An Introduction to Crowdsourcing (Part One): A Brief History of Collaboration

Last month, we discussed the mechanism of crowdfunding to finance projects collectively. This time, we introduce the concept of crowdsourcing, a broader approach that encourages open-innovation through the shared resources and talents of crowds. This will also be a major theme of Technoport 2014, throughout which we will run a number of ‘Share the Problem’ workshops inspired by a crowdsourcing philosophy.

History is told through the stories of kings, but is created through the actions of crowds. The industrial revolution was enabled by the vast numbers of workers able to contribute to mass production. The Norwegian response during World War II was led by small units of subversive fighters sourced from Norway’s disenfranchised populace, with little oversight from above. Even in the contemporary world, social networking leads us to think of creators like Zuckerberg, and brands like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – giving little thought to the masses of individuals that sustain them through their user-reliant business models. And so it is in the world of innovation, where we associate technological progress with companies, academic institutions and publically funded bodies, but in which the sea of individuals and networks that comprise these organisations drive the innovation that fuels this progress.

In a 2006 edition of Wired magazine, Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson coined the term crowdsourcing to describe how the collective creativity of a worldwide ‘network of potential labourers’, through various internet-based platforms, can be channeled to generate solutions to problems previously confined to isolated businesses and organisations. Crowdsourcers tap into this endless network of potential problem solvers, each with a distinct personal history and area of expertise. The idea is simple, but effective. If you have a problem that you are unable to solve internally, ask the world to solve it for you. In return, solvers can be rewarded through either money, satisfaction, or professional development.

But why crowdsource? Society is structured so that we slowly find our way to our field through an increasingly fragmented education system. We go to school and excel at some subjects whilst failing at others, and from there we become ever more specialized at university or in the workplace. Whilst this allows us to perform highly technical tasks, it means that we restrict our limits for problem solving to within the pre-defined boundaries of our discipline.

Crowdsourcing finds solutions to modern problems from the outside of these boundaries, exposing solutions that are hidden by the labyrinth of modern society. Outside the boundaries of organizations lies an army of willing contributors with fresh insight, expert input and willingness to spend their time to enable the progress of others. And the world in which we live is interconnected. Global challenges such as climate change, food security, energy production and poverty reduction all require the collaborative response which crowdsourcing is inspired by.

In recent years, crowdsourcing has developed into a tool not only for businesses looking to provide a platform for the creative industries (such as t-shirt design site Threadless), but also for social entrepreneurs, NGOs and non-profit organisations to overcome constraints in budgets and expertise by harnessing the potential of the willing and capable crowd. Next time, we will present some of the platforms and tools used by these organisations to help tackle social and technological innovation problems on a local, national and international scale.

Image courtesy of Adam Payne