Forward shift

As Open Planet Ideas – a crowd-sourcing initiative from Sony, WWF and Ideo – reaches the end of its ‘inspiration’ gathering stage, we examine how crowd-sourcing and open innovation might start to affect designers and the design process

Among the many transformations that the Internet has delivered, the massive rise in connectedness and openness must rank very highly. The connections between people, principally, but also between sets of  data are profoundly changing the way that we get things done, as well as the parameters of what can be done. And the culture of openness, dialogue and peer-to-peer sharing that has emerged online has challenged the logic of many markets, particularly those based on concepts of ownership, intellectual property and the protection of ideas.

The confusions and opportunities brought by these changes are forcing many companies to rethink how they operate. The digital sphere leads the way, with some organisations already sharing code, data and knowledge with other organisations, often using ‘mash-up’ applications and tools to do so. The repurposing of Google Maps to display bespoke geographical data is an obvious example of such a mash-up: Google created one thing, other people took it and created something else.

These ideas are now spreading beyond the digital world into companies whose products and activities are not primarily Internet-based. The alleged wisdom of the crowd is at the forefront of new approaches to how businesses, specialists and the public might work together to solve problems and develop products and services in the information age.

Sony’s Open Planet Ideas (www.openplanetideas.com) is a crowd-sourcing initiative that asks the world for ideas on how the company’s products and technologies might be repurposed to tackle environmental challenges. It is an attempt to harness the power of crowd-sourcing, dialogue and the free exchange of ideas for a common good, namely helping to preserve the planet’s environment and species.

The ‘challenge’ is run on the Open Ideo platform, a system developed by design consultancy and Open Planet Ideas partner Ideo. This platform manages the crowd-sourced ideas and brings together the community of contributors to refine and select the ideas they want to take forward. Ultimately, one concept will be selected and taken into a final realisation phase.

Both Open Ideo and Open Planet Ideas are applying crowd-sourcing and open innovation methods to non-commercial, socially beneficial causes. But increasingly companies are adopting these modes of idea-generation in competitive, commercial spheres too. ‘Open Planet Ideas is an exercise for us to be open and honest,’ says Tak Kawagoi, director of Sony Design Europe. ‘It’s very interesting to use ideas from consumers and it is good for us to understand our customers. But Open Planet Ideas is only one example of how Sony is now in dialogue with consumers. For the development of our Vaio [laptop computer] products, for example, there are lots of open platforms being used.’

However you term it – crowd-sourcing, open sourcing, open innovation – it seems that looking outside a company, primarily to its customers, but also further afield to academics, scientists, local authorities and community groups, is here to stay. ‘If there’s one thing we’ve realised after doing heaps of projects at Ideo, it’s that collaboration works. And the more diverse a range of inputs you can get, the better,’ says Tom Hulme, a design director at Ideo. ‘My feeling is that this type of thing will be used more and more, and I think it has the potential to be more powerful than a lot of the tools designers use at present.’

Exactly how crowd-sourcing feeds into a company’s innovation, design and development processes is still being worked out. ‘Open Planet Ideas will help us to learn more about bringing together a diverse world of committed people and about how to nurture good ideas,’ says Morgan David, head of Sony’s Broadcast and Professional Research Labs, a business-to-business-focused engineering division. ‘We are no longer in an age of silicon-driven innovation, but an age of application-based innovation, so it makes more and more sense to have a dialogue with end-users about the kinds of applications they want developed.’

Traditionally, many designers have taken the view that it is their job to lead the way by giving consumers products and services they didn’t even know they wanted. There has been a scepticism, if not downright fear, within the design community of ‘death by focus group’, where the creative spark is all but extinguished under lowest common denominator ideas. So how is the role of the designer affected if the whole world is consulted about what should be made?

Mat Hunter

Mat Hunter (pictured right), chief design officer at the Design Council, says that while good ideas can come from anywhere, it’s not true that everyone has good ideas. ‘Innovators and designers should not lose their critical faculties,’ he warns. ‘I think that although companies tend to look in too few places for inspiration and ideas, a crowd-sourced project still requires designers who have the talent and experience to see things holistically and anticipate problems or solutions early on. Not everyone can do this.’

Another issue is that open-source development challenges the stimulus behind much innovation, namely that you own and can profit by your ideas. Historically, fortress-like research and development departments in big manufacturing companies have protected this vital intellectual property. ‘Open innovation is a dilemma for companies that have invested so much in their own technologies and standards. It’s a big decision to accept that that’s not the only way to compete,’ says David. ‘But how often does the outside world see opportunities with Sony’s technology that we did not imagine? [The answer is] all the time. So the question is, to what extent can you lead the way and use a transparent crowd-sourcing process at the same time? I think a company can harness both sources of innovation.’

Because Open Planet Ideas is not a normal commercial endeavour for Sony, some of the questions surrounding innovation, design and crowd-sourcing are not quite so pressing. But the initiative will provide a valuable study into whether crowd-sourcing and co-design can deliver something which could not have been achieved otherwise, something stronger and more relevant to its end-users.

Gathering views of the world from outside Sony, Ideo and WWF is central to the success of Open Planet Ideas. The ‘crowd’ should present problems and suggest technological solutions that could not have been identified by these organisations. The result may be a ‘mash-up’ recombination of current products, or it may simply be an existing piece of technology set in a new context.

And although the concepts may have come from the crowd, design is certainly not relegated to simply filtering these ideas – far from it. It is design which corrals and refines these concepts into something fit for purpose, something appealing and original. As Hulme puts it, ‘Designers synthesise ideas into an important, well-framed question and then develop an answer.’

Nonetheless, crowd-sourcing on a mass scale is still virgin territory. Numerous models are likely to emerge in the coming years, with different intellectual property mechanisms and different democratic processes depending on the type of challenge and the contributors involved. In this respect, Open Planet Ideas offers two extremely valuable outputs: not only the possibility of a positive and implementable response to an environmental problem, but also an opportunity to observe crowd-sourced innovation at work.

The Open Planet Ideas challenge brief

After gathering more than 300 inspirations from people around the world, the Open Planet Ideas brief has now been refined to focus on how we can make better use of scarce natural resources. With this overarching aim, the challenge now invites people to contribute concepts for how Sony’s technologies could help in six main areas. The best idea will be taken to a ‘proof of concept’ stage, perhaps as a white paper, working model or prototype.

The six themed areas are:

  • More with less – using resources more efficiently
  • Bringing issues to life – closing the gap between our actions and their impact
  • No such thing as waste – turning waste into something more useful
  • Smarter design – designing less resource-intensive products, services and infrastructure
  • Smarter recycling – helping us to recycle more
  • Behavioural change – making less resource-intensive options more desirable

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