The Democratisation of Innovation

Rob Wilmot

Rob Wilmot
Founder & CEO

Posted by Rob Wilmot in Ideas and Features on 27 April 2016

The following piece is a distillation of thinking that's emerged from talks on the subject of the crowdsourcing of ideas that I’ve given at King’s College London, Crowdsourcing Week Geneva and Global London 2016, TEDxKrakow, IBM and others.

There are two core themes:

The first is how we, as a society and individuals, are programmed to resist change; and particularly how there’s a base instinct of those in authority to suppress, rather than listen to, the ideas of people within their communities and organisations; preferring to rely on comparatively small groups of individuals that they assign the task of ‘innovation’ to.

The second is how the emergence of crowdsourcing is helping those in authority to open up the opportunity to take part in the innovation process to their wider communities and organisations, (the democratisation of innovation if you like). I’ve also unashamedly shared examples of how the application of the Crowdicity ideas management platform has helped governments, healthcare providers, NGOs and businesses to benefit from crowdsourcing innovation.

The inherent resistance to listening

In offices all around the world, workers sit with their heads in their hands because their bosses won’t listen to their ideas, because they’re wary of the risk of changing long-standing processes.

Everywhere there are nurses getting really frustrated because their senior administrators won’t listen to their ideas that might have a positive impact on patient care. They keep doing the same old, same old, because the risks associated with changing practices is perceived to be too high.

Somewhere there’s a customer getting angry because they’ve been kept on hold for an hour, with their mobile phone bill in their hand with a massive charge for data services they didn’t think they’d used. When they eventually do get through no-one seems to be listening to the problem, never mind offering a solution.

Somewhere in the world there are new startups with great ideas for clean technology, but they haven’t fully articulated or tested these ideas yet, so no-one will risk funding them.

Somewhere, trudging home after a 14 hour shift, a single mother looks out over a massive construction site and wonders how an Olympic stadium will change her life; how that matters to her because she lives in a crumbling tenement where the streetlights don’t work and it’s not safe for her children to play outside.

Buried deep within every organisation and community there are ideas - potentially transformational ones - that never see the light of day. So why is that?

Because society is wired this way:

Doing as we’re told

Over 2000 years ago the ancient Greeks were really good at engaging their population. They held public forums called Agoras where citizens could meet to share and debate ideas and vote on them. These ideas led to improvements in transport, housing, and public health and wellbeing. But then this democratic civilization disappeared into the dust. From that point onwards a feudal system emerged and dominated around the world, with the Kings at the top and everyone else at the bottom. Over the next 2000 years, the courts of the kings turned into the administration of government. Over time, the ways of administrating in government were adopted by the emerging corporations that ran businesses.

There’s a really enlightening TED talk by Sugata Mitra that crystallizes the way we are taught and illustrates this way of thinking. In Build a School in the Cloud, he introduces the concept that the way we learn and behave in organisations is a construct of the British Empire, designed 300 years ago to ensure that there were people with identical skills, who could read, write, add, subtract and multiply with the sole purpose of servicing the Empire. He calls this the ‘bureaucratic administrative machine’.

Chicken Processing Factory

My first job was working in the killing bay of a chicken processing factory. I got very good at killing chickens, but I knew that the process could be improved to make it more humane. I went to my line manager and tried to share my ideas with him and what he said has stayed with me until this day: “When I want your opinion, I‘ll give it to you”.

Look at the words in the image below. I’m sure we’ve all come up against this. I’m even sure I’ve been guilty of this myself, in the past! When you go to someone and say “maybe we could try this?”, and their instinct - without even thinking - is to say yes…but!

This is a direct result of how society has wired us: the cycle of management being right and the workers just doing what they’re told.

But there’s also the enduring paradox that we’re too busy to consider change (or even this risk associated with it).

We’re just too busy!

Too busy to innovate

We’re all running so hard that we haven’t got time to stand still and think about new ways of doing things. We’re programmed to be resistant to change.

So how do we change the way we’re wired?

The way we’ve been doing it at Crowdicity is by helping organisations and communities to introduce the crowdsourcing of ideas into the heart of what they do.

Crowdsourcing of Ideas: Turning Information into Knowledge

I’ve looked around a lot to try and find a simple way to describe the essence of the crowdsourcing of ideas. And I think that I struck gold when I came across the following illustration by Hugh MacLeod at Gapingvoid.

Turning information into knowledge

It instantly hit me that this is a superb way of illustrating how the crowdsourcing of ideas works. We’re all individuals walking around with all this accumulated information in our heads, built up over time, from the sum of our experiences and personal learning. But if we make the effort to connect and share our ideas and experiences with others in a considered way, we can create usable knowledge.

The crowdsourcing of ideas can be enabled and streamlined by the use of an idea management platform like Crowdicity, but in it’s most simple form we can do it by just getting people together in a room (admittedly a big room). All that the crowdsourcing of ideas really boils down to is expanding the responsibility for innovation out from a core authority and bringing more people in to share their ideas, to talk about things, to brainstorm, to come up with new ways of doing things. This is the democratisation of innovation.

The Crowdsourcing of ideas also goes by other names, such as ‘Open Innovation’, ‘Co-creation’ and ‘Ideation’.

