Can Crowdsourcing Really Spark Innovation?

Companies and scientists are using games and competitions to bring in fresh thinking from outsiders

Gamers using FoldIt solved a riddle about the AIDS epidemic.
Gamers using FoldIt solved a riddle about the AIDS epidemic. Image courtesy of Nature

New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki seemed quite the contrarian back in 2004 when he came out with a book titled “The Wisdom of Crowds.” Clearly, he had never been to a pro football game or gone shopping the day after Thanksgiving.

In fairness to Surowiecki, he wasn’t talking about mindless mob mentality, but rather the notion that diverse opinions within a group, when aggregated, can result in better decisions than the smartest person in the group would make.

He won over plenty of believers with his anecdotal evidence. Unfortunately, more than one company wishfully thought Surowiecki’s conclusions also applied to Web behavior and attempted to glean insight and intelligence from online reviews, ratings and message boards. Alas, a study at Carnegie-Mellon University two years ago confirmed what most site managers already knew—on the Web, it’s easy for a relatively small number of hyperactive users to assert their opinions and distort perceptions about a product or service.

So if virtual crowds aren’t to be trusted, it follows that crowd-sourcing—reaching out to the public to gather information, solve problems or complete tasks—should have fallen out of favor.

Not really. People have just become a lot smarter about tapping into collective knowledge. Crowdsourcing has morphed into “smartsourcing,” where companies and organizations are sharpening the focus of both what they expect from outsiders and who they’re soliciting for help. Forget about those open invitations to the masses for fresh ideas. (Dell and Starbucks are just two of the bigger names among the companies who’ve learned it’s a whole lot easier to ask for suggestions than do something with them.)

Now scientists are finding that fresh eyes and innovative ways to engage outsiders can move their research forward.  Last month the journal Nature announced that two teams of computer gamers, using a game called FoldIt, solved, in three weeks, a biological puzzle related to the AIDS virus that scientists had wrestled with for years.

With other projects, the motivation for outside collaborators comes through competitions for prizes or grants. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, for instance, is staging a competition to see how crowdsourcing from a diverse group of experts can help it get better at predicting world events. One of the competing groups from George Mason University in Virginia is using blog postings, Twitter feeds and social networks to assemble a team of more than 500 forecasters who make educated guesses about what might happen in the future–on everything from disease outbreaks to agricultural trends to political patterns.

DARPA, the Defense Department’s research agency, is taking a similar approach for a project to develop a battlefield robot. It wants to produce a miniature unmanned vehicle that can fit into a backpack and, when needed, hover over an area and transmit surveillance video. But instead of going the conventional route of contracting with the usual collection of defense industry players and research institutions, DARPA is sponsoring a competition through a website called UAVForge. A diverse group, including hobbyists and ‘citizen scientists,” have been posting their concepts on the site since early summer.

The goal is to mix ideas from different angles and without traditional  biases and see what happens.  At worst, you have sparks of fresh thinking.  At best, you have true innovation.

Playing to the crowd

Here are some of the latest ways scientists and museum curators are tapping into crowd power:

Bonus video: Still struggling to understand how people playing a 3D puzzle game can help solve an AIDS mystery? Watch this video from The Guardian.  

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.