Sun Catcher by Max Rymsha of Ukraine, 2016.
The idea of the internet as a place for accelerated global community-building always rang a bit hollow for me. Until the evening of February 15th, 2014 when my inbox was flooded with messages from strangers in Paris, Timișoara, Tokyo, Italy, China and a dozen other countries. Two years later I’ve seen this repeated and now recognize some lessons in crowdsolving — bringing people together from all around the world to solve common challenges.
I want to share what I’ve learned here, and explain exactly why my inbox exploded that night, but first I’ll provide some context. (Just skip this next section if you want to cut straight to the lessons)
When Your Backyard is the Internet
Back in January 2014 we put out a call for help designing a tiny backwoods cabin of the future; inspired accommodation for ‘Innovators In-Residence’ at our fledgling Rural Innovation Campus. With no clue how to run an architecture competition I neglected to include registration. That meant there was no way to gauge just how much interest we had generated until after the competition closed.
In the eleventh hour, when designs started pouring in from all over the world, it was both a shock and a bit of a revelation. People around the globe were inspired by our project — a lot of people — and were putting forward their time and creative energy to help us find a solution.
To assure you this was not just a one-off fluke, we did it again last month. This time engagement was even stronger. Syria, Singapore, Russia, Germany, Indonesia — our 2016 Creative Commons gallery (62 shelter designs for low-carbon rural living) includes open-source work from over 20 countries.
Needless to say the quality of solutions generated by a global community of crowdsolvers far exceeds was is possible for our small organization going it alone. For me this demonstrates the deep value of using the internet to build community around shared challenges.
It proves that we can solve problems together — no matter where we are on this planet.
3 Lessons in Successful Crowdsolving
1) Choose the Right Channels (know your allies)
The first step to building a community of crowdsolvers is making sure that your voice, your call to co-create, reaches the right people. This all comes down to choosing the right channels of communication.
The reason designers in over 20 countries know about our project in the first place is because we broadcast our signal using outlets they are already tapped into. Online platforms where designers gather — websites like Bustler and Archdaily — give us access to a community of people with the right skills and passions aligned with our cause.
And this costs us virtually nothing, because what we provide is something those platforms and their communities find fundamentally valuable (next lesson).
To sum up:
Make use of the platforms and channels that already exist for the express purpose of amplifying your message. This will require some research, but it will pay you back in spades.
n.b. Sometimes ‘research’ is just talking to a friend in the know. We identified our best signal amplifiers by asking a couple of our architect friends where they go to browse competitions.
2 )Recognize, Create, and Share Value
Taken at face value you might think the reason so many people participate in our design challenges is because we offer a $1,000 prize. But get this — the top designers keep giving it back! This generosity reflects a sentiment echoed across the community of crowdsolvers we work with. The real value being created here is deeper than money.
Of all the reasons designers give for participating, there are two that top the list every time. The most important and most compelling is the chance to see one’s creative work made real. We build the winning shelter design, and our students and guests experience it. Is it any wonder this is the best reward possible?
For most people money isn’t an end in itself after all, it’s just a means to do the things we really care about. In our example what designers really care about — what motivates them more than money — is creating architecture that meets people’s needs and inspires.
The second big motivator is the desire to share one’s creative work with peers and the wider world. It’s about being a part of a global conversation. Through our open design challenge and Creative Commons arena we hold the space for designers to put forward their ideas — to be seen and to be heard.
To sum up:
When it comes to striking a chord in today’s raucous age — whether you’re crowdsolving or just plain communicating — there is nothing more effective than aligning values and holding space for people to co-create.
3) Constraints are good, but don’t be too prescriptive
Whether constraints limit or inspire innovation is endlessly debated — and like most things the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
As a facilitator you’re tasked with striking that balance. Define the end goal of your crowdsolving mission clear enough so that everyone starts on the same page. But be permissive as possible when it comes to defining solutions.
In our first ‘backwoods cabin of the future’ challenge we called for something less than 184 sq. ft. in size that would accommodate two people and cost less than $10,000 to build. The rest we left up to designers.
The result was a novel solution — the Nomadic Cabin —that achieved all our goals and delivered the added advantage of portability. This unanticipated innovation, which gave us flexibility to build offsite and relocate as needed, ended up having immense value to our project.
To sum up:
Crowdsolving is by definition an expansive process shaped by the diversity of its players. Constraints can inspire creativity, but being overly prescriptive can stifle real innovation.
Foster a solution-focused approach that begins with a shared goal but then builds out towards multiple answers via multiple pathways. That’s how crowdsolving leads to answers we don’t even know are possible.
This article is an excerpt from a larger piece that originally appeared on Medium.