These days, we see new, dramatic innovations in technology with considerable frequency. Moreover, when we consider the past decade or so, the pace of new developments is increasing at an exponential rate. But while we’re seeing more creativity and inventiveness, how much of this technological development is disruptive rather than simple tweaks to existing innovations already embedded within mainstream society?
The recent announcement by NASA of a new series of contests aimed at crowdsourcing solutions to problems astronauts encounter while working in space by using a contest raises this question regarding the difference between disruption and tweaking in technological innovation. Why would NASA need to use a contest to crowdsource solutions if we live in a society that wholeheartedly embraces innovation?
Contests can focus and incentivize wide-scale innovation when so little else does. While all companies should be determining ways of profiting from the Hard Trends that are shaping the future and planning ahead for industry-wide disruption, the unfortunate reality is that most companies have yet to begin incorporating Foresight into their business management. Instead, many companies spend too much time reacting to change vs. anticipating and profiting from it.
So it is no wonder that entrepreneurs and government agencies alike are turning to contests to circumvent these conditions. More often than not, engineers are tinkering inside and outside their workplace, developing the next big thing. Why not tap into a large, eager pool of talent?
In other words, the aim is to ostensibly distill the innovative process, channeling it toward a specific need by holding contests in which contestants try to develop the best possible iteration of a concept. In doing this, the contest holders are both directing and incentivizing the craft of invention — which, arguably, might yield far better results than the less controlled, more haphazard method of stumbling onto “eureka!” moments like most creative people tend to do.
IBM saw the benefits of this method when, through its “Innovation Jam,” it crowdsourced investment ideas for its emerging technologies sector. Elon Musk’s search for an engineering team to design his Hyperloop transport system is another example that comes to mind.
Between tech giants like NASA, IBM, and Elon Musk, the use of crowdsourcing innovative solutions using contests has reached new heights that will further drive technological innovation. Contests, however, are not some cutting-edge strategy used only by the most forward thinking innovators. Take a second glance at the world around you and you’ll notice that crowdsourcing using contests is becoming increasingly pervasive. It’s like the proverbial story of the fish that doesn’t understand what water is, but in this case, we fail to realize the degree to which the collaborative process using social media and contests occurs around us all the time.
Today, a rapidly growing list of institutions are using a crowdsourcing strategy as an element of their business strategy. You probably use YouTube or Wikipedia at least once throughout the day — both of which crowdsource their content. Freelancer.com, the crowdsourcing platform NASA is using for its contests, has been around since 2009.
For an organization like NASA, which has seen slow but steady cuts in federal funding, the capacity to fund innovation and absorb the costs of experimentation is decreasing. Contests, however, mitigate risk and cost by allowing contestants to filter out the very best in technological innovation often on a global level; they also open up a wider field of innovation by allowing all interested parties to participate — as opposed to the few innovators hired by a startup accelerator.
With industry-leading entrepreneurs and organizations acting as bellwethers for this innovation-by-contest system, other forward-thinking entities are soon to follow — and this could have huge ramifications for innovators and their patrons, alike.
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