Last June, David Cameron announced a £1m Longitude Prize for the invention of the next penicillin, airplane or world wide web. The name, Longitude Prize is a reference to an Act of Parliament passed in 1714 which offered a reward to whoever could determine a practical way of identifying a ship's position (or longitude) at sea. A carpenter and clockmaker named John Harisson won this prize in 1765. Although, this demonstrates that the practice of asking a crowd of non-experts to find a solution is not new, the rise of information technology has, without doubt, made this process much more practical and affordable.
The term crowdsourcing was coined in 2006, following an increased popularity in the practice. Out of the top ten most valuable brands in the world, apparently, only one has not yet used crowdsourcing (Louis Vuitton).
Corporations have used crowdsourcing for a variety of reasons:
-to create advertising campaigns
-to help develop their product or service
-to find solutions to problems they faced somewhere along the value chain
-to look around for new ideas
Many incredible examples exist such as Goldcorp , a mining company where the geologists were unable to determine precisely where the gold was in the mines. The CEO decided to publish the data and create an online contest. The solutions came from a computer graphics company who did a 3-dimensional mapping of the mines and lead the company's value to grow from $100million to $9 billion.
While the web has increased the popularity of crowdsourcing, one might wonder how much has changed since the days of the first Longitude Prize?
The most common crowdsourcing technique used by organizations seems to be contests or prizes. Indeed, we can see hundreds of brands from Toyota, to Philips, to Nokia that are using the eYeka platform or others to create contests. In some instances, where the output is a product, the crowd is also involved in the selection process, thus somewhat miming a consumer test.
While this has allowed companies to innovate and find solutions in a cost efficient manner, they are, in reality, simply using crowdsourcing to increase the number of people working on any given issue, be it ideation or selection while maintaining low costs. There has been no fundamental change in the process. By definition the contests just like the Longitude Prize, have close to no elements of collaboration between the members of the crowd.
However, some organizations have started to explore in much more depth the collaborative potential of crowdsourcing.
In this collaborative field, two particularly interesting types of crowdsourcing have emerged. The first uses a combination of collective intelligence (the crowd) and artificial intelligence. In other words it uses computers to intelligently combine the actions of a large crowd.
Fold it, for example, managed to harness the power of a collaborative crowd by creating a video game played by thousands, that solved within days a problem, concerning a protein structure related to Aids, which scientists had been unsuccessful in solving for a decade.
The second realm is somewhat harder to define. It involves a high level of collaboration between the members of the crowd but little or no hierarchical structure. Wikipedia the world's 6th most visited website is one of the best examples. It is said to have virtually no hierarchical structure. The crowd does most of the work, and this is not limited to writing articles, but also includes selecting and filtering content, maintaining servers, and more widely improving the processes. Further, the best articles were found to have high levels of interactions between members showing the added value of this collaboration. The founder does play a role, but it seems to be much more of a protective role, intervening mainly when something goes wrong and needs to be sorted out. We could see it as the crowd who was been so successful as an employee that it has been promoted to a managerial position. Although Wikipedia is a non-for profit organization we could wonder if their success could be replicated in a business.
An interesting UK beverages start up named Agora is attempting to push this collaborative crowdsourcing effort a step further by allowing the crowd to make all the business decisions by submitting and voting on ideas. Agora actually claims to put you -the crowd- in the shoes of the CEO allowing you to decide on everything including what to do with the profits. The purpose of the start-up is to create a business that is more aligned with the values of society. Agora could become an interesting example of a business model that serves the best interests of society, pioneering a true crowdsourcing revolution, in its own way...