Crowd innovation is a valuable tool for ideation. Steve Rader of NASA, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, spoke at the R&D Management Conference 2021 about how this technique has been harnessed to capture in days, innovation that would otherwise take years.
He explains that his part of NASA is a centre of excellence for crowd innovation. His department, NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI), works across the agency and federal government to help these organisations understand and use these open innovation tools.
As the world has changed, so too has the way that NASA approaches problem solving. The techniques that have worked for the last 100 years are no longer fit for purpose.
People don’t realise that 90% of all scientists that have ever lived on the planet are alive today. Think about those photographs of scientists of the past and all the amazing math and science and chemistry that they have contributed, then consider we now have nine times as many scientists working in our world.
In real terms it means we are going through a technology explosion. This can be described in lots of different ways, but particularly it means low-cost, powerful technology building blocks – cheap sensors, cheap robotics, software APIs, blockchain, even things like CRISPR, where you can do cheap gene editing. These things are now accessible to almost every industry and the future is cross-industry innovation.
At no other time in history have we seen so many great technologies being developed that are solutions to our problems. The issue is that you cannot find them and that carries a risk of being surprised by disruptive technology as you never saw them coming.
Half of the most successful companies in the US are gone
The average lifespan of companies has gone from almost 100 years in the early 1900s to less than 20 years now.
Take for example pipeline inspection – previously you would take a ship at $1 million a day, lower a van sized piece of equipment next to a pipeline, and for two weeks would scan that pipeline to inspect it.
The pipeline company looked for alternatives and within two weeks found a technology that was already in use in the mining industry that was handheld and could do that same job in two hours. But what they said was ‘this is going to save us a ton of money’ – which it was – but ‘if we hadn’t found this technology and our competitor had, we would no longer be in this business’.
This is happening over and over, and if it’s not happening to your organisation, that’s giving you a false sense of security, because you don’t know what those technologies are.
So how do you find those disruptive technologies?
If I put an individual in my organisation to innovate, they’re going to be able to find two or three of those, but because of their domain knowledge, the nomenclature they use, the way they talk about the subject area, they’re only going to access those.
If I put a team on that they are always going to out-perform an individual. But, if I really want to innovate, I use the crowd. The crowd acts as a dragnet across all these different disciplines, to find the technologies.
InnoCentive – solving the world’s biggest problems
Dr Alph Bingham is a pioneer in Open Innovation. In the early 2000s, he went to Eli Lilley, and wanted to try out the idea that diversity is the key to advancing real R&D work.
He found the top 22 different problems that they were researching and got permission from the chief scientist to put them up on a website and asked the public to try to solve those.
The very first day every single scientist working at Eli Lilley on those problems went to the chief scientist and said ‘you need to take these down, these should never go public, they’re going to ruin the company, you hired us to do those problems’. You see the first signs of problems with open innovation and the old model. They come together in friction. He basically addressed their issues of intellectual property, they abstracted some of those, and then reposted them. They ended up solving the majority of those problems and that was start of InnoCentive, which now has almost half a million solvers that are solving really hard problems.
Open innovation – going outside your organisation
That’s what open means, going outside your organisation. It’s not just an effective tool – crowd platforms are the tool to keep up with the pace of this rapidly changing technology.
We’re all familiar with Uber and AirBnB – these are matching platforms, they match something: who needs a ride with somebody who has a car, or someone who needs a place to stay with someone who has a room. These platforms do this with high trust, low friction, at scale. That’s what we’re seeing in the innovation space, and now in the talent space as well.
You can kind of think of these as curated communities, communities of passion. There are about 700 of these platforms, and they are kind of two-sided networks that on the one hand are pulling in people and connecting to other people who have that same passion, and they’re mobilizing it to the other side of the network, which is company and other organization needs, in creating this win-win of value proposition.
Needs someone to connect the dots
The solution is not about expertise; it doesn’t always require someone who is a world expert, just someone who can connect the dots.
This is what we actually see in the research out of MIT – 70% of the time the successful challengers came from somewhere not in the domain of the challenge owner. They also found that 75% already knew the solution, it already existed. It literally was the connecting of the dots the majority of the time.
Crowd innovation with prize challenges
Crowd sourcing has a very high signal to noise ratio problem, and anyone who’s run an open innovation challenge knows that this is the problem.
This is where prize challenges are really effective.
They are the matching algorithm that works best for finding the unexpected. These platforms are actually very effective at formulating the right problem statement, designing the challenge, executing the challenge, filtering that solution down so you don’t have to look through 5,000 submissions, and helping you pick the winners and helping you get that intellectual property that you need.
