Designing to Tap the Creativity of Crowds

In “Open Innovation: The Crowd Is Wise (When It’s Focused)” in the July 19, 2009 New York Times, Steve Lohr notes that the winning entities in an open-to-the-public Netflix innovation contest were teams of experts. He also notes that the publicly posted list of leading competitors was used by some competitors to connect up and cooperate in new, more powerful teams.

Lohr goes to great pains to stress the role of experts in such public engagements. While his point is well taken, he unfortunately does not wonder what more could have been achieved if participants’ IDEAS had been available to — and discussed by — the full crowd of participants to tap the creative sparks that often arise through interaction.

Here’s the missing piece I see: If ideas had been shared, the role of expertise would have been perhaps enhanced by the random insights of outsiders who — although often free of the assumptions and constraints that limit insiders — lack experience needed to evaluate or implement their out-of-the-box ideas. If all ideas had been shared and discussed, experts who were open-minded enough to recognize a good idea when they saw it could grab the ball and run with it. Under such conditions, the experts who were most successful at recognizing, grabbing, and running with good ideas would produce the best innovations. The Netflix contest’s winner-takes-all design does not motivate competitors to share their ideas nor is any forum provided for that to happen, so although PEOPLE can regroup in new configurations, IDEAS can’t.

If everyone were working for both a shared goal and for contribution-based reputation (as is true in the Wikipedia and Linux communities, and in innovation-driven research conferences like those designed by Michael Milken for prostate cancer research ), an even more powerful collective intelligence would most likely have been possible.

Perhaps this insight can be used to help solve some of society’s most difficult problems, in which most of us share a common interest and stake. If we wanted to make a financially rewarding contest out of such an effort, we could financially reward people according to both their level participation and their ranking by other participants. (Software can track how often someone sends a message in an online conversation and how often others refer to them in their messages. This, plus ranking, could provide a numerical measure of their value in the effort, in addition to any final judgment by expert or official panels.)

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