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Written by Tom Powell: Online enthusiast with an abnormal interest in innovative applications of technology, crowdfunding, co-design, co-creation, and crowdsourcing.

24 September 2009 ~ 5 Comments                                       

Distributed design and manufacturing is here; or How I correctly predicted the future…

An important connection has been made which brings to fruition what I foresaw happening about a year ago in my previous article Part 5: The evolution of mass customization and personal manufacturing Each part of the chain for truly distributed and democratized product design and personal manufacturing have essentially come together to form a coherent whole.

If you want to design a product and have it built you currently have three options — short of contracting with a manufacturer which is complex and expensive.

    Slap a graphic design on a commodity product: You might be familiar with Zazzle and Cafepress which allow anyone to upload a design and sell physical products, but these services are limited in that you are stuck simply printing a graphic design on a preselected commodity product which is then shipped from a central location.
    Design an object from flat materials that are laser cut. Ponoko is the best example of this. You can choose from a whole host of materials. Designers post designs, Ponoko handles the sale, cuts the material, and either sends it to the seller or directly to the buyer. (Can I interest you in some biohazard coasters, perhaps?)
    Design an object in 3D and have it “printed”. Shapeways takes 3D models and creates physical objects from them. (Or would you prefer a small skeleton sculpture?)

Each of these services have been available in the past to people and companies with significant resources, but never before have they all been available and affordable for normal folk. And now, ShopBot and Ponoko have partnered to create 100KGarages. Ponoko is supplying it’s online “click to make” system and ShopBot, which makes CNC routers, brings the distributed digital fabricators who are in 54 countries around the world. Products designed anywhere, printed wherever you are, in runs as small as 1 unit.

This allows for designers and builders to essentially sell a product before it exists! Instead of design->prototype->test->manufacture->market->retail->Sale, the process can look like this: design->market->Sale->manufacture.

The great innovation here is not only the atomization of the process (you can design a product and put it out in the world to see if someone else wants to build it or you can just build other people’s designs) but at the same time the loose coupling of the process (if you want you can take it from start to finish using several services that are tied together). The basic infrastructure is there.

For now it will be relegated largely to hobbyists and, no, it can be expensive (3D printing in particular), but I would imagine within a few years we may see a successful product that comes about through this loosely coupled chain of services… a design student in India uses a free online design tool… a retail site such as Ponoko hosts the design… a buyer in the NY purchases… a 3D printer NY that has the correct materials prints the object and ships it to the buyer.

UPDATE: A few weeks after 100KGarages launched, a similar idea was introduced through CloudFab.com, “a central marketplace to connect buyers and sellers” of 3D printed parts and objects. So, for now, think of this as very similar to 100KGarages, with the main point of differentiation being that CloudFab is focused on 3D printing, and 100K Garages is focused on 2D materials. More info at MadeForOne

10 September 2009 ~ 1 Comment                                       

The Fractured Digital Life: How many more social and media sharing sites can we handle?

I have always been an Internet geek. I’m not ashamed to say it — well maybe a little. Having been online for 15 years now, I have seen the evolution from the beginning as a user and we find ourselves today in an untenable position. A fractured landscape of occasionally walled-off content services and media sources and a schizoprenic online experience.

To illustrate, my personal Internet media habits consist of publishing:

    Status updates/links: Twitter, Facebook
    Articles: here at Co-innovative
    Bookmarks: delicious
    Photos: Flickr, Facebook
    Email: Gmail

Comments: rarely.

And consuming — nee devouring! — content from:

    10 news/tech sites I check regularly
    Google Reader where I subscribe to 150 less frequently updated sites that I don’t want to miss a word of
    Youtube, Vimeo, Hulu

And I have tried to limit this list, while more heavy users would list dozens of sites.

What doesn’t exist yet is a useful, intuitive dashboard that allows for digital lifestyle aggregation and seamless lifestreaming: one place to go in which I can easily interact with, consume from, and publish to all of these disparate services through the use of various media. It may end up being impossible to handle all in one place, but who knows.

The problem is some content I don’t want to miss — certain feeds, contacts from friends, emails — while other content I am happy to look in on occasionally to see the latest stuff — Twitter, links posted by friends, news sites. On the flip side, when I’m posting content sometimes I want to share it with the world at large — this article — other times I want to share it with just my family or just my friends — Facebook. Throwing in another wrench is the fine line between business and professional related online interactions and personal interactions.

