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

22 January 2009 ~ 0 Comments                                       

CoInnovative Roundup: 3 Odds and Ends to check out

Innocentive used for non-profit challenges: An interesting addendum to my previous post (Part 6 of The Series), about 20% of Innocentive’s portfolio of projects are aimed towards solving non-profit challenges. Further, they recognize the possibility of pairing this crowd-problem solving with crowdfunding: someone decides to champion a particular problem and, using the Innocentive platform, raises the money necessary to reward problem solvers. (Then, I would assume, they would have to raise another round to actually implement the solution, but that is developing as well.)

Help Obama prioritize and solve problems with the Citizens Briefing book: Of course, it’s inauguration week, so how could I resist? Leading up to the transition (and going forward, I assume) the Obama administration has set up the Citizens Briefing Book on change.gov which allows you to suggest ideas and priorities for Obama and vote on the best ones. These will be compiled and presented to the President. Regardless of whether it turns into something of substance or not, it is a great example of what I discussed in Part 3, the Digital Suggestion Box. As with any of these efforts whether it be from Dell, Starbucks, or Obama, the impact this technology will have depends on how whether it becomes a useful, two-way conduit of information. Are popular measures acted upon or, at the very least, responded to? (Case in point: the first and third most popular ideas with 16,000 votes involve relaxing or doing away with marijuana prohibitions.) And is the tool effective at surfacing quality?

Crowdsourcing classifications: via MadeForOne, Scott Klososky at TechnologyStory lists his view on classifications of crowdsourcing:

    Voluntary vs. Involuntary
    Social vs. Commercial
    Rewarded vs. Unrewarded

07 January 2009 ~ 4 Comments                                       

Part 7: Many hands make light work: The atomization of work

Some tasks cannot be accomplished by automated, centralized means but can be broken up into smaller, manageable chunks that anyone can do. Shockingly, the internet comes in handy for these types of projects. Tasks that would be simple for a human (identifying an object or poorly scanned word in an image) can be difficult if not impossible to efficiently do on a computer.

The big kahuna in this space is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Break up a project into distinct HITs (human intelligence tasks), set your price for each task, and let the results roll in. Pricing ranges from as little as 1 cent to a few bucks per task depending on the complexity. The work itself ranges from the rewarding (helping search for a missing Steve Fossett and his plane using satellite images) to the unsavory (creating links and comments for spammers).

I see this as yet another example of the decreasing importance of the firm and a further lowering of the transaction costs of going outside your company for work. Have a huge project that you can break down? Without vetting and hiring a freelancer or outsourcing firm you can immediately post a project and start getting results while fine-tuning your request and pricing to get the best results. Pay can be dirt cheap (sometimes you can spend an hour doing something and only get $1 or $2), but in vast swathes of the world, that is a decent wage.

(On a side note and on the flip side of this: Some computing projects require unfathomable amounts of supercomputer time, so these projects, as well, are broken up into data crunching chunks that can be handled in a reasonable amount of time by home computers – I’ll call these CITs (computer intelligence tasks). Again the work spans a range of reputability: from helping Seti@Home search for alien signals to, unwittingly, sending emails or attacking sites for a botnet.)

In a twist on being paid to complete individual tasks, people either do it because they enjoy it, are getting an ancillary benefit from it, or, in a sort of slight of hand, are accomplishing more than they understand. GalaxyZoo was a project allowing anyone to participate in scientific research by identifying cosmological elements in telescope photos (Enjoyment). Gwap develops online games that accomplish image and music tagging while tagging sites on del.icio.us allows you to find them easily once you bookmark them (ancillary benefit). Finally, a stunningly brilliant application: reCAPTCHA. CAPTCHAs are those annoying tests given to you when you register on a site in an attempt to verify that you are a human and not a bot. But with reCAPTCHA, you are actually identifying words that computers could not identify when scanning books (Slight of hand). CAPTCHAs are a sad necessity given the current state of the world, but to put it to good use at the same time is strikingly elegant and simply awesome. (Further, by definition, you are using images that a computer couldn’t identify in the first place. Damn!)

(In a strange irony, it is possible to thwart CAPTCHAs by employing a system similar to Mechanical Turk in which you pay people a penny or two to identify CAPTCHAs.)

Any other examples out there?

