2,529 crowdsourcing and crowdfunding sites
According to the old joke, a camel is a horse designed by a committee (a Swedish committee if you’re a Finn telling the joke). Aside from being offensive to camels – who are noted for their sensitivity – my problem with this joke is that people often incorrectly assume that it applies to crowdsourcing projects which rely on collective decision making, such as some crowdsourced design platforms.
Conventional wisdom says that when it comes to designing new products, the lone genius beats the crowd every time. The concept of design by committee has become shorthand for muddled concepts, unnecessary complexity and the lack of a unifying vision. Good ideas are destroyed by poor communication, political considerations and ulterior motives. It’s like the production of a Hollywood blockbuster: you start out with a decent script and the best of intentions, but by the time the studio bosses and marketing departments have got their hands on it, suddenly Nicolas Cage is Superman.
But far from suffering from these problems, they are exactly the issues that crowdsourcing can eliminate: unlike Hollywood's sharp-suited legion of Executive Producers, a crowd is not governed by political motives, and only exists to provide the best solution. Design by committee is like crowdsourcing's (goatee-wearing) evil twin.
A good example is the government of Bordeaux’s crowdsourced project to design a bicycle for the city’s public cycling initiative. Over 300 Bordeaux residents contributed to the project, with designer Philippe Starck on hand to offer feedback and provide a bit of last-minute finesse (just to make sure that no camel-like elements made it through the process). The bike is uniquely designed to meet the needs of Bordeaux’s cyclists, with an innovative part-scooter, part-bike frame that allows easy switching between riding and walking.
The Bordeaux Bike comes on the heels of the most in-depth study of crowdsourced design yet. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University looked into the workings of crowdsourced design. Their results provide a handy argument against some of crowdsourcing's most enduring criticisms, while also pointing out the flaws in some variants of the crowdsourcing model.
The study identified three areas where crowd-based design can fail and some possible solutions to them. The first potential pitfall is that crowdsourced product ideas can be too niche. This occurs especially in the ‘contest’ model of crowdsourcing. The way to solve this is to create a truly interconnected and co-operative crowd whose members are free to provide feedback and criticism.
The second problem is that crowds can produce unfeasible ideas which are prohibitively expensive to manufacture. Again, the solution has to do with communication: companies using crowdsourced design processes can’t just give the crowd a two-line brief and leave them to get on with it. Instead they need to engage with the crowd and make them aware of cost structures, manufacturing restrictions and other important details.
The final problem is the tendency of designing crowds to shrink and generate fewer ideas over time. The study concluded that far from being a problem inherent in the crowd, this drop-off is actually due to lack of feedback from the commissioning company, and doesn’t occur when the crowd is kept in the loop. It makes sense. Why would a crowd stick around if it felt like nobody was listening?
In short, companies who want to take advantage of crowdsourced design must fully commit to the model, and not hold it at arm's length or treat it as a fad. Crowdsourcing doesn't mean a dilution of ideas, or a homogenization. It can lead to inspired solutions to complex problems, as long as the crowd is allowed to be a crowd. After all, while horses may be sleek and elegant, sometimes a good hump is exactly what you need.
- Ville "Wili" Miettinen is the founder and CEO of Microtask. He is a serial entrepreneur and investor, with 15 years of professional experience in software engineering and computer graphics. Wili was one of the founders of Hybrid Graphics (later NVIDIA Finland), a pioneer in real-time 3D graphics technologies. He has also been involved with the evolution of various open standards. Over the last few years Wili has been active in the Finnish early-stage technology investment scene, and holds board positions in a number of companies in the industry.