Crowdsourcing 2.0

Jason Crowds

One of the most potentially disruptive technologies today is a little known platform called crowdsourcing. There’s nothing aesthetically notable about it. It’s not “wearable” and there’s no colorful interface to tap. In fact, by any external measure, crowdsourcing, as far as technology goes, is just– boring. But the idea behind it is enormously powerful, simply because it’s a platform to link millions of other good ideas. Crowdsourcing’s strength lies not in the underlying technology itself, but in the diversity of thought within the crowd. It’s driven by good ideas that seek out and link with other good ideas to become extraordinary ideas. With the new capabilities of crowdsourcing software, the ease of cloud-based computing, the speed of mobile wireless, and the connectivity of Web 2.0, we already have the tools we need to solve every health, socioeconomic, and education challenge in the world.

Here we will investigate a newer form of crowdsourcingthe cause-based idea contest. We will see how social crowds (online crowds teaming up to solve real-world problems) are arising and collaborating, while competing with one another, and how they share knowledge, information and ideas. We will consider the definition of what ideas are thought to be versus what they should be. Finally, the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations of those who participate in idea contests are also examined.

Moving from theory to practice, we will look at a specific crowdsourcing example, OpenIDEO, which is a crowdsourcing platform designed specifically to launch and promote cause-based contests. We will see OpenIDEO in action at Harvard University, where its engine (OI Engine) has already begun powering idea contests for smaller crowds; and one in particular that helped the Harvard Medical School discover new ways of looking and thinking about diabetes research.

Finally, a learning-enhanced contest model is proposed that would include elements of interactivity and collaborative learning directly into the idea-submission process. A Harvard-based online idea contest is suggested to pilot this new model, where education-related challenges would combine with relevant learning to maximize the quality and potential success of crowd-based solutions.

Wisdom of Crowds

In 2005 author James Surowiecki published his influential book, Wisdom of the Crowds, in which he concludes that groups as a whole are typically more intelligent, more creative, and smarter, than any single individual within them. He points out that innovative ideas are best found within “diverse and independent crowds,” which include topic experts as well as those with no formal experience. The book points to four required conditions for wisdom: diversity of opinion, independent thought on the part of the actors, decentralization in the organization of the activity, and aggregation. The idea of “crowds” was born and one year later crowdsourcing was introduced.


Jeff Howe was the first to use the term crowdsourcing in his 2006 Wired Magazine article, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing”. In the article Howe described the increasingly popular trend of gathering ideas from the masses as being a form of “outsourcing to the crowd,” with outsourcing referring to the business cost-cutting practice of sending jobs overseas, and his crowd referring to Internet users from around the world. In Howe’s own words:

“Technological advances in everything from product design software to digital video cameras are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.”

Three years after the article, Howe published a book looking deeper into the topic, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. It’s important to note that while Howe did coin the term, he did not invent the method. In fact, the core concept behind crowdsourcing (getting ideas from outsiders) had been around for decades. Prize-based innovation contests had been around since the 1700s. Eric von Hippel, an MIT scholar, had been writing about and researching user innovation since the 1980s, and Henry Chesbrough later built on that by defining the idea of open innovation. However, what crowdsourcing did differently than its predecessors was switch the focus from the firm to the crowd itself.


There are several different forms of crowdsourcing, the most common in use today being crowdfunding and idea contests. Crowdfunding is when the crowd donates or invests money toward a particular project or cause. Kickstarter is the most prominent example, but is typically reserved for creative projects and not the funding of social causes. Other crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Crowdrise are dedicated to cause-based peer-to-peer fundraising. Crowdfunding has grown increasingly popular and now even high-profile billionaires are predicting it will “change the world.” Unlike crowdfunding, online idea contests are not yet making front-page headlines for their world-changing potential, however they have only recently begun to be used for social good, rather than just product development.

Idea Contests

Online idea contests are typically hosted by a sponsor organization that creates a challenge to the crowd, eliciting ideas for solving a particular problem. In the past these challenges were designed almost exclusively to solve either 1) scientific-based problems or, 2) issues related to improved product design.

