Combining open innovation and crowdsourcing?

07.10.2009| Christian Kreutz

At the Socialcamp in Berlin last weekend, a session dealt with "social business 2.0," which turned out to be an intense and inspiring discussion on open innovation for appropriate technology through crowdsourcing – a sentence with many buzzwords. Essentially, many questions were raised, but among those were: How can innovative solutions and their implementation be coordinated through the web? And, what is the role of the web and which are its limitations? I hope this post may trigger some answers in the comments!

Appropriate technology development through the web?

!Photos by Todd Huffman

A group of people who met over at the Betterplace platform - a German peer-to-peer aid platform –  and whom did not know each other before, founded a project request to build an new innovative toilet waste water system. Of course, there are many of such solutions out there already, but in their case, the group has no technical skilled members and it, therefore, seeked for people with a technical solution to help them out. I keep the description rather short, because the main discussion was more about the different dimensions of crowdsourcing. So, how such a complex, technical advanced project can be done through the web?

Definition of Appropriate Technology according to Wikipedia: "Appropriate technology is technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social and economical aspects of the community it is intended for." And, according to Oikos: "Appropriate Technology is technology that creates minimal environmental impact while serving basic human needs. Uses the simplest level of technology that can effectively achieve the intended purpose in a particular location."

Crowdsourcing vs. Community building It seems that, within the discussion, the term crowdsourcing is understood very differently. Can you even crowdsource a technical solution? Can you mobilize a crowd of engineers or do you need a community? Dan Woods asks "Does crowdsourcing exist as it is popularly conceived?" and replies "Yes, it does, but it doesn't have anything to do with innovation."

So I think you need to have a community involved in such a project, otherwise how could you motivate people to participate and evaluate such a solution voluntarily?

But then again, we realized we focused too much on the solution and too little on implementation. One needs to focus on the implementation and on what the people who are using it really want. There is the famous failure of the solar cooker, which led to eye injury from its parabolic antenna and ignored that what people wanted was to cook in the evenings.

But, for appropriate technology aren’t the people living in the local context the real experts? How can a bridge be build between scientist and local practitioners? There are interesting platforms, which can be used in many different ways to use the web for innovation:

  • Appropedia is a site for collaborative solutions in sustainability, poverty reduction and international development.
  • Nabuur, where volunteers worldwide help to find solutions for villages.
  • Scientist without borders
  • Innocentive, a platform to find scientific solutions with a for-profit purpose.
  • Social Innovation Camp is an experiment in using social technology for social change

**Connecting the local and global: Local vs. global knowledge **These four initiatives have very different approaches and do not necessarily aim to open innovation. Who owns the solution and who decides for the solution to be implemented? The discussion goes onto whether it is possible for the technical part of the solution to separate the solution in different parts? Or would that mean competition? But what if each engineer has different solutions, then which one should be taken? Clearly, you need expert knowledge, but it is even more important for such a project to learn together, on the path for a such a solution and to be open to all problems and feedback.

So, peer-to-peer aid has to do a lot with peer-to-peer learning. But to be inclusive is quite tricky as many rural areas in developing countries have no easy access. There is an interesting initiative by Stephan Wolak to make this link through mobile phones and connect the local to the global. Do you know any more examples? What is your perspective for the potentials and limitations of such crowdsourcing efforts for open innovation?