Collaborating with the Crowd

Collaborating with the Crowd

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The old line about the camel being a horse designed by committee is intended to cast aspersions at group decision making. “Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth” is another one. Idioms like these stand the test of time because they’re based on a grain…


he old line about the camel being a horse designed by committee is intended to cast aspersions at group decision making. “Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth” is another one. Idioms like these stand the test of time because they’re based on a grain (or maybe more) of truth. Many design engineers have gone into a meeting with a good, simple design that satisfies requirements and have come out with a mangled mess that tries to be all things to all people. If a room of people from different departments can derail the design process, then how does crowdsourcing work?

The term “crowdsourcing” describes any process in which a large group of people contribute ideas and/or services to a particular project. That project could be anything from helping NASA determine the age of star clusters to finding the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe to designing a new automobile. Thanks to the Internet, the crowdsourcing community is global and could number in the billions. You would think that many cooks in the kitchen would create one nasty bowl of camel soup, but there are many examples of crowdsourcing successes; so many that it’s often promoted as a key component in the design process of the future.

Rounding Up the Horses

XPRIZE is perhaps the most high-profile example of crowdsourced engineering. DE has covered the Google Lunar XPRIZE to land a privately funded robot on the moon and the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE to foster the development of consumer devices to diagnose medical conditions, for example. Competitions, which often award cash prizes or lucrative contracts for winning designs, have become popular crowdsourcing formats. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is using them to develop new ground vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as to advance robotics. In March, we cover SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod Competition, which taps the collective minds of the crowd to bring the idea of a tube-based, high-speed transportation system closer to reality.

Another blueprint for an open innovation platform comes from IDEO, the well-known design firm. It has created OpenIDEO, an online platform that guides organizations through design thinking, collaboration and project launches via a series of sponsored challenges — one of which happens to explore open innovation. OpenIDEO calls itself a “global community working together to design solutions for the world’s biggest challenges.” In the past five years, 100,000 community members have submitted 7,816 ideas via the site and related meetups.

Competitions and challenges avoid the usual design-by-committee pitfalls via a submission process where organizers choose the designs that advance to subsequent rounds, winnowing down the entries that aren’t as viable without complicating the design process with an overabundance of differing opinions. Intel, Dell, IBM, HP and Microsoft are just a few of the companies who have sponsored crowdsourcing competitions. But other established companies are going further by trying to integrate crowdsourcing into their internal design processes.

GE, for example, has teamed up with Local Motors (known for its automobile co-creation model and microfactories) to launch FirstBuild, a startup style initiative to crowdsource appliance designs. Many other big, instantly recognizable companies have promoted crowdsourcing efforts that have fallen by the wayside. Some were undoubtedly part of marketing campaigns — an attempt to cast the company in a cool, customer-focused light — that ran their course. Others no doubt failed because true crowdsourcing isn’t business as usual. It requires a platform to collect and curate ideas, an infrastructure to manage the projects and a pervasive culture of collaboration — all requirements many companies are still wrestling with internally, without opening it up to a larger community.

The Search for Innovation

Technology platforms can help by enabling collaboration, visualizing ideas and tracking improvements in an integrated workflow that stretches from the conceptual stage all the way through production and end of life for the product. A truly integrated product lifecycle management (PLM) system could even avoid the camel-horse design problem by using real-world data to determine what will sell, what it should cost, how it would be maintained, how it would be recycled and more. In the future, the best design for all involved could be determined via algorithm, without committees.

Such a complete lifecycle may sound like science fiction, but so do many of the crowdsourced projects being developed. Perhaps we need a crowdsourced PLM challenge. Maybe the answers are already out there, just waiting to be shared.

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