How Crowdsourcing can innovate sustainability within business
In early January, Verizon announced a new sustainability project called Powerful Answers. Created to raise awareness of the wireless network’s new 4G service, the centrepiece of the project is a $10m (£6.3m) challenge for entrepreneurs, individuals and companies to generate innovative ideas in the healthcare, education and sustainability sectors.
If you think this sounds a lot like GE’s Ecomagination and Huggie’s Moms Inspired or even Heineken Ideas Brewery, Sony Futurescape or WWF Green Ideas, you’d be right. All these very smart sustainability projects embrace crowdsourcing as a mobilising and marketing tool, which taps into the “wisdom of the crowd” to demonstrate just how much each company needs the insight and input of its social media community to realise its sustainability goals. Activists like Greenpeace have also used a form of crowdsourcing to hammer multinationals like oil company Shell.
The allure of crowdsourcing for sustainability and CSR communications has long proven irresistible to both companies and activists despite some spectacular failures. As far back as 2006, Chevrolet crowdsourced competition, design your own Tahoe, was hijacked by anti-SUV campaigners. In early 2012, McDonald’s found itself similarly under attack through the conduit of its #McDstories Twitter campaign while Waitrose also got more than it bargained for with it’s sentimental campaign, “I shop at Waitrose because …”
It could be very easy to cast a cynical eye over the marketing world’s crowdsourcing infatuation, doomed to meet the same fate as flashmobs and QR codes. But it’s hard to think of another time when so many companies were asking their own communities for help in creating better business ideas and, in the case of GE, Huggies, PepsiCo and Verizon, rewarding those sustainability ideas with investment funds and incubation support.
Which is why crowdsourcing needs to be saved from becoming a stale marketing tactic, owed by the marketing and PR department, and instead embedded into the working DNA of the company, so that it can change and influence the whole organisation. Central to this is the understanding that crowdsourcing, like social media, is a state of mind not a shiny digital toy.
How would a crowdsourcing approach work within the traditionally suspicious and share-averse world of corporate decision making? Companies like Starbucks and Dell would argue that you have to demonstrate how the wisdom of the crowd can have a positive effect in connecting customer relations to business planning and research and development. Both MyStarbucksIdea and Dell’s IdeaStorm, though hardly perfect models of crowdsourced action, point to what is possible in terms of better business when companies open up about the challenges they face and seek advice from parts of the community they would never have thought to consult in the past.
For crowdsourcing to be an effective part of social business, the crowd needs to feel that its views (so assiduously courted by the corporation) turn into action. Both Dell and Starbucks have demonstrated some success but both have also had to counter criticism that their crowdsourced idea platforms are hampered by inaction.
The importance of curation
Purists would argue that crowdsourcing’s power comes for the volume of information, ideas and opinions it opens up. But just as the value of user-generated content becomes more powerful when curated and packaged by professional editors, crowdsourced ideas and action increase in effectiveness when shaped around an identifiable business goal.
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Lab, an online collaboration platform to help the multinational achieve its very ambitious sustainability targets for 2020, is an interesting blueprint for what curated crowdsourcing could achieve if adopted on a wider scale. Last April, some 2,200 sustainability leaders and experts from 77 countries took part in a 24-hour online “big think” about four key issues: sustainable sourcing, sustainable production and distribution, consumer behaviour change, and recycling and waste. The key to the productive discussion and planning came in the curation of the event. It was invitation only and 80 external experts along with 100 Unilever managers from R&D, procurement, marketing, and customer development took part. Lab conclusions were shared with all participants and put on the agenda of a Unilever steering team. However, we’ll have to wait and see if all that valuable discussion translates into action.
Unilever also runs its Open Innovation submission platform, (operated by Yet2, a collaboration platform that also works with Anheuser-Busch) where it invites outside potential partners to help meets its list of sustainability ‘wants’. Proctor & Gamble has its own open innovation sourcing site called Connect + Develop. Both of these ventures look to tap into external expertise to solve sustainability problems, though whether either can be considered true crowdsourcing is debatable as submissions are private.
Unilever and P&G are just two of the biggest companies who see open innovation or crowdsourced ideas as drivers of business change and growth. Sainsbury’s recently announced it wanted to crowdsource ideas from a pool of 155 companies including rivals Tesco and Marks & Spencer to help improve the retailer’s sustainability marketing. IBM, for its part, has been running open collaboration ‘Jams’ events since 2006. Sew Love a Kickstarter-funded collaboration network for designing and making clothing is using the power of the crowd and the burgeoning makers movement.
Perhaps the most exciting field for curated crowdsourcing success lies in healthcare and life sciences. Transparent Life Sciences is one pharmaceutical company that is making business out of open innovation in drug research by developing promising drug compounds and designing studies via crowdsourced methods.
Of course, if smart people are going to collaborate online to solve the world’s biggest medical challenges it does help to make a game of it. That’s exactly what Fold.it does. A collaborative research platform run by the University of Washington’s Centre for Game Science and Department of Biochemistry, Fold.it uses a game interface to crowdsource insight and research about protein structure analysis and design (really). People play competitively to fold the best proteins and, in turn, contribute to medical science breakthroughs such as understanding the structure of the AIDS virus.
This column first ran in Guardian Sustainable Business