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Harnessing the Power of the Crowd for Innovation

Jun 11, 2014
Sarah Dimick
Sarah Dimick
Research Associate
Technology and Innovation

A lot has been said about the democratization of the Internet. Users of the Internet have the ability to create and share information immediately. It is a phenomenon that has had far-reaching implications, including the power for crowds to drive successful innovation through to commercialization.

The Conference Board of Canada’s Council for Innovation and Commercialization’s meeting in May 2014 featured a presentation from Siobhán Gibney Gomis, VP, Pacific Northwest & Global Non-Profits at InnoCentive. InnoCentive is a company that is devoted to finding solutions for its clients through the collective knowledge and ingenuity of the crowd.

Siobhán made the point that we have grossly underestimated the potential of social media to connect people. New communities are built through these platforms, and these communities contribute to personal sense of identity among their members in the same way that nationality or faith group does for many. These connections and emerging communities can have tremendous power. Some distinct ways these communities have flexed their power are through:

  • Social movements: Examples of the power these emerging communities have to spark change include the Arab Spring and the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign. The social pressure that empowers these movements “depends on the strength of the social tie and the amount of interaction.”
  • Crowd sourcing for skills and knowledge: InnoCentive has been built to strategically harness the power of the crowd. It works with its clients to run open innovation challenges. By carefully framing the challenge, InnoCentive is able to engage individuals with varied expertise to compete to provide the best solution possible to these challenges. 99designs and Zyncd are other examples of crowd sourcing for skills and knowledge.
  • Crowd funding: Forums such as Kickstarter and Indigogo create a platform for small companies and individuals to raise funding necessary to get their businesses past the creation stage and to a commercialization phase. Originally focused on the arts, these crowd-funding models are now being used by a wide range of innovative SMEs. In particular, crowd funding helps to bridge the Valley of Death (the funding gap that exists between creation and commercialization of a new innovative venture) and successfully commercialize new products and services. The Pebble smartwatch raised over US$10 million on Kickstarter to put its product on the market.
  • Crowd intelligence: Dr. Alex (Sandy) Pentland, who spoke at the Council for Innovation and Commercialization meeting at MIT in October 2013, has also been looking at ways to harness the crowd. His research has targeted what he terms “social physics” measuring idea flow and collective knowledge through crowds and communities.

Any organization of any size can engage with the crowd to fuel innovation. The opportunities to generate and test ideas, fund development and production, and track idea flows are open at a low cost to virtually anyone with an Internet connection and the time to explore it.

The potential of crowd-enabled opportunities for innovation is not without challenges. As organizations explore this potential, they will have to become astute at being able to read cues from the market and their clients. The test for companies will be to authentically engage with clients who will not be shy about using, #Fail or #NotBuyingIt to call companies out. Reaching out to the crowd will be advantageous for those organizations that understand the motivations and respect the contributions.


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