It’s a confusing mess involving a ton of different sites. Just posting photos is annoying: “I want to post this for just my family as my friends will be bored to tears.” “One of my friends in these photos isn’t on Facebook…” What comes along with this is a certain amount of inexplicable, ridiculous anxiety; “Am I missing something awesome?” “I better document this and remember to post it.” “I’ve got to get through my emails and my RSS feeds.” While there is some inherent attraction to capturing and aggregating everything digital in your daily life from books you rate highly on Goodreads to a Flip video, there is no easy way to set it all up in a nice looking centralized site, though Posterous is pretty close. But really, is it of value to anyone to see EVERYTHING you do? Few people care and they only care to a point. It might be satisfying for you to see and to look back occasionally on what was going on at a particular time, but that’s about it.

Selectivity in publishing will make the online experience better for everyone.

Facebook is getting close to solving some of these problems but still has a variety of issues. Further, a centralized service is not in our best interests as users; content and connections should flow freely through standards based connections that allow for multiple front and back ends and mashups. Decentralized, distributed services wouldn’t be beholden to outages nor would one company have all the power and it would spur innovation to boot.

Dave Winer and Marc Canter have been saying similar things since about the Clinton administration from the standpoint of infrastructure and connections while Steve Rubel has been more recently discussing it from a publishing and consumption lifestream perspective.

All of this ignores the higher level issue of whether one should even be doing any of this, whether one should disengage more fully and focus on what is really important in their personal, professional, and creative lives — a la Tim Ferriss and Zen Habits. For me, I think I have found a good balance of checking in when I can but unplugging the rest of the time — notwithstanding the occasional marathon sessions.

My prediction: services will become increasingly open until information is exchanged between services via standards that will allow for the type of innovation, reliability, and decentralization to produce a better, more coherent experience online.

25 August 2009 ~ 3 Comments                                       

The magic Dunbar number: Why Communist societies and operating groups should be fewer than 150 people

If you have plans to start a Communist society, it would behoove you to cap your group at 150 and cut yourself off from the rest of the world, because after that point, it becomes nearly impossibly for everyone to know who everyone else is while also understanding their interrelationships.

You may not have heard about the Dunbar number, but in essence it is a “a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationship”. Developed by a fellow named Dunbar, as luck would have it, he came up with about 150 — but the number swings from 100 to 230 with 95% confidence intervals.

Regardless of the exact number, we as humans are limited by our neocortex to hold a certain number of social relationships with any significance in our head at once.

Dunbar’s surveys of village and tribe sizes also appeared to approximate this predicted value, including 150 as the estimated size of a neolithic farming village; 150 as the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; 200 as the upper bound on the number of academics in a discipline’s sub-specialization; 150 as the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times since the 16th century; and notions of appropriate company size.

Through my semi-coherent logic, it seems to follow that a Communist group in which everyone knows everyone else and in which the contributions, points of view, and needs of everyone are understood, the group can prosper. Bureaucratic layers are not present and people are on generally equal footing, all working towards the group’s survival. This hypothetical, isolated group falls apart when it expands beyond this point.

And to the main point: would this not argue for companies or operating groups to remain under 150 or 200 people? If a company or group of people who have to work together grows beyond that point, the friction and interaction costs become too great, and people fall outside of your Monkeysphere. The amount of social “grooming” (attention and communication between group members) becomes too great. The center cannot hold. The group (whether a commune or business) has an incentive to stay together and work towards a common goal of survival — actual survival in the case of the commune; marketplace survival in the case of the business. Christopher Allen sees the number for active creative and technical groups as “somewhere between 25-80, but is best around 45-50”

We covered a case in school in which a successful manufacturing company capped it’s plants to 150 people. Once a plant got above 150 they would open a new plant, thereby keeping each group under 150. (Of course, I can’t find the case, but the general thrust of the above is correct.)

Whether the Dunbar number is correct or useful within a business context, there is something to the concept of considering the impact of a group growing too large. The number of people in your team, company, society dictate the best operating approach, as the dynamics change dramatically based on the situation.

Pay attention to the tribes within your organization; understand the monkeysphere.

31 March 2009 ~ 4 Comments                                       

The Mechanical Turk Experiment: How I made $2.18 an hour – and how you can too!

I am a reasonably intelligent person, so one day I was wondering how much I could make by signing up and working as a Turker on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (Check it out in Part 7 of the Article series). Turns out, not much. In a little over 3 hours I made $6.56. It’s tough going too, between wading through and picking the appropriate HITs and actually executing on them. (Many of the HIT’s are limited to a certain number and the good ones run out quickly.)