Challenge: Crisps and grease
One company came with a challenge ‘we need to remove grease from ships [crisps]’. The way they were doing it was to mechanically vibrate the chips so they could shake the grease of those crisps. I would say that food production engineers are largely mechanical engineers; I’m a mechanical engineer, our expertise is vibration, thus a vibration solution – brilliant, right?
The first thing InnoCentive did was to reframe the problem statement from ‘how do you remove grease from potato chips?’ to ‘how do you remove a viscous fluid from a delicate wafer?’
This reconstitution of the problem statement was huge, because it opened up the problem to almost anyone with a science background, or anyone that understood that problem statement.
For protective reasons, it also hid the fact that the challenge came from a potato chip company, so for competitive reasons it was handy as well.
It turns out the solution to this was to vibrate acoustically the air around the chips at a frequency that would resonate with the fluid and basically cause it to fly off the chips.
That was developed and submitted by a violinist, who was an expert in vibration but not a mechanical engineer.
The vibration experts were mainly ignorant to this solution; even experts have blind spots, and the crowd can help you break out of that and widen your field of view so that you can bring in the real innovations that you don’t already have access to.
Challenge: Measurements and algorithms
Roche Diagnostics brought in 12 of their problems. One of them was their diagnostics machine that they had worked on for 15 years, and they needed a very precise measurement for the intake quantity and quality.
They ran a 60-day challenge on InnoCentive for a very modest prize, and at the end of that not only did they solve the problem, it came independently from two solvers, which meant that it existed already. What blew them away was that when they looked at all of the submissions, everything they had tried in 15 years of proprietary research had been replicated in 60 days, by a crowd that was not supposed to be experts in this field.
Challenge: NASA and solar flares
Our organisation works across the government and across NASA to provide access to these crowds. We have 40 different open innovation crowds that represent about 110 million people and we are matchmaking those to projects across NASA and across the federal government.
Take for example prediction of solar flares. We were trying to extend a two-hour prediction to four hours. This would then give astronauts a longer time window for a space before a solar flare hits them. We put this out to the crowd and ended up with an eight hour prediction – twice our goal.
It came from a semi-retired cell-phone engineer, who had a heliophysics undergrad qualification he had never used. He was able to connect the dots, using the math used for extracting signal from noise and apply it to heliophysics prediction. Diversity is super important.
Success and resistance
We’ve been doing this for ten years and have done over 500 challenges now across a realm of different types, anywhere from multimedia to real engineering models. You can see they are largely successful, largely cheaper than traditional methods, and we get really great results.
There is still cultural resistance to this, especially in R&D. We tell our people ‘look, you are still the innovators, we’re not trying to steal the best part of your life’. What we are saying is that because of the technology explosion and the world out there and the pace of change, ‘you cannot possibly be the innovator that you’re meant to be unless you find the best ideas, the best technologies – that innovation has no value until it’s actually working for you, and that’s your job.’
We want to supercharge our folks, and that’s really what we’ve tried to do here.
Innovation in R&D
R&D researchers are the worst about adopting open innovation. Nobody wants to give away the fun.
Crowd innovation is a really great way to pursue risky lines of inquiry. We’ve had researchers participate on the challenge who said ‘we were able to try things that our lab supervisor would never have let us pursue’.
A lab supervisor has a budget and they don’t want to waste it. They mitigate risk, and therefore risk-averse keeps us away from innovation.
I think the idea of opening innovation up in research really is kneecapped by the competitive funding and publishing concerns.
If you’re looking for a way to get R&D researchers into this, don’t pose that they take their thesis and put it out to the crowd. Ask them to look at what the speedbumps are between where they are and where they want to go. Maybe that’s lab equipment, maybe that’s something small. They can look across these different items that they need to actually get going in their lab.
Workforce becoming freelance
There is a new emerging workforce; these platform based communities are starting to become not just useful, but a trend the entire workforce is shifting towards – largely to gig and freelance work.
People are entering this workforce in the freelance world at three times the rate of the normal workforce, and over the last seven years that has gone up to 40% of average companies being non-full-time workforce. Looking at projections on a study from 2017, by 2027 there will be more freelancers than full-time workers. This will change how you access skills.
Even if you don’t go hire the freelancers, you’re ability to find full-time workers is already being affected by this. And Covid sped this up. It’s now being predicted for the next two to three years. if you talk to HR, they are not able to hire high-end talent right now, and that is starting to effect everyone.
Future is open
Open is the future. If you’re not doing open you need to figure it out. Innovation is no longer optional. In a lot of organisations, it was something they did every few years to keep productive.
I would say in R&D it should never have been optional, but we need to figure out how to use these tools. It is hard, it is not easy, but if you hope to actually survive this rate of change I think it has to be one of your core tools.