Ideal Ideation: Four Crowdsourcing Best Practices from History to Drive Innovation in 2024

By Charlie Lloyd, Qmarkets |  November 27, 2023

It’s easy to think of crowdsourcing as something relatively new. After all, the term itself has only been around since 2006. Yet the reality couldn’t be more different. For hundreds of years, crowdsourcing techniques have been used in attempts to solve some of society’s toughest challenges. 

Many of these crowdsourcing events were incredibly successful, and we continue to benefit or enjoy their outcomes today. Even better, these historical examples provide timeless insights into how and why crowdsourcing can be so effective, and why it should be at the forefront of innovation strategies going into 2024 and beyond. Here are four key takeaways we can glean from different crowdsourcing events throughout history.

1. Diversity of Innovation Perspectives: The Longitude Prize

Way back in the early 18th century, Great Britain (and every other seafaring nation) had been confronted with the same challenge for hundreds of years: finding a way to accurately identify a ship’s longitude at sea. The inability to do so meant that disasters at sea were commonplace, and so a solution was vital to ensure safe navigation, and make major advancements in cartography. At a loss, the British government launched the Longitude Prize, its first known act of what we now call crowdsourcing.

The world’s first marine chronometer was a major breakthrough in navigation and cartography.

Inventors and academics were challenged to devise a solution and promised a reward of what is today the equivalent of millions of pounds. And it worked. A clockmaker by the name of John Harrison took on the challenge by inventing the world’s first marine chronometer, and nautical navigation was changed forever.

The Longitude Prize was a resounding success because of the diversity of skillsets of the experts engaged to participate. Experts in nautical navigation should, in theory, have been best placed to find a solution, yet in the end it was a clockmaker whose fresh perspective led him to solve the problem by approaching it from a completely different angle.

 2. Process Efficiency: The Sydney Opera House

One of the most well-known buildings in the world, the Sydney Opera House was built after Danish architect Jørn Utzon won an international design competition that received 233 entries from 32 countries. Criteria included two halls seating 3,000 and 1,200 respectively which could be used for operas, concerts, ballet, and other performances. 

Utzon submitted his iconic design as a few simple sketches, and these were enough to win over the judging panel. Yet the project took 16 years to complete,  due to various cost and scheduling overruns, and by the resignation partway through by Utzon himself. The building was initially expected to open in 1963 and cost $7 million. In reality, its doors finally opened ten years later at a total cost of $102 million.

The crowdsourcing element of the project was resoundingly successful, yet the implementation phase was prolonged and jeopardized by mismanagement. There needs to be a clear, stage-gated process in place to move ideas through the pipeline to implementation effectively and efficiently in order to derive the maximum ROI from your crowdsourcing efforts.

3.  Engagement Incentives: The Orphan Drug Act

In the United States in the early 1980s, the government was eager to encourage the development of treatments for various “orphan diseases.” These are rare diseases for which pharmaceutical companies hadn’t deemed it profitable to produce drugs.

The Orphan Drug Act offered tax breaks, exclusive marketing rights, and other incentives to researchers and biotech companies as rewards for developing “orphan drugs” for such diseases.

The act is widely considered a great success. Since 1983, 200 “orphan diseases” have been cured, and, in 2010, pharma giant Pfizer launched a division tasked specifically with the development of orphan drugs.

The Orphan Drug Act shows us the value of cash rewards, but there are many other incentives that can successfully drive engagement. In a large organization, the promise of company-wide exposure and recognition of someone’s idea can be an incredibly powerful (and completely free) incentive.

4. Intelligent Gamification: The Foldit Puzzle

Foldit is an online puzzle game developed by the University of Washington. It challenges players to solve complex puzzles that “fold” protein structures, and designed ingeniously so that the highest scores can be analyzed and replicated in the real world, with the aim of achieving scientific breakthroughs.

Online game Foldit helps anti-Aids drug quest - BBC News
Online game Foldit, which helps to make scientific breakthroughs in the real world

One such breakthrough came in 2011, when Foldit’s gaming community managed to determine the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that scientists had been unable to achieve for years. 

Technology is making crowdsourcing easier, more engaging, and, ultimately, more successful. Gamification techniques such as idea tournaments, points, badges, and leaderboards are really effective ways of ramping up participation.

Crowdsourcing in 2024 and Beyond

At Qmarkets, we and our enterprise customers are primarily focused on the future, yet these wonderful instances of crowdsourcing show us that there is plenty to be learnt from the past as we look ahead to 2024 and beyond.

Today, using our suite of innovation management tools, leading enterprises around the world are crowdsourcing at scale to fuel their innovation programs.

Companies such as Volkswagen, Nestlé, and Intel are using our products to challenge their audiences to come up with ideas that solve strategic challenges, or capitalize on exciting new opportunities.  

Our software enables enterprises to engage and reward employees, customers, or any other audience for their contributions, and to transform their ideas into innovations through a clearly defined process to enrich, evaluate, and implement them. 

Crowdsourcing is more powerful than ever. Don’t plan for 2024 without it. Want bespoke analysis and insights to help you take your innovation program to the next level? Take our free Enterprise Innovation Maturity Assessment.

Charlie Lloyd is Innovation Strategist with Qmarkets. Charlie started his innovation journey at a boutique consultancy in London, where he worked with some of the world’s leading retail and CPG brands to integrate the latest trends and technologies into their innovation strategies. At Qmarkets, Charlie provides strategic insights to the company’s enterprise innovation community in the form of thought-leadership pieces, innovation playbooks, best practices, and more. In his spare time, he’s a voracious reader of crime fiction and an avid supporter of Arsenal FC.