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To find a brilliant idea, is it a good idea for businesses to ask their customers? Is a crowd of amateurs more creative than professionals? What are the conditions that make crowdsourcing generate real innovations?

For the first time, a team of researchers, Ales Popovic (a Professor at NEOMA), Jie Ren, Yue Han, Yegin Genc, and William Yeoh, have carried out some experiments to answer these questions. “Our study is one of the first attempts to identify the limits of crowdsourcing, and to understand and overcome them, in order to design effective crowdsourcing systems,” they say.


The good news is that research shows that the crowd is particularly inventive when it comes to ‘generalist’ tasks. In fact, it finds it quite simple to think of designing and manufacturing an object from everyday life, for example, a chair, a cupboard, a garden watering system, etc. In these areas, it often easily outperforms the experts.

The Starbucks brand, to give one example, was quick to understand this. It opened a crowdsourcing site, ‘My Starbucks Ideas’, where current or future customers could contribute their ideas. It was an excellent way of engaging them.

On the other hand, the crowd has great difficulty envisaging new solutions when ‘specialised’ tasks are involved. For example, making innovations to a nuclear power station or a solar panel requires specific technical knowledge. These remain the prerogative of professionals who are much more creative than all the amateur minds put together.

In that case, can the crowd not make any contribution when a specialised task is involved, when it lacks knowledge, or can’t see the overall picture, when it’s about nuclear or solar power? That’s not necessarily the case. “Our experiments have proved it: if you entrust the crowd with a specialised task, the ideas will be more original and more practical than those of the experts,” the researchers explain. But only on certain conditions.


To be creative, you therefore have to have some knowledge. Fair enough, then the crowd can itself acquire this knowledge. Individuals can learn from each other and gradually come to understand all the ins and outs. “Consequently, the diversity of profiles in the crowd, and therefore of knowledge and experience, can contribute to the collective creativity. This combination of skills, which will therefore be very extensive, makes it possible to overcome the limits of crowdsourcing,” explains Ales Popovic.


“Aware of this relationship between knowledge and creativity, our study explores potential solutions to improve this crowd creativity on complex topics,” explain the researchers. To increase the knowledge among the crowd, they suggest designing information systems: these increase interaction between members and enable the crowd to share knowledge. How does it actually work? Well, for example, the company might open forums where anyone can ask questions, reply, take part in conversations, contribute ideas. It might also post everyone’s suggestions on a site so that the members can then take them up and improve them. Similarly to Thingiverse, it would be a website devoted to sharing digital design files. The 3D community enables users to remix things from other people, a process which greatly favours learning.

The researchers also suggest selecting tasks for crowdsourcing, and dividing them into sub-tasks “according to the area of knowledge or level of expertise, which could reduce the difficulty of finding a member of the crowd to carry out that task”. Amazon Mechanical Turk illustrates this solution. Created in 2005 by the American giant, this platform enables more or less complex tasks to be done by people who have the skills for these specific types of work. It often involves analysing or producing information in areas where artificial intelligence is not yet sufficiently effective. It therefore matches the knowledge of people with the requirements of the task.

By relying on a good system, crowdsourcing is an efficient way of innovating, building a brand, marketing a product, or connecting to your customer base.

To read :

Jie Ren, Yue Han, Yegin Genc, William Yeoh, Aleš Popovič, The boundary of crowdsourcing in the domain of creativity✰, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 165, 2021, 120530