“Crowdsourcing” might be just the label du jour for what is really simple collaboration or competition for the best ideas. But it is helping...

“Crowdsourcing” might be just the label du jour for what is really simple collaboration or competition for the best ideas. But it is helping to generate some promising solutions for serious social and environmental problems. The tricky bit now lies in followup: how many of the life-altering ideas identified through crowdsourcing will actually be implemented on a wide-enough scale to make a real difference?

GE’s highly publicised ecomagination Challenge attracted 70,000 participants from around the globe … people who either submitted ideas for improving the electrical grid, or who commented or voted on those ideas. The winners, though, were existing companies that already offer such solutions, rather than garage-based engineers with new innovations needing an introduction to the marketplace. So a financial boost for smaller firms with promising green technologies, yes. A means of discovering revolutionary ideas no one’s heard of yet, not so much.

Sony and WWF’s Open Planet Ideas initiative takes a different approach. With a winner due to be announced on 11 January (community members have till the 10th to evaluate their favourite ideas), the project solicited the public’s suggestions for how to repurpose existing Sony technologies to change behaviour, improve designs, reduce waste and achieve other sustainability goals. Eight ideas have made the shortlist, including a proposal for a network of real-time, wireless mini-weather stations to monitor microclimates for farmers, researchers and others. And all are fresh concepts by individuals rather than products developed by existing companies.

The Sony/WWF initiative itself runs on a broader crowdsourcing platform called OpenIDEO. Created by the design firm IDEO, the platform aims to create better designs for the public good by engaging a broad range of people in the inspiration, concept and evaluation processes. Its challenges include requests sponsored by everyone from chef Jamie Oliver to Unilever and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor.

Clearly, initiatives like these show there’s no shortage of clever people and innovative thinking that could help bring about a more sustainable future. The real challenge, as mentioned at the beginning, is bringing those ideas to life in the real world, and in a big way. Perhaps that’s the next challenge that should be put to the crowdsource test.


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