Research Highlights

Crowdsourcing and Innovation

By Natalia Levina, Associate Professor of Information Systems

Understanding advantages and disadvantages of different forms of organizing for different types of problems can fuel US competitiveness.

Crowd-sourcing of innovation, or putting a challenging problem out into cyberspace and hoping someone out there can provide a solution, is a serendipitous, Internet-enabled phenomenon that has yielded real results. Successful examples include using ideas inspired by cement technology to clean up a massive oil spill in Alaska, inventing a solar-powered mosquito repellent to trap Malaria-carrying mosquitos in Africa and designing the furniture and layout for 490 square foot studio where an owner can host sit-down dinner party for 12, have a home office, and accommodate 2 guests for a night.

But in addition to successes, writes NYU Stern Professor Natalia Levina, open innovation comes with real issues: How do you post a problem and still protect your intellectual property? How do you motivate the “crowd” when only a few will get rewarded? How do you disintegrate a problem from the complex technological context in which it has been embedded and reformulate it so that it understood by masses? How do you then integrate those externally sourced ideas back into your own organization?

Although several crowd-sourcing models have arisen, little research has been done to understand and assess this new phenomenon and compare it to other more traditional models of open innovation, such as employing outside consultants and research labs.

Organizations engaged in open innovation can choose from a variety of online platforms as well as between niche and broad-profile innovation consultancies. Together these organizations serve as open innovation intermediaries and focus on addressing the key challenge of how to effectively translate and integrate ideas in science, engineering, design, and business originating from diverse organizations, industries, and countries to address their client’s innovation challenges

This emerging sector is studied in “Open Innovation Intermediaries: Brokering Technology and the Wisdom of the Crowds,” by Levina, associate professor of information, operations and management sciences, and colleagues. They investigate and compare the structures, processes, and technologies that open innovation intermediaries have created online and offline to help clients address the fundamental challenges.

The researchers’ ongoing work has been awarded a three-year, $398,314 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). “To the best of our knowledge, this would be the first study of technology-brokering practices in the novel situation of crowd-sourcing,” says Levina. “Understanding advantages and disadvantages of different forms of organizing for different types of problems can fuel US competitiveness. Simultaneously, the increased use of these systems helps elevate the economic conditions of scientists and engineers in impoverished regions by providing them with previously inaccessible opportunities.”