More recently, idea contests are starting to be used successfully by governments and nonprofits. Successful challenge solutions have already led to pioneering discoveries in both science and medicine.

Because of the wide diversity of thought that the crowd brings to a challenge, many who study it believe that it will solve the biggest issues facing society. Researchers Evans and Cowley note: “Some of the biggest leaps in technologies, and innovations in science, have come from approaching old problems with fresh perspectives, not constrained by old dogmas.” She re-emphasizes the need for diversity later, noting that it took a chemist to rethink a biology problem that ultimately transformed our understanding of viruses, a discovery that lead to two Nobel prizes.

Idea Linking

The media is often critical of ideas, frequently writing them off as “worthless” unless backed by successful “implementation” or “execution.” Aside from the fundamental flaw in this argument (that there would be no implementation or execution had the idea not emerged in the first place), these critics mistakenly view ideas as solutions, rather than pieces that may lead to a solution. In fact, ideas are never defined as solutions either, but more commonly as thoughts. However, rarely seen are articles arguing that thoughts are useless unless they successfully materialize into reality.

Instead of thinking of ideas as potential solutions to a puzzle, it would be more productive to think of them as pieces of a puzzle, that then require other pieces/ideas to complete it. Only when puzzle pieces are linked, and build off of one another, can the whole picture be seen. It is the linking of ideas that leads to innovation, not any one idea.


Understanding the crowd requires an understanding of the most important factor in successfully teaching anyone anything—motivation.

Psychologists studying self-determination theory have found that intrinsic motivation is significantly affected by the degree of autonomy, competence, and relatedness a person has. Some believe that idea contests are not conducive to real learning because of the extrinsic motivational aspect of competing to win. However, researchers have found that idea contests can be specifically designed to facilitate both collaboration and competition, which is often referred to as cooperative competition, or “coopetition.”

The best contests encourage and even facilitate the forming of small, diverse groups and teamwork. For example, media giant Netflix ran a crowd contest where individuals were encouraged, and practically expected, to form teams and combine ideas throughout the competition, and it was one of these merged groups that ultimately won the grand prize. Good crowdsourcing platforms don’t just generate ideas, they also look to improve on them by allowing team members, and eventually everyone, to rethink and reframe the ideas into various new contexts.

Some research indicates that having a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic incentives works best in certain types of idea contests. For example, in the Harvard Medical School’s Health Acceleration Challenge, finalists share a monetary reward, but also get to attend an invitation-only event with senior healthcare leaders (respect), and have official Harvard case studies written about them (recognition).


In recent research on participation in online events (e-participation), Mandarano and Meenar found that the way in which a platform is set up, and the way(s) in which communication is allowed to flow through it, affects the amount of participation that takes place: distinguishing between one-way information disseminations (i.e. static info via a website, email blast, etc.) and two-way information exchanges (i.e. message boards, chat features, etc.) Findings concluded that the availability of the latter significantly increased participation overall. However, Mandarano and Meenar also concluded that organizations must actively encourage and solicit input, rather than just making it available. Autonomy also factors high on reasons given for continued participation in contests, even for those who do not believe they have a chance of winning. In other studies the most common reason given is an internal desire for peer, community, or leadership respect and recognition.

Game Mechanics

Contests are games, but some have much more game-like elements built into them than others. Studies have shown that incorporating proper game mechanics has been shown to solve many challenges associated with online idea contests, as well as increase flow and motivation within participants. One study looking specifically at game mechanics indicated that some of the more effective ones include: a point system and levels, badges, and leaderboards. Community ratings and open evaluation methods were also used, which allowed participants to vote on other participants at various points throughout the contest.


Rewards have been found to be a critical aspect of building incentives to participate in idea contests. Many idea contests offer financial rewards to its winner(s): however, depending on the type of contest, this may not get the best results. Monetary rewards are the ultimate in extrinsic motivation, and in the case of idea contests, it tends to lead to a higher quantity of submissions, but of significantly lower quality. People may be initially drawn to contests for the monetary award, but many lose interest and stop participating, especially if they feel that it may be difficult or impossible to actually win/finish. Some psychological research has indicated that extrinsic rewards actually undermine the intrinsic desire to learn, and that those driven intrinsically to solve a problem often produce higher quality solutions than those who joined to win a reward. Nonetheless, monetary rewards have been shown to work (as do most extrinsic rewards) in the short term, which allows sponsors to reach larger crowds in a shorter amount of time and, in some cases, quantity may be preferred over quality.

