Contests can be one of the most interesting innovation tools. With the right challenge and incentives, creative groups from across the world can help invent and innovate rapidly. The creativity of crowds fueled by a content was just demonstrated in the Shredder Challenge contest that was launched October 2011 by the U.S. government’s DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). DARPA wanted to know what could be achieved with computer tools in reassembling shredded documents to recover the originals. Since many different approaches were possible, this was an excellent candidate for crowdsourcing. Rather than hire a huge team for a short while to pursue many different paths, or use a small team pursuing many paths over a long period of time, just throw this one out to the crowds for healthy competition. The objective in this competition was to create a system for reconstructing shredded documents. The system would have to demonstrate success by reassembling the shreds from five documents whose shredded remains were posted on a website. As reported at Gizmag, the “All Your Shreds Are Belong to U.S.” team won the $50,000 prize for this contest by assembling all five documents two days before the Dec. 4 deadline. Given the hours that the winning team put into this competition, $50,000 was a very good deal for DARPA (and the American taxpayers) and not such a good deal for the winning team. If you consider all the thousands of additional hours put in by many other teams working on the competition, DARPA got quite a lot for a small investment.
Companies can and do this kind of thing as well, with varying degrees of success. Capturing the imagination of people with the skills needed for the problem is the key. Prizes help, along with fame and bragging rights. Intellectual property issues can get in the way for some companies. I’ll point to Local Motors as one of the leading examples of for-profit crowdsourcing. Their business model is sophisticated and highly refined, something I’ve written about here previously.
As for the hilarious title of the winning group, you might enjoy reviewing the history of the classic phrase, “All your base are belong to us.”