For pay:
Mechanical Turk

Ancillary benefits:
Photo tagging on Flickr
Site tagging on deli.cio.us

Gwap games
Write transcripts of Parliament sessions

Unwitting participant:

Let the computers do it:
Botnets (evil).
Hundreds of other distributed computing projects

19 December 2008 ~ 7 Comments                                       

Part 6: Expert sourcing for problem solving and innovation

My former employer Forrester and my former co-worker Chris Townsend recently wrote a report called Tapping The Wisdom of Experts. This is an extension or subset of the concept of Innovation Networks which Navi Radjou has been writing about for years at Forrester and can be seen as a subset as well, in a certain sense, of crowdsourcing. It is also a good summary of the topic covered in Part 6 of this series.

(To be sure we’re on the same page:
Innovation networks = “Firms seamlessly weave internally and externally available invention and innovation services to optimize the profitability of their products, services, and business models.”
Crowdsourcing = sourcing small and large jobs from anyone and everyone.
Expert sourcing = sourcing from specialized, professional-grade, vetted experts.
Wisdom of crowds = the wisdom of the crowd’s collective intelligence outweighs any individuals.)


Expert sourcing involves several actors that fall into the mold of innovation networks:
Inventor: the experts (enterprise R&D, academics, government labs, retired technicians, you know, experts.)
Transformers and Financiers: corporations who buy, develop, and fund the innovations
Broker: expert sourcing providers who bring together the experts and corporations.

Innovation networks and expert sourcing further erode the purpose and importance of the large corporation and a massive, closed R&D facility. With the aggregation, moderation and policing of transactions, NineSigma and Innocentive facilitate this possibility. Along with online collaboration improvements, the need to have a large building or organization under which a multitude of people need to sit are further eroded. Smaller, more focused enterprises are made possible as transaction and search costs between inventor and transformers/financiers decrease (lower transaction costs, after all, are the reason companies formed in the first place).

While it appears this market is pretty small in the grand scheme of things, companies large and small will not be able to afford to only look for internally for innovations, they must search the horizon, getting input and help from customers, suppliers, and experts around the world. Tool providers are and will continue to emerge on all fronts, but if firms do not weave these tools and innovation sources into their processes, they will eventually be left behind. The key, of course, is not to hand over the reigns to outside innovators or customer whims but to incorporate the knowledge gained into your own expertise and discretion to mold it into real, profitable innovation.

Companies in the space:
Innocentive (Problems issued to recruited scientists)
NineSigma (Sends out RFPs to network of universities, inventors, businesses)
YourEncore (Posts projects to retired technical people)
yet2 (Matching and providing services/resources to IP buyers/sellers)

Further reading:
HBR: Getting Unusual Suspects to Solve R&D Puzzles
If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone
Nine Sigma – Expert Response to Innocentive Post
Open Innovation Becoming Key to R&D Success

28 November 2008 ~ 5 Comments                                       

Part 5: The evolution of mass customization and personal manufacturing

If you can imagine an object. Someone can build it. How does personal manufacturing relate to the various topics covered here? Well it democratizes manufacturing and design choices to everyone, everywhere. It decouples the design, manufacturing, assembly, and marketing of products like never before. I have categorized these related concepts into three levels of increasing complexity: 1) Mass customization, 2) 2D and 3D object printers, 3) Home manufacturing.

Level 1: Mass customization.
Mass customization puts a certain level of choice in the hands of the customer starting with a base, unchanging object. It allows you to customize a mass produced product to your specification along certain pre-defined configurations. Anyone can do this. There are thousands of examples of it and most people have experienced this in one form or another. Buying a Dell. Uploading an image for a product on CafePress. Designing a Nike shoe. Even your own tea.

Level 2: 2D and 3D printing.
Ponoko is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of personal manufacturing in the 2D realm. Users can upload image files (whether that be CAD or scanned in free-hand drawing), specify any of a number of flat materials, and Ponoko will input it into their magic laser cutters and send you the result. It doesn’t stop there: you can also sell your resulting products through the site. Ponoko has been improving and releasing new features at an impressive clip over the last 2 years or so. Keep an eye on them. Manufacturing as a service.

Going from 2D to 3D: While Ponoko seems farthest along in democratizing 2D printing of objects, Shapeways seems to have the best, most user friendly, option for 3D printing and distribution of objects.

Confused about the various 2D and 3D printing technologies available? Check out this great compendium of videos on much of the tech.

