Rethinking innovation: harnessing the collective creativity of the crowd

By Jochen Schweitzer, University of Technology, Sydney and Joanne Jakovich, University of Technology, Sydney

The past few years have seen a resurgence in design as a driver of innovation. This has been visible in the popular managerial press and also the scholarly debate in management and design. Many foreign organisations and governments have already successfully embraced design-led approaches to innovation. While Australia can boast an emerging capability in business and government centres in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne, our design-led innovation culture is still in its infancy.

The term “design thinking” has become a buzzword, aiming to capture designers’ creativity-driven approach to innovation that can be applied to anything from physical products and intangible services, to formulating and solving complex social problems.

Innovation via design is to open up to – rather than narrow down – the inputs for solving a problem. Design thinking promotes a particular mind-set that takes the user experience, or a human-centred perspective, as point of departure. Design processes are experimental and non-linear, and focus on asking questions as much as searching for solutions.

Central to the concept of design thinking is the ability to visualise ideas and complexity using sketches and prototypes that through their temporary and incomplete nature are essential to the process of knowledge development and innovation.

While design thinking has the potential to empower innovators to approach complex challenges armed with a toolbox of tested design techniques, we also see a trend towards opening up innovation processes.

From crowdsourcing to crowd-share innovation

Crowdsourcing suggest that organisations open up, combine internally and externally developed knowledge, and take their products and services to markets via external paths.

In crowdsourcing, the “crowd” comprises a group of individuals of varying expertise and heterogeneity, who respond to a call to undertake a task. Individuals voluntarily participate by contributing their effort, money, experience or skills in an exchange that is mutually beneficial. The crowd gains social recognition, personal satisfaction, economic return, or skill advancement; the crowdsourcer gains access to the knowledge, ideas and work that the crowd has contributed.

In the worst case, crowdsourcing for innovative ideas is like throwing a hook in a school of fish. You’ll be sure to get an idea, but it’ll be bound to be just like the others. In the best case, unexpected pools of ideas can be explored and new possibilities opened up. But in both cases, the problem arises that although the ideas might be diverse, and represent breadth in thinking, they are conceived individually and therefore lack the potentially game-changing quality that we seek in widely accepted and truly disruptive innovations.

Complex problems need more than just a willing crowd of individuals. They need a whole new approach to collective creativity. New collaborative ways that build perspective on issues and harness experience interactively with and amidst the crowd need to be found.

We devised an experiment to test a combination of the breadth-generating power of crowdsourcing and the intensively human-centred and collaborative practices of design thinking. We call this hybrid approach “crowd-share innovation”.

In an intensive seven-week collection of creative workshops called “Groundbreaker”, we set out to define new tools and methods in this emerging practice. We partnered with some courageous organisations that were excited about expanding their innovation process beyond the boardroom into the unpredictable domain of the crowd.

While problems are often only visible once they reach catalytic impact, the Groundbreaker participants engaged with numerous ethnographic, pictorial, three-dimensional and theatrical explorations in order to create a new perspective on the origin of the problem itself. We called this first step the “public think”.

The second step invited our partner organisations back into the design pressure-cooker for a private (yet definitely non-boardroom) chance to revisit their challenge based on the insights from the crowd. Once again we implemented the intensive, human-centred design processes. We called this part the “private think”.

One of the tools we tested was the 5×5; a rapid innovation competition between teams of five to ten people, comprising of five steps of five minutes each. Teams work through stages of empathy, visioning, ideation, prototyping and pitching to come up with new insights and solutions to a problem. This all happens in the space of 25 minutes, enabling participants to leap through common barriers and conflicts, and freely associate ideas between physical representations and abstract concepts.

Groundbreaker participants engaged with numerous ethnographic, pictorial, three-dimensional and theatrical explorations in order to create a new perspective on the origin of the problem itself. Grounbreaker

Crowd-share innovation, we discovered, is about the shift between the looser realm of the crowd and the tighter reflection of the knowledge holders. In each scenario – public or private – the key is to get the right amount of tension, speed, compulsion, and reflection amongst teams of diverse and open people to allow new kinds of conversations to happen.

We saw that when the collective mindset gets shaken up, new insights become available. By collaboratively building messy physical models and envisioning new futures with a wide array of props, we noticed that latent ideas moved beyond the limits of conversation and into the territory of gestalt. Once a collaborating team gets going, imagination fires across otherwise inert thoughts, and partial ideas rapidly combine and evolve into complex, nuanced approaches to previously unnoticed perspectives on a problem.

Crowd-share innovation is a way to tap into collective creative intelligence and augment the personal interactions between consumers, community, business, and innovators. It is taking them from the online, massive user world to the intimate, living lab of design thinking. It not only opens up innovation to new perspectives, but creates communities committed to an idea. If we get this kind of thinking right at the crux of a complex problem, and gain a shared vision and leadership from real interactions in the beginning, we might be on a better path to solving complex problems with the crowd.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

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