Harnessing the Wisdom of the Crowd

Elisabeth Laville

Elisabeth Laville (French, born 1966) is one of Europe’s leading experts in sustainability strategies and corporate responsibility. She is the cofounder and chief entrepreneur of Utopies (1993) and Graines de Changement (2005).

Whether they like it or not, companies are part of an ecosystem and, increasingly, will not be able to survive unless they acknowledge that they are interdependent with other “species”—including their customers, suppliers, partners, NGOs, start-ups, universities, and academics. They will need to cooperate with these and other organizations or individuals in a social and environmental context that will become even more complex in the next forty years. And they will be faced with new problems: adapting to, not just mitigating, climate change; decoupling economic development from resource consumption; increasing well-being while decreasing material possession; and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. In order to succeed, corporations, and human organizations in general, will need to open up way beyond what they can imagine today.

This transition will not be an easy one, since most companies today are still focused on getting their message out, rather than really harnessing what they can get back from their stakeholders. But let’s face it: companies are already confronted with problems—especially social, environmental, and cultural ones—that they do not fully understand and cannot really address. In response, leading firms have started to turn to external sources of ideas. A good example is Unilever, which chose to proactively address the issue of overfishing and resource depletion in the 1990s by collaborating with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). At the time, Unilever was the world’s largest single buyer of fish, and Greenpeace had started to plan a campaign against Unilever in Europe to highlight the unsustainable nature of European fisheries. In response Unilever engaged with WWF to set up the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which is now the worldwide reference label certifying a sustainable supply of fish. This was an innovation that would not have existed if it had not been for the conservation expertise of WWF coupled with the market power of Unilever.

In 2052 this new paradigm of open and collective innovation will be key to building corporate resilience—a healthier approach to economic adaptation than competition on all fronts. The fittest—the survivors—will be those who integrate the ability to cooperate in their governance. Most companies and organizations need to improve their capability to cope with resource scarcity, disruptive competition, or NGO campaigns affecting their reputation. Most need to continuously reinforce strengths and resolve weaknesses so they can recover more quickly from mistakes. By 2052 most surviving companies will have these skills.

There is much more to sustainable innovation than technical innovation. Society will also need low-tech soft innovation in order to effect change in individuals’ behavior, culture, and habits. Already, we are finding that the effort to produce high-tech, low-energy buildings for social housing does not in fact always generate the expected reduction in energy consumption, because occupiers have not been taught how to use their new buildings.

Another example of fostering sustainable lifestyle without hightech innovation will take place through collaborative consumption, where individuals will be swapping, sharing, bartering, trading, and renting in peer-to-peer marketplaces. Looking back from 2052, we will most likely wonder why we owned so much stuff, most of the time unused in cupboards or self-storage facilities.

Finally, societal innovation will spontaneously harness participation and collaboration toward common goals. Immediately following the Haiti earthquake, some 2,000 online volunteers in just two days created a complete digital map of Port-au-Prince, later used by the NGOs in the relief effort. We now know that when it comes to creativity and intelligence, the whole can indeed be greater than the sum of its parts. The collective intelligence of a group exceeds the cognitive abilities of the individual group members. The high-tech Internet will help us solve ordinary, daily, low-tech problems in ways and on a scale never possible before. But let us not be mistaken: the real innovation here, the one that makes a difference for the planet, is that coming from the people, not from the Internet.

Collective innovation is a real revolution that is just starting. The open-source movement in software development has demonstrated during the last twenty years that it is not only possible, but also very effective, to design complex systems through the collaboration of thousands, and sometimes of tens of thousand, each bringing his or her own contribution to a common work. Hundreds of thousands of others can contribute as guinea-pig users, giving feedback or suggestions for improvement. The success of Mozilla Firefox software (a free and open-source web browser that has become the second most widely used) shows the absolute efficiency of this collaborative approach, as does Wikipedia (the free, web-based, collaborative, open-source encyclopedia written by volunteers and now available in 282 languages).

Interestingly, in both cases, the organizations behind these open projects are not conventional corporations. They are not-for-profits owned in novel ways and flowering on noncapitalist values. The result is often lower prices and sometimes even free products, with high quality.

Over time, collective innovation will extend to other industries. Already we are seeing new initiatives like Freebeer, an open-source beer whose recipe and branding elements can be used by anyone for pleasure or profit. Or consider Apple, which is leveraging its iPhone and iPad sales with thousands of apps made by non-Apple volunteers.

Nearly 40% of global CEOs already expect the majority of innovation in the future will be codeveloped with partners outside the organization. Instead of the old-fashioned model of in-house innovation, which was about standard internal R&D and secret and aggressive control of intellectual property, firms will commercialize external as well as internal ideas by deploying outside as well as in-house pathways to the market.

The boundaries between the ideas of a company and the ideas of its surrounding environment will become more porous. In 2052 the “not invented here” syndrome that restricted the use of external ideas will be outdated—at last. Who knows, this might even turn capitalism upside down by 2052, with companies increasingly becoming vehicles for bringing the fruit of collectively owned ideas to the individual user, and for harnessing the power of individual users to improve ideas for the common good.