Collaboration and co-operation are words of the moment. Between social networks, open innovation, open source and the mooted Big Society, coming together to tackle problems and generate ideas is the way the wind is blowing. In design too, new ideas such as the Design Council-developed Designs of the Time programme, just ending its 18-month run in Cornwall, are based around different interested parties gathering to co-design and co-develop the services their communities need.
It is perhaps not surprising then that the eventual winner of Sony’s Open Planet Ideas crowdsourcing challenge – a global call by Sony, WWF and Ideo for ideas on how existing Sony technology can be repurposed for environmental good – should be a concept built around volunteering, collaboration and the connection of local communities with the global community at large. Called Green Book, the winning idea is an online social networking tool that can bring people together to work on environmentally minded tasks or projects, with possible ‘rewards’ delivered to its more active members.
Green Book is the brainchild of 3D designer Paul Frigout, known online and throughout the challenge as Siniuc. Although French, Frigout gained his 3D Design MDes qualification at Coventry University in the UK and subsequently moved to Romania, where he is currently based. The Sony Open Planet Ideas challenge is certainly the biggest innovation competition Frigout has won so far, but it is not the first. In 2006, he scooped an Aluminium Federation (Alfred) prize and was sponsored to develop a patent for a ‘dishwasher for the lazy’ – an idea to sell an ecological dishwasher by appealing to laziness.
But the Green Book proposal shows bigger thinking at work. According to Frigout, the idea for Green Book was based on getting people to volunteer for environmental causes: it is a platform that could help concerned-yet-passive people to become active agents, addressing whatever environmental issues interest them. During the Open Planet Ideas Inspiration, Conception and Evaluation phases Frigout gradually refined and simplified the Green Book idea in response to input from others. ‘It was very interesting and useful to correspond with different people about the idea,’ says Frigout. ‘Crowdsourcing in this way means you are not always stuck with your own viewpoint.’
Green Book’s peer-to-peer approach to an ecological volunteering platform is timely. Environmental challenges are simultaneously global and local. Our use of transport, for example, is a local issue with global fossil fuel implications. How we live in the West currently affects people and natural habitats in China, through the dumping of waste electronic equipment in Chinese towns, for example. Even our food consumption choices – large supermarkets with globally freighted products versus local or home-grown produce – impact both at home and further afield.
At the same time, communication between people both across the city and on the other side of the world has never been easier, thanks to mobile digital technology and the Internet. John Grant, author of Co-Opportunity and co-founder of ad agency St Luke’s, talks about these shifts in terms of ‘connected villages’, where local ‘village’ concerns and decision-making can be connected with and influence the outside world. ‘There’s a new pattern of grassroots mutualism emerging, with an ethos that’s familiar from 19th-century self-help societies, but rewired for richness, reach and rapidity. This can involve many local circuits of small-scale interaction, but it can also bubble up into big visible themes and movements,’ says Grant.
Where the ‘previous phase of late industrial capitalism’ left us disconnected from one another, Grant thinks that a new phase of localism and collaboration is emerging among the public and business. Green Book draws on the growing sense that, ultimately, environmental issues and their solutions are a collective affair: our problems may be both local and global, but so too are our collaborations. ‘Green Book taps into the rise of the participatory economy – the creative consumer who can make a difference, [giving up] little snippets of time here and there which, multiplied by many, can actually end up with a big impact,’ said Ideo design director and Open Planet Ideas expert panel member Tom Hulme when voting for Green Book as the winning idea.
An intriguing component of Green Book is Frigout’s addition of gaming-inspired rewards. The delivery of in-game rewards to videogamers is complex and precisely balanced to maximise satisfaction, challenge and playing time; Frigout suggests that Green Book could also reward its members for completed activities in a way that would encourage engagement. Retail partners, for example, might offer financial discounts on products and services in return for ‘Green Book points’.
‘If you plant enough trees, say, you could become the manager of a group of people,’ says Frigout. ‘There could be various goals for people to achieve and a way for them to see how they are improving. Point rewards have their limits, but it could be a good way to get people going, especially for younger people who use mobile devices and are into gaming.’
Co-operation certainly has its parallels in videogame playing, as Grant notes: ‘In games theory, which studies the interaction between individual agents in a system, co-operation is an agent behaving for the group goal, for the common result, whereas competition is an agent behaving for an individual goal. They are not opposites and they always coexist in a system. Every day we do both things: we make agreements to work together for a group goal, but working for a group can often be more effective for the individual too,’ he says.
Technically, Green Book hopes to facilitate this type of group co-operation by using a GPS-enabled mobile platform that will allow users to locate one another and gather to co-operate in environmental activities of their choice. It may also let people make donations, sign e-petitions, access information, hold discussions and so on. In fact, one of Green Book’s main attractions may be the degree to which it can be customised and adapted by different users and organisations to best serve their purposes.
The real success of Green Book is likely to depend on reaching a critical mass of users, as Grant notes: ‘Things like this succeed when they become a bandwagon that everyone wants to climb aboard: the network effect means their value grows exponentially with the number of members involved.’
The range and clout of partner organisation may well be instrumental in attracting people to the platform, especially if financial rewards are to be built into the system. Not long ago the idea of corporate businesses supporting a peer-to-peer volunteering platform might have seemed fanciful, but perhaps the time is right. ‘There is certainly a new willingness and openness in business. It has been a very long haul, but business has genuinely started to think along lines that are compatible with sustainability rather than just paying lip service to it,’ adds Grant.
Exactly how the Green Book system will operate and which partners will be involved remains to be hammered out during the Open Planet Ideas realisation phase. The intention is to develop and pilot the software with third parties and release it as a ‘white label’ application for any organisation to use – further adherence to the open-source philosophy of co-operation.
Frigout is set to meet with Sony Europe’s design and R&D teams, WWF experts and Ideo designers in March to take the Green Book concept forward. His hope is that the platform will ultimately encourage real action, not merely deliver additional environmental information and news. ‘We read too much news for too little action,’ he says. ‘Green Book will propose action from the beginning.’