Home > From the tavern: Innovation stories and opinions > Crowdsourcing solutions to the Gulf oil spill

Crowdsourcing solutions to the Gulf oil spill

Hutch Carpenter asks on Blogging Innovation: should BP crowdsource potential solutions for the Gulf oil spill? Crowdsourcing has indeed proven its value time and again. In We Think Charles Leadbeater demonstrates its power to harness the collective brains of people across the globe to design strategies to solve problems more effectively and rapidly than formal organisation could ever do.

In his post, Hutch examins three factors that might be holding BP back:

  • Site becomes a place for public criticism
  • Little previous experience with crowdsourcing
  • Deep technical domain experience is required

    The first one, the risk that the crowdsourcing site could become a place for public criticism, appears to be obsolete by now. There is plenty of public criticism already in the open, and no shortage of channels for such public criticism to express itself. As Hutch points out, all that would be required is a simple sieving mechanism to separate ideas from criticism, which sounds to me like a simple job for a junior PR assistant. 

    The second factor – little experience with crowdsourcing – also seems to be well past its use-by date, for two reasons:

    a) Desperate times call for desperate measures. The oil spill is an environmental catastrophe on a new scale. In the case of the Exxon Valdez, at least the quantity of oil was known and finite; in the case of Deepwater Horizon, oil continues to leak from the damage well with no short term prospect of stopping it. What does a mere lack of experience with crowdsourcing weigh against such urgency?

    b) The story of the Lean’s Engine Reporter in Cornwall 200 years ago stands as a good reminder that no previous experience in crowdsourcing is necessary to make it work. It is only a matter of getting a core team to set the communication channels and rules. Contracting such a core team of crowdsourcing experts does not seem to pose any major challenge.

    The third factor, the depth of technical experience required, should not be an obstacle either. Again for two main reasons:

    a) Even if deepwater drilling is indeed a specialist field, there will be several thousands of specialists working for different companies in the oil industry, who have at least some relevant knowledge and experience and whose brains could be harnessed much more effectively through an open innovation forum than through the formal – and inevitably hierarchical – cross-company assistance channels.

    b) Innovative solutions come from people at the edge of the field of expertise. To innovate – and who would dispute that innovation is now urgently required here? – you need to get out: reach out to these people who have some connection to the topic without being experts. These are the people least likely to be invited through formal channels to participate in the resolution of the problem. 

    The time for in-house expert-only solution has come and gone. It is now time for something different: crowdsourcing brings potentially large benefits with very low risks and costs involved.

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