Level 3: Home Fabbing
For the power-geek: home fabbing (with self-replicating machines, of course) you too can build a CNC machine that creates 3D objects or cuts flat materials. Just download the design and let your machine have at it.
Of course, the current adoption of these various technologies stand at about the same level as personal computers in the late 70s: expensive, geared towards geeks, inconvenient, and a small market.

Bringing this all together you have a decoupling of the design, manufacturing, assembly, and marketing of physical objects down to the individual level. As this evolves further the options expand incredibly; here’s a scenario (And Shapeways comes pretty close to this today). I post a design, then there are many paths:

– I can then order a copy for myself.
– Someone else orders the physical object which is printed in a one-off run.
– Another person licenses the design for the right to produce the object for personal use and downloads it to their home-fabber where they can tweak the design and actually create it.
– Someone licenses the design for 100 copies and sells them locally after having them produced at their local personal manufacturing facility.
– A large retailer licenses the design for distribution in their stores.

Pretty rad, right?

Resources and examples:
Level 1:
Mass Customization and Open Innovation News by Frank Piller
Configurator database
Design a Tea
List of mass customization providers

Level 2:
Design Democracy ’08
List of Personal Manufacturing providers
FigurePrints (print out avatars in 3D)
That’s My Face
Fabjectory: Virtual Objects in Real Life
Design My Idea

Level 3:
Some Rights Reserved
Breaking the mould
Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication

Update 1/7/09:An interesting addition to the field: Automake which provides an online 3D modeling tool in the hopes of “combining generative systems with craft knowledge and digital production technologies to create a new way of designing and making objects that blurs the boundaries between maker and consumer, craft and industrial production.”

13 November 2008 ~ 3 Comments                                       

Part 4: The Competition Model

One aspect of many crowdsourced efforts is the ever-present competition. From the X-Prize to Innocentive, prizes for innovation, new ideas, designs, and problem solving are SO hot right now. Sometimes its simply a publicity stunt other times it is the core business strategy of a firm. The model has been around for centuries in various forms, in the arena of architecture for example: a slew of architects produce concepts for a building and the owner decides whose design wins. And of course, competitions in general are everywhere in which one might put forth a huge amount of effort, lose, and have nothing to show for it. What I focus on here are newer incarnations which the Internet has helped to flourish.

Prizes are generally set up such that someone posts an issue they want resolved or work they want done or a community of enthusiasts works to give an award for work around a specific area on an ongoing basis (Threadless). They set their price for successful completion and anyone can contribute – professional, amateur, moron, and genius alike — that is where the power arises. A winner is chosen and the prize awarded. The issue, though, that many have with this approach is that it can be exploitative and opens up businesses to… let’s say ethical challenges, in that the work is completed in some cases and the company can abscond with your work without paying.

Further, looking at it from an economic perspective: if you post a $300 reward for a logo and 50 people do, say, $150 worth of work each, that is a total of $7500 worth of effort. Or $7200 worth of “wasted” effort. (Of course many of these people might be doing this for fun as a hobby or with free time in which case it’s not technically wasted effort but effort that would not have been utilized in the first place.)

Some controversy has arisen around these, particularly in the design worlds: Pros hate it because it lowers prices paid for work and potentially the quality of the work (in their view), amateurs love it given that this creates a way to make a few extra dollars doing something they love anyway, and small businesses who might not have been able to afford professional prices obviously benefit. It is distinct from spec work in that spec work entails one professional or company creating a work in the hopes of selling it but without any guarantee or prior commitment from anyone that it will be bought.

A variety of sites which will be and have been covered in the past here employ this strategy so here are a sampling of them:

Competition examples:
Idea Crossing
Fujitsu-Siemens Innovation Contest
Netflix Prize

Derek Powazek – Pixish, Spec Work, and Graggers
The Power of the Prize

03 November 2008 ~ 4 Comments                                       

User-led innovation report, the Australians get it.