If I got better at working the system I could probably kick the earnings up to $3. Assuming a 50 hour work week, I could make up to $600 a month, $7200 a year. Of course, I would have long before gone completely insane and been evicted.

So, what kind of work did I do?

    Subscribed to a YouTube channel. $0.01.
    Reviewed website layout and copy. $0.05.
    Evaluated whether 100 sites were phishing or not. $1.
    Transcribed audio, a difficult-to-hear 5 minute interview. $2.

The Original Mechanical Turk

The Original Mechanical Turk

The people using the service most are sites hoping to populate their site with some user generated content, researchers, and semi-spammers looking to build links. The work that seems to give you the best return involves the transcription of audio and scanned text that is too difficult for character recognition.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Amazon Turk and think it’s a fascinating and brilliant way to bring together small manual human jobs with those looking for some pocket change. The hourly rate is peanuts for US based folks like me, but if you are one of the billions who live on dollars a day it becomes much more relevant. Granted, you need access to an Internet connected computer and (currently) must speak English, but I am sure in the next decade there will be a non-trivial portion of this group with some sort of access to a computer and knowledge of English.

So, how much can you make in an hour?

23 March 2009 ~ 0 Comments                                       

Open source succeeds under a benevolent dictatorship — and so do co-creation projects

Chris Anderson (of the Long Tail) recently articulated an interesting metaphor regarding social media and driving a project/organization forward. In his post Open source is a company; social media is a country I would call particular attention to his take on successful open source projects:

Many people mistakenly think that open source projects are emergent, self-organized and democratic. The truth is just the opposite: most are run by a benevolent dictator or two. What makes successful open source projects is leadership, plain and simple. One or two people articulate a vision, start building towards it and bring others on board with specific tasks and permissions.

Remember this concept if you ever decide to run a crowdsourcing, idea generation, or co-creation system with your customers — or anyone, for that matter. Simply making the tools available will do not good. Nor will a vague sense of who is in charge. Central leadership is still necessary. Enterprises shouldn’t believe that putting a project out in the wild without definitive leadership and support will produce anything of value. Everything needs a champion to drive it forward.

Simple enough, but the real value I see created in what I write about here has sprung out of a – sometimes hypothetical – balancing and blending of external inputs or votes or intellectual property or funding or designs with a strong plan, leadership, and vision. That includes rejecting bad ideas. Saying NO to your customers when you feel strongly about it (37 Signals’ favorite past-time.). Retaining focus on what is important and getting rid of the extraneous.

Essentially: co-creation doesn’t take the work out of what you do but it can enhance it and help you more deeply understand the people you serve.

10 March 2009 ~ 2 Comments                                       

Guest Author Post on ReadWriteWeb: Get Satisfaction Leads Among Idea Aggregators

I recently published my first guest author post on ReadWriteWeb covering idea/suggestion/complaint aggregators. To clarify exactly which space I talk about: in my view, the idea and suggestion management space has essentially three types of vendor offerings (some bleed across categories):

  1. Centralized aggregators: Get Satisfaction, Suggestion Box, FeVote, Featurelist

    Anyone can start a product or company page on these sites to submit ideas, suggestions, or complaints which are then voted up or down, Digg-style, and commented on. Companies pay for access to data, more powerful features, and the ability to “claim” pages and register official employee moderators. Similar to review sites like Epinions, the conversation will happen on these sites with or without you.

  2. Tool providers: SalesForce Ideas Management, Uservoice, IdeaScale, Get Satisfaction, Kindling.

    These systems provide similar functionality to the above sites but are controlled by and run by the companies themselves. They include features such as ratings or up/down votes, moderation, limiting the number of votes per user, running time-limited contests, limiting access to certain groups, and automatically searching for duplicate ideas during idea submission.

  3. Integrated innovation management suites: Imaginatik, Brainbank, SalesForce Ideas Management, BrightIdea, Spigit.

    The idea management portion of these suites generally have more robust capabilities such as weighting the contribution of particular users according to expertise and trust, creating virtual currency systems, providing enterprise class security, and customizing information captured. By integrating idea capture and prioritization into a more robust and sophisticated system, companies can then evaluate the costs of ideas, put them through formal review processes, and track performance of ideas from conception to execution.

So go check out the post: Get Satisfaction Leads Among Idea Aggregators I’m pretty happy with the end result, enjoyed the process, and hope to write another post for RWW on the tool providers soon.