One idea-contest criticism by sponsors that offer large monetary rewards is that there’s no guarantee that the idea that wins will actually work. One solution to this is for sponsors to reevaluate the structure of their contest to better allow for collaboration, feedback from experts, and an intentional method of idea linking. During a recent chat with Harvard Business School Professor Karim Lakhani, an expert on open innovation and crowdsourcing, another possible solution is currently being tested. This involves the use of multiple preliminary prizes that are awarded to a limited number of finalists, but the grand prize is kept on reserve while the winning ideas are tested in the real world. After a year the grand prize is then rewarded to the contestant or team whose idea has proven to be the most effective.


There are several crowdsourcing organizations pioneering new ways to design, implement, and host campaigns for public and nonprofit organizations, including: InnoCentive and OpenIDEO. InnoCentive was one of the earliest and most well known, as an early Harvard Business School (HBS) case study introduced many of us to the entire idea of crowdsourcing. A few years later, a new HBS case study on OpenIDEO began to show the broader possibilities and social-impact potential of crowdsourcing.

The OpenIDEO platform was designed to specifically solve difficult social issues. Its parent company, IDEO, a preeminent design and innovation firm known for taking a method (design thinking) that was only being used for small-business product development, and showing the world how to use it as a tool to solve nearly any kind of problem. Over the years IDEO has been quite intentional about its goal of introducing design thinking to the field of education. It created a toolkit, Design Thinking for Educators, for educators to learn their methods for free. They have also recently designed an entire K-12 school system from the ground up in Peru.

Considered one of the most forward-thinking, innovative organizations in the world, IDEO has been predicting (and setting) trends since 1978, and they are already well ahead in the crowd movement with their 2010 launch of OpenIDEO. Their method involves breaking down challenges into three phases: inspiration, concepting, and evaluation and ensuring that the crowd shares and collaborates on designing, creating, analyzing, and voting every step of the way.

The platform has a dedicated community of over 60,000 active users that work in a virtual space, using a multi-phased approach to crowdsourcing. Like other crowdsourcing platforms, OpenIDEO uses ideation contests as its centerpiece, but places more strategic emphasis on participation and engagement. The OpenIDEO website lists six ways in which the crowd can actively engage:

Table 1: OpenIDEO’s 6 Ways to Participate


Get together with friends and members of your network to discuss the current challenge topic. Make it an informal gathering, join an existing OpenIDEO Meetup or start your own.


There’s tons of knowledge to gain from our community’s diverse perspectives and from our challenge process. Dive into topics like health, poverty alleviation, the environment and community empowerment in ways you never have before.


Share stories, interviews, tools, or articles that shed light on the topic.


Whether you’re looking for collaborators for a project, want to mentor an idea or simply want to connect with an interesting individual or organization, leave a comment and start a conversation.


Go for quantity, go wild and defer judgment when adding ideas to a challenge – ideas can be new or ones you’ve been working on for a while. You can also lend your experience and join a team working on an existing idea. If we don’t have an active Ideas phase, check out concepts from past challenges for inspiration.


Get your idea in front of real people. Don’t be afraid of role playing or building a cardboard product. Learning from potential end users is the one thing that makes ideas evolve into life-changing initiatives.


Crowdsourcing @ Harvard

Harvard University has a reputation for teaching innovators and for being innovative itself. Even when it does not create an innovation, it’s often at the cutting edge in researching it. In crowdsourcing, both the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School have tried and succeeded in crowdsourcing efforts.

In 2010 the Harvard Medical School partnered with crowdsource platform host, InnoCentive, to help elicit ideas from the crowd that would complement their Type 1 diabetes research. All Harvard faculty, staff, and students were invited to join, regardless of school, department, or level of expertise. It was later opened to the public and resulted in 150 quality research ideas from over 17 countries, with 12 ideas selected as winners. The six-week challenge sought the crowd’s participation every step of the way, including asking for ideas on what the challenge questions should be, as well as having them vote on the winners. Participants from diverse fields were encouraged to create multidisciplinary teams and were provided virtual solving rooms. The ideas that won not only became focus points on their own at the medical school, but also supplemented the existing research that the faculty was already doing.