I finally got around to reading a great report out of Swinburne University of Technology written by Darren Sharp & Mandy Salomon called “User-led Innovation: A New Framework for Co-creating Business and Social Value“. It does a great job of tying together many of the themes discussed on co>innovative. A variety of innovations over the last couple of decades have been improving in parallel as well as building off of each other to create this… this thing that is going on, whatever you want to call it:

Open source software, citizen journalism, crowdsourcing, user-generated content, social networks, the sharing economy, peer production, Multi-User Virtual Environments, participatory media, collaborative creativity. Distributed capitalism. These are all terms in the rapidly expanding lexicon of the field of ‘user-led innovation’. For much of the 20th century business operated on an enterprise logic of ‘managerial capitalism’ which maintains that value is created by organisational producers and is stored inside the products and services they sell.

Quoting Eric von Hippel:

Historically the assumption has been that manufacturers are the innovators, they go and they look at users, understand what they need and then develop something in response. We then went and looked at the histories of innovation and found out that very often, very commercially successful products actually had been developed by users at the leading edge of a market-based trend first. So it appeared that in fact innovation was user-led, which means that the users actually develop prototype products and show their value and use of what they really want.

These lead users (who can be viewed as pre-early adopters, creating their own solutions) have entered into an increasingly ideal epoch in which more and more tools are available every day to innovate: tools of media production and distribution, rapid fabrication tools such as widely available laser cutters and 3D printers, communication with other enthusiasts, etc. This distributed capitalism is the result of the democratization of innovation that Eric Von Hippel wrote about in the aptly titled Democratizing Innovation

. The Support Economy

Below is a great classification of four successful and productive user-led niches:

  • Social Currency Niche — Myspace, Flickr, YouTube: people create content and gain attention and connect with others.
  • Collaborative Niche — Wikipedia, open source software: people come together and perform part of a larger task to reach a common goal.
  • Extractive niche — sort of the unpleasant side of all this in which companies try to exploit free revealing from the crowd, attempting to get something for nothing or next to nothing while ignoring the desires of the crowd.
  • Hybrid niche — combines elements of the above.
  • User Led Services Ecology

    If you ever find yourself scratching your head about exactly what I am talking about, I would highly recommend reading the report.
    (Also wanted to say Hi to Paul.)

    20 October 2008 ~ 0 Comments                                       

    Can’t we come up with anything better than crowdsourcing?

    I dislike the terms crowdsourcing and wisdom of crowds. First of all because the terms, particularly the former, have become the worst of buzzwords, meaning many things to many people and applied in far too many places. Apparently everything online now has some relation to Web 2.0, crowdsourcing, or user generated content. Depending on your definition you can call both YouTube (crowd submitted videos) and Innocentive (open calls for corporate problem solving jobs) crowdsourcing. Now, the original, official definition put forth by Jeff Howe (who coined the term) is “the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call.”

    This is not to denigrate any of these areas, it is simply to say that they have been applied to so many areas since then as to make them essentially meaningless. Of course, Web 2.0 itself never had a narrow, well-defined meaning — O’Reilly’s initial description of it was a slide with about 25 bubbles on it each with a different concept in it.

    It is not the crowds producing the wisdom but the individuals in the crowd whose collective wisdom creates value. Dave Winer agrees saying “I am not part of a crowd, I am an individual” There seem to be two distinct things going on: tapping into the collective individual intelligence of a group of people (prediction markets, Threadless picks, popularity, ratings) and tapping into individual contributors or empowering individual contributors to participate in something that would classically be taken care of within the firm, via a contract with another firm, or via a professional relationship (what Jeff Howe would consider true crowdsourcing).

    So, unless you are tapping into a crowd and, in the end, paying someone in that crowd to produce work that you would classically outsource or hire externally for, you are not crowdsourcing. You are likely creating a community, tapping into the wisdom of crowds, getting feedback, and on and on. The very fact that there are so many different things going on, is why I am — VERY slowly — working my way through a multipart look at every different aspect of what is going on and how it will effect business and communication.

    07 October 2008 ~ 0 Comments                                       

    Wow! A new post and design at co>innovative!

    co>innovative has been lying dormant for far too long, I realize. My intent was never to write all the time but to create more substantive posts and articles every once in a while in order to think through and consider the goings on around the topics of crowdsourcing, lead users, outside innovation, and customer co-design. That being said, 3 months is far too long for the site to go un-updated.

    Thus, I have returned to the site in an attempt to revitalize it with a new, cleaner, less bug prone design and to begin posting once every couple of weeks again. The content may evolve a bit as well… we’ll see. My next post will be Part 4 of my on-going series covering the overarching topics of this site.

    Be sure to subscribe and enjoy.