becoming part of the new open-innovation workforce.
A new competitive model
Macrowikinomics author Williams says there is potential for conflict in crowdsourcing if individuals benefit or companies profit at the expense of others, and that means transparency at the outset is a must.
“You have to be clear about the ground rules,” he says. “Everyone has to know what is in it for them, what they expect to get out of it and at what stage they expect to make money. If the expectations are clear, collaboration can go smoothly.”
Want to join the crowdsourcing workforce?
Below are some websites focused on crowdsourcing and open innovation:
InnoCentive – successful solutions to science, business and organizational challenges receive cash prizes.
One Billion Minds – problem solvers tackle challenges for companies, non profits and individuals.
Innoget – technology providers connect with those seeking innovative solutions.
IdeaConnection – experts in science, engineering and industry solve R&D challenges for companies.
Fold it – users help scientists predict the structure of proteins by playing a computer game.
Galaxy Zoo – volunteers help astronomers classify galaxies by shape.
Note: sites are English only
He adds that he has had conversations with pharmaceutical company executives who are examining the idea of working together up to a point in order to avoid duplication and reduce their costs. “They are looking at open innovation at the pre-competitive stages as a model for doing research,” he says. “They would pool their efforts in order to advance the basic science as opposed to each company doing it in their own silos and creating a lot of redundancy.”
Once these companies got to the stage where they could start testing for new medicines, says Williams, they would pull the curtain closed and start competing. “They could get to the commercialization stage much more quickly.”
It may be a while before such competitors can agree on a format for a creative collaboration. But Williams notes that early successes with crowdsourcing have shown that it can be a valuable tool for breaking down silos and tapping unexpected sources for solutions to scientific problems.
“The interesting thing about posing a problem to a broader network is that you don’t know where the solution will come from,” says Williams. “More often than not, it comes from someone in a different discipline. Something that perplexes a physicist might look to a biologist like something they solve on a routine basis.”
ISSN 1927-0275 = Dimensions (Ottawa. Online)