23 February 2009 ~ 2 Comments                                       

Cognitive Surplus: What are you going to do with yours? Clay Shirky explains…

Some of you might wonder why anyone participates in many of the activities discussed here or whether it is all sustainable given that they result in little to – more commonly – no money. Well, you should ponder what Clay Shirky has to say about what he calls Cognitive Surplus, a concept I just can’t get enough of.

(Odd side-note: I spotted Clay Shirky (about half way down the page) among those who participated in a project my girlfriend ran as part of her art collective’s Windows Brooklyn project last summer.)

In a video and transcript from last April – yes, it takes me a while to process and write about things at times – Clay lays it out thus:

A British historian argued that the critical technology in the Industrial Revolution was Gin. The changes were so rapid and disruptive that the British went on a bender for a generation.

“And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today.”

The Sitcom was the US’ palliative after World War II. We suddenly found ourselves with free time and disposable income, and we started watching a lot of TV. A lot.

“And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.”

My favorite part of his thinking: He was talking to a TV journalist about the recent rash of conversation surrounding Pluto’s planetary classification on Wikipedia to which she responded: “Where do people find the time?” His response:

“No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

He estimates we expend

“About 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year … watching television… I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter. I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing.

Thus, the free time and brain time outside of work remains, the question is what percentage of it will be occupied by the completely unproductive versus the semi- and extremely productive? An example of a successful use of brain time, in this case for the common good, comes from InnoCentive where about 20% of their projects are non-profit. Uncompensated. Using people’s free time.

Going forward, the big thing will be experimenting and figuring out what works in collective work and production. As I have covered here, experiments abound, some successful, many not. There is a long way to go, but as Clay says, this is not something society will grow out of, but something society will grow into.

Cognitive Surplus. Love it.

14 February 2009 ~ 4 Comments                                       

Part 8: Collaborative Content Creation; or, Crowdsourcing your way to creativity

Crowdsourcing or collaboratively creating content of any kind becomes dicey very quickly and the odds of creating something greater than the sum of its parts are low. In fact, creating by committee generally leads to utter crap. (When was the last time you read and enjoyed a story written line by line by contributors?) But with collaborative sites and, in my view, a talented orchestrator, it might be possible to create something of quality or, at least, facilitate an interesting experience, regardless of the end product. Wikipedia has been talked to death as what is likely the greatest implementation of collaborative content creation in history but few projects have risen above the level of a chaotic mess.

Collaborative (or crowdsourced) content creation: A group effort to contribute to and edit portions of content for the expressed aim of producing a specific overarching project.

A Swarm of AngelsFor some reason, examples of collaborative creativity keep popping up in the film-making arena. It’s Our Movie began with a script and a director (Alex Jovy, an Oscar Nominated Producer) and used the community to find its actors. (While this may not technically fall under “content creation”, it does bring a community into the overall creative process of a film.) Anyone could upload an audition for one of the characters and then the best were voted up. A Swarm Of Angels was a more ambitious project in which everything from the concept to script, casting to funding was created by the crowd. (It was up and running for several years but now the website is under construction, status unclear.)

CoWrite is essentially a script writing competition in 10 page increments. Each week anyone can enter a submission (along with $10) and, each week, the best entry is awarded $3,000 by an internal panel of judges and becomes the next 10 pages of the script. The final script will then be rewritten by one of the weekly winners who will be paid $5K. Another perk of winning is a meeting with Benderspink (Production company behin American Pie, A History of Violence) who will also review the final script and decide what to do with it from there.

Assignment Zero, a project sparked by Jeff Howe who coined “crowdsourcing” and Jay Rosen, began with the goal of having “a crowd of volunteers write the definitive report on how crowds of volunteers are upending established businesses, from software to encyclopedias and beyond.” Jeff Howe considered it “a highly satisfying failure“.

In some cases, the experience of contributing itself becomes the purpose of a project, not what is produced in the end. Contributing a sentence to a growing story can be enjoyable and creatively inspiring regardless of the poor end result of the totality of the project. And, as creative types know, most of what you produce, regardless of your brilliance and success, will be poor.

Any other examples I’ve missed?

A Swarm of Angels
It’s Our Movie (The movie is in production as of winter 08/09.)
Ze Frank The great and noble Ze Frank who has called on his community to write, draw, execute power moves, and make earth sandwiches in order to create works of art and entertainment and bring joy to the downtrodden…
Assignment Zero
Protagonize supports “addventure” which is collaborative writing in which people can branch stories off into new paths
Spike Lee Nokia Ad

Read the rest of the Crowdsourcing article series.