Crowdsource techniques are also taking place within some classrooms at Harvard. In one particularly large course, students are required to maintain an online “design journal” that is shared publicly amongst his or her classmates. Students are expected to routinely share their ideas on a given topic inside of their virtual journals. Not only are the journals available to be viewed by the entire class, but also students are expected to actively read and comment on the ideas of others. Many times comments lead to new ideas or thoughts, which often take on a life of their own, both on the digital platform and within the physical classroom as well.

Open Forum

The success at Harvard Medical School helped lead the Business School to create a university-wide Digital Initiative that, in 2013, created the Open Forum, a new program designed to better engage alumni. The Forum, a crowdsourcing platform built on top of OpenIDEO infrastructure, reached out to the medical school again, this time helping them to create the Health Acceleration Challenge. This challenge asked the crowd first to identify ideas for proven solutions that have not been able to scale and then, once the top ideas were chosen, went back to the crowd and asked for a second round of ideas that would help the earlier winning ideas to scale.

The following year, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, known by some as the “father of disruption,” decided to test out crowdsourcing in a different way, and used it to call on alumni to help create a crowdsourced article. It proved to be an amazing success as 1700 alums registered, 500 became actively engaged, and 126 contributed to the article. Christensen commented on the process saying, “It is so much more efficient, so much more powerful than the normal academic method that I will never do that again, now every time I do research I will do crowdsourcing from our alumni.”

Recently Harvard created a formal partnership with OpenIDEO, meaning that any of the university’s schools can now utilize its ready-made platform.

Learning to Win

Crowdsourcing has proven to be effective at ideation and problem-solving, but its potential as a learning tool is just starting to be realized. Several studies have indicated that a common motivation given by idea contest participants is that they want to learn new skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, very few idea contests have made learning a core part of the process. One that did, however, is the SaPiens (SAP) online idea competition.

In 2009, Leimeister et al. did an in-depth study of SaPiens and found that the presentation of other people’s ideas, and feedback, upon one’s own idea, works well for increasing learning outcomes. SaPiens was chosen because it was structured so that learning was an integral part of the actual contest. Multiple measures were put in place by SAP to facilitate and encourage this learning, including:

  • Access to topic experts (SAP staff) and mentors (past participants), who advised and shared their own specialized knowledge with participants
  • Access to lecturers, tutors, and various teachers (physical and virtual)
  • A tight-knit community amongst participants was encouraged and fostered

During the contest, ideas were available for everyone to view and discuss, and it was found that, as participants reviewed the ideas of others, they would find creative inspiration and return to their own ideas to make them better.

Learning-enhanced Model

Other than SaPiens, the research on mixing intentional learning and idea contests is lacking. Even so, there are tons of research on the best practices in education, distance learning, distributive learning, and online learning environments. There are also well-defined best practices on running successful idea contests, which includes the idea of collaborative competition, eliciting intrinsic motivation through real-world problem-solving, and the effective use of tangible and meaningful rewards.

We now know what works on each side and, thanks to SaPiens, it’s clear that the two would work well together. Linking learning and crowdsourcing would benefit stakeholders in multiple ways:

  • Contest participants: Would benefit by being in an environment of meaningful learning, with specialized, real-world content as their classroom experience. Critical thinking and creative skills would be enhanced through collaborative and interactive work. Intrinsic motivation would keep their interest as they work on meaningful and potentially world-changing issues.
  • Contest sponsors: Would benefit by increasing the quality of submitted ideas, due to the participants’ better understanding of the topic. Pre-submittal learning resources would ensure that all participants are well aware of any potential conflicts or roadblocks that might prevent their idea from working. Better incoming ideas means better products, services, and problem solutions.
  • Society: Would benefit by reaping the rewards of better ideas, meaning major problems such as poverty, homelessness, diseases, and educational equity could, in time, crumble to the diversity of thought and creative solutions.

