COMPASS MAGAZINE #10
COMPASS MAGAZINE #10

GROUP THINK Online collectives solve creative challenges

An electric car. A business name. A cure for cancer. All of these challenges call for creative problem solving. Traditionally, organizations have engaged experts to do the work. But an increasingly popular—and sometimes controversial—technique called “crowdsourcing” leverages the Internet to tap vast pools of global intelligence. 

Carmaker Local Motors roared onto the scene in 2009 with the world’s first community-designed vehicle, a beast of a car called the Rally Fighter. To create it, Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers leveraged the collective online knowledge of 20,000 designers, engineers, fabricators and car enthusiasts.

“There are two ways to build things,” Rogers said. “You can hire the relevant people to solve a problem— or you can organize in the cloud to get better ideas faster.” 

Rogers is a pioneer of a form of distributed problem-solving commonly known as crowdsourcing. Coined by journalist Jeff Howe in 2006, the term has spawned a proliferation of names and subgenres—“co-creation,” “crowd-creation,” “crowd-voting,” and even “crowd-funding” (read about an example on the article "Goldieblox: Geared for girls" ). Common to all is the goal to mine collective resources of intelligence, creativity and even money.

RETHINKING R&D

Rogers was a former Marine attending Harvard Business School when he imagined a new paradigm: the consumer as creator. His idea won Harvard’s annual business-plan contest. Soon after, Rogers formed Local Motors. “I lost friends in Iraq and I have four sons. I want to make a difference,” Rogers said. “We don’t need more cars; we need better cars.”

Rogers believes that the traditional automotive business model, with its emphasis on mass production, hampers innovation. “It takes US$200 million to $1 billion and five to seven years to develop a vehicle the old way. That’s inherently inefficient.”

Local Motors, by contrast, develops vehicles five times faster, in 12 to 18 months, at one-tenth the cost. It uses two primary crowdsourcing techniques: contests and collaboration, linking thousands of idea contributors through cloud-based tools for collective brainstorming. Participants download a free “client” application for access to 3D models, maps, data—whatever is needed. They can even hold real-time online chat sessions to mark up 3D models and suggest changes.

LINKING BUSINESS AND ACADEMIA

Half a world away, the Association for the Promotion of Electric Vehicles (APEV) includes many carmakers from the Asia-Pacific region, where traffic congestion and smog are major concerns. To design a new generation of Super Micro Electric Vehicles (SMEVs), APEV launched a “collective wisdom” competition that invites students from universities worldwide to submit 3D software designs.

“YOU CAN HIRE THE RELEVANT PEOPLE TO SOLVE A PROBLEM—OR YOU CAN ORGANIZE IN THE CLOUD TO GET BETTER IDEAS FASTER.”

JAY ROGERS LOCAL MOTORS CEO

“From the competition, we anticipate unprecedented, unique and exciting ideas about SMEVs,” said Nobuhiro Tajima, chief commissioner for APEV and chairman and CEO of Tajima Motor Corporation. “Unprecedented results can be achieved through co-creation in highly diverse environments that incorporate contributors from a range of different fields, industries, and areas of the world, and today’s collaborative software tools free us from the limitations of time and location.”

One participating institution is Tokyo University, where the APEV competition is giving students real-world experience and connections.

“In this project, university students will communicate with engineers from APEV’s member companies, who will serve as advisers and role models,” said Dr. Yuhei Yamauchi, associate professor of the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies at the University of Tokyo. “Students will learn how professional engineers approach the design process. Meanwhile, the university will be able to apply its research knowledge more widely to benefit society.”

CROWDSOURCING’S PITFALLS

But does collaborative creation always yield better results? Skeptics point to the Vegemite fiasco of “iSnack 2.0,” crowd-voted the best name for a new sandwich spread, only to flop. Marcia Yudkin, business writer and president of Named At Last, says the technique has two big dangers.

“UNPRECEDENTED RESULTS CAN BE ACHIEVED THROUGH CO-CREATION IN HIGHLY DIVERSE ENVIRONMENTS.”

NOBUHIRO TAJIMA CHIEF COMMISIONER, APEV

“One is lack of confidentiality,” Yudkin said. “To get the best work from contributors you have to provide specific information about your project that perhaps should be proprietary. The other danger is legal exposure. You could be open to charges of trademark infringement or other troubles when people you don’t know submit plagiarized ideas. A lot depends on how contributors are qualified and vetted—and if you’re restricting who can contribute, that’s more like outsourcing than crowdsourcing.”

DARPA’S BIG EXPERIMENT

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — an innovation leader whose communications network in the 1960s helped create the Internet—is testing the crowdsourcing concept in a design competition for an amphibious Marine vehicle. Built into the project, however, are safeguards to avoid leaking sensitive information.

“The way we interact with the world has changed forever with the Internet,” said Rogers of Local Motors, which worked with DARPA on crowdsourcing design of military vehicles. “The velocity of change is accelerating, and impacts how we do everything from build cars to fight wars. There’s a world of innovators out there who dream of making products better. We provide a platform to tap their creativity.”

by Cathy Salibian Back to top