At Crowdicity we’ve been working with diverse organisations to help the address their own unique challenges:

Crowdsourcing continuous improvement in Healthcare

NHS innovators

We’ve been working with National Health Service trusts pretty much since we started Crowdicity four years ago. Their fundamental need is to find ways of making the funds they’re given by the government go further, to continually improve patient care.

We’ve seen NHS trusts crowdsource a whole range of ideas, which have gone on to make a positive impact: ranging from money saving IT solutions to new ways of treating patients. One great example of how this is working is the story of the hospital porter and the gown (sounds like a fairy tale, I know). Porters play a vital role in getting patients where they need to be. This particular porter was invited into the trust’s innovation management platform and he shared an idea that had come to him after seeing patients with their hospital gowns open at the back and them being embarrassed by exposing their bare behinds. His idea was to create a gown that was more respectful to the dignity of patients. And that’s where the magic happened. A few years before, the hospital had been talking about how to improve the patient experience with a more respectful gown design, but this notion had been put aside because everyone was so busy fighting the next fire, (they didn’t have the time to stop and think).

But with the idea now alive and well and gaining support in the idea management platform, the project has been rekindled and a new hospital gown design has gone into development. Rather than tying at the back it will wrap at the sides like a Japanese Kimono. Patients’ dignity restored!

But the crowdsourcing of ideas in the NHS isn’t just about the big ideas, which can be complex and take time to implement. There are also the instances of addressing everyday challenges such as “where should we put cashpoints around the hospital to give the maximum benefit to our patients and staff?”

Crowdsourcing an Olympic Legacy

Rio Agora

The Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes with the Rio Agora team

I remember the day we received a call from the Office of the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro. They’d faced a major crisis around the time of the FIFA 2014 World Cup; where civil unrest shook the city with a disenfranchised population taking to the streets to protest at the billions of reais of public money being spent on stadiums.

The Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, wanted to find a proactive way to involve citizens in the preparation and planning of the Olympic Games, with the aim of delivering legacy projects to meet the needs of the population. Having seen Crowdicity’s work with the United Nations he decided that crowdsourcing might be the ideal solution.

He named the project Agora Rio. His words describe the mission perfectly: “In ancient Greece, people gathered to discuss city policies and in public squares, called Agoras. In the modern world, the internet is our Agora square! Our first challenge is to think together and discuss the legacy of the Games Rio 2016!”

With the first challenge set, the team delivering the project opened up the online management platform to the population. But wanting to ensure they included citizens with no immediate access to the Internet, they also set up forum meetings in town halls throughout Rio and used tablet computers to capture ideas, votes and comments from people using public transport and on the streets.

The top 23 ideas submitted by, and voted on, by the citizens of Rio were filtered through the idea management platform and assessed in detail by a panel led by the Mayor. It turned out that 20 of the ideas were already scheduled to be delivered in full, or in part, by the government of Rio. However, the crowdsourcing exercise highlighted that these policies had never been effectively communicated or understood by the population! So here was the opportunity to share the good work already underway. The remaining 3 ideas have led to the delivery of infrastructure projects that will improve the lives of the citizens of Rio beyond the Olympic Games. All in all, a true legacy of the people, for the people.

Crowdsourcing to save the Planet

Innovate for Climate, WWF

The Innovate for Climate Innovation Community

Over the last few years, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have built up a very impressive innovation community where they regularly run innovation competitions to fund the transformation of new ideas into real products and services that will have a positive impact on the planet.

These ideas come from individuals or start-ups who join the innovation community and share their ideas to address a particular challenge. For instance, the ‘Innovate for Climate’ competition encouraged the submission of ideas to address climate change.

The whole innovation community then assessed and evaluated those ideas, casting votes and commenting on how those ideas could be optimized. The most promising ideas, as voted for by the community, received grant funding. Over the last 2 years WWF have given out more than $2.5 million dollars of grants to these new ‘green’ startups. This has the twofold benefit of helping the ecosystem and driving enterprise. Real impact.

Crowdsourcing excellence in customer service

Three UK, a division of Hutchinson Whampoa, have used crowdsourcing to co-create excellence in customer support.

Three UK Innovation Community

The Three UK Innovation Platform

Timing the release of the first of their crowdsourcing exercises to coincide with a national multi-channel marketing campaign, Three UK’s #Makeitright challenge was launched to 10,000 staff in the UK and India.

This internal crowdsourcing campaign was centred around the invitation of employees to submit accounts of a time when they’d gone the extra mile in their daily work. They were asked: ‘What have you done to Make it Right?’

With thousands of pounds of company rewards vouchers up for grabs, the challenge was simple, inspiring and effective. Members of Three UK’s idea crowdsourcing community were encouraged to submit their own stories and to nominate the efforts of co-workers and teams as well. This was the first time that staff from every department had been asked to engage in a transparent process that allowed their great work to be noticed by people throughout the company. As a result, staff morale was increased and best practices were celebrated and shared, driving improvement in customer service across the business.

Coming full circle

Buried deep within organisations and communities there are potentially transformational ideas that never see the light of day. But perhaps, with the crowdsourcing of Innovation, we can ignite those ideas and let them shine. Call it what you will: open innovation, co-creation, ideation; harnessing the power of your crowd to solve problems and address challenges, both big and small, ad-hoc or continuously, turning information into usable knowledge, is something worth a closer look.

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