Embedding more learning elements into the front end of idea contests would be a win-win-win for everyone involved. There are so many known best practices in education that covering them here is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, Table 2 offers just a few suggestions that could be considered.

Table 2 – Learning-Enhanced Idea Contest Options

Crowd diversity

More diversity of thought means better chance to find creative solution.

Idea fragments

One person won’t have best idea; thousands will have parts of it.

Idea development

Ideas put up for peer-review prior to submission.

Presubmission content

Digital learning material embedded into pre-submission system.

Idea barriers

Potential barriers shared in the pre-submission learning process.

Virtual testing

Virtual reality 3-D simulations to test ideas prior to submitting.

Tagged archives

All ideas tagged and archived; placed in open online idea database.

Academic research

Learning resources to include relevant research and case studies.


Participants taught design-thinking principles pre-submission.

Public contests

Ideas open to general public to view and add to, not behind login.

Relevancy search

Embedded social search to track down others with similar interests.

Postcontest learning

After completing MOOC, students retain access to future resources.


Ability to save current and past ideas, comments, and learning material.

Problem dissection

Complex challenges broken into micro-challenges, each with reward.

Progressive challenges

Micro-challenges to be solved & peer-approved before moving on.


All course content responsive and smart-phone friendly.

Mini videos

Four-minute videos (i.e. Crash Course) put challenges in context.

Virtual teams

Team-based; participants given specific roles based on own preferences.

Virtual workspaces

Teams given virtual workspaces (i.e. Google docs); real-time editing.

Wiki notes

Wiki page for all courses & contests; freely editable by all students.

Multiple winners

An Expert’s Choice and Crowd Choice (voted on by the crowd) winner.

Idea adoption

Top ideas “adopted” by Harvard faculty who help prepare it for trial.

Living labs

Incorporate MIT-style “Living Labs”, but virtual with live streaming

Explicit residual control

Optional: Crowd votes and narrows ideas; experts choose winners.

Back channels

Allow back channel conversations during all lectures; text emailed after.

Ask the Expert

Easy access to experts and mentors for all participants.

Viewpoint button

Tap button to view challenge from various political/social viewpoints.

Story buttons

Tap a button to hear or read stories related to all learnable content.

Challenge question

Let the crowd vote on what the challenge question should be.

Transference Training

Matching game w/two irrelevant things given; goal = transfer ideas

Looking Forward

The future of crowdsourcing and education together is promising. Even as Web 2.0 and its vast social networks continue to grow, Web 3.0 is coming, which will bring the Internet and the physical world closer than ever. Through immersive technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality, the lines between what’s real and what’s not will begin to blur. The Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence will combine to move us beyond just people to people connections and into a world where people talk to, manipulate, and learn from the physical environment around them. In Web 3.0 learning and living will become integrated and learning will no longer be associated with just schools. Yet there will always be challenges that need solutions and the crowd will persist through all technologies.

Other big changes are already happening. Crowdfunding is exploding and have begun allowing for-profits, nonprofits, causes, and individuals to bypass traditional means of raising capital altogether. The crowd is simply easier to reach, easier to convince, and more willing to take risks, than investors. The need for large institutions and organizations is vanishing, as everyone is beginning to just help one another.

Finally, a sharing economy has emerged that uses technology and social media to in ways never before imagined. It has wiped out businesses such as newspapers, bookstores, and video store chains. This is an assault by innovation, against tradition, as millions of eager-to-change-the-world millennials turn to one another for everything. The power of crowds is real and has allowed a free exchange of unlimited information that has empowered our generation like none before. Instead of just businesses, entire industries such as transportation (because of Uber) and lodging (because of AirBnB) are under attack by the crowd.

Where we once valued patience, we now value immediacy. Where we once valued tradition, we now value innovation. And where we once valued owning, we now value borrowing, renting and sharing. In fact, the crowd is starting to share everything, which is good news for crowdsourcing and learning, because ideas are next.

Note: This is an early draft of a paper I wrote for a class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in early 2015. In an effort to make it an easier read online, I’ve intentionally removed all citations and the work cited section.