Saving Our Oceans: Tackling Grand Challenges Through Crowdsourcing  

Oceans are undoubtedly one of the fundamental components that make our world livable. Unfortunately, with the growing population, they are becoming increasingly polluted. The numbers are intimidating: recent estimates suggest that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing over 250.000 tons, afloat in the oceans [1]; and the total sulfur emissions created by only 16 of the world’s largest ships are equal to those of all cars in the world [2]. It is no surprise that the United Nations made an urgent call for action: through the Sustainable Development Goals, organizations of all types are called upon to join forces to tackle the grand challenges facing our oceans and other habitats today.

However, organizations trying to tackle environmental grand challenges find themselves in a complex network of stakeholders. Business, government, and civil sector organizations all hold different views of the causes, responsibilities or consequences of the problem as well as of the possible solutions, but nevertheless, need to collaborate to combine their knowledge and resources towards novel solutions. Such complex collaborations are notorious for failing to scale up and struggle to generate the momentum necessary to address grand challenges with the urgency these problems demand.

Amanda Porter, Philipp Tuertscher and Marleen Huysman from the KIN Center for Digital Innovation explain in their research how a collaborative crowdsourcing platform can help organizations to generate ideas at a much faster rate than it is possible in traditional organizational settings, while at the same time they make sure that potentially valuable ideas are actually developed and implemented rather than getting lost during the problem-solving process. To unravel the potential of collaborative crowdsourcing platforms for tackling grand challenges, Amanda and her colleagues studied an award-winning initiative called Saving Our Oceans (SOO). Their findings have recently been published in the Journal of Management Studies. SOO utilized a collaborative crowdsourcing platform to form a network of diverse stakeholders and to collect ideas for creating more sustainable oceans from hundreds of participants around the world. Following SOO closely over two years allowed Amanda and her colleagues to gain deep insights into the processes that helped to make the initiative so successful. We highlight below the key insights this study provides on how collaborative crowdsourcing initiatives can be designed to generate and scale positive impact necessary for tackling grand challenges.

Insight 1: Organizations need to generate and sustain the engagement of new groups of stakeholders throughout the initiative

Organizations that use crowdsourcing platforms often assume that using an online platform by itself will be sufficient to attract participants and generate their engagement. However, when initiatives intend to facilitate interaction between a large number of diverse actors, many of whom have no prior knowledge of one another and very divergent interests, additional mechanisms are needed to spur engagement and keep it going throughout the crowdsourcing initiative. Several features of the crowdsourcing process enabled SOO to continuously generate and maintain the engagement of diverse stakeholders. For instance, rather than providing a narrow definition of the problem to be solved, SOO framed the challenge problem very broadly. This allowed diverse participants to interpret the problem in their own terms and proved valuable for provoking engagement as the various stakeholders, including those joining later in the process, we’re able to develop common ground that was maintained throughout the challenge. SOO also combined online (e.g. crowdsourcing platform) and offline forums(e.g. face-to-face feedback sessions, events, and meetings). These “hybrid” forums created opportunities for participants to connect over time and negotiate their diverse interests while still working together towards a common goal.

Insight 2: Organizations need to generate and sustain novelty across the different phases of the initiative

Even when organizations succeed in engaging diverse actors, there is a risk that many of the novel ideas generated will get lost throughout the crowdsourcing process. The actors necessary to further develop and implement ideas are often not the actors who generated the initial ideas. Therefore, it is important that novelty is continually generated and that participants throughout the process continue to build on this novelty. To sustain the generation of novel ideas over time, SOO kept the process as flexible as possible to allow diverse actors to keep experimenting throughout the initiative, for instance, by deliberately keeping important parameters for evaluation and selection open throughout the process. Additionally, SOO made sure that all actors were able to capitalize on valuable ideas developed by others by using the crowdsourcing platform as a source of collective memory. New participants joining the project could review and reflect on details of ideas as they were co-created in the platform, preserving novel ideas generated for future use.

Collaborative crowdsourcing can be a powerful tool for tackling grand challenges

Organizations play a vital role in tackling some of the world’s most pressing societal challenges. Yet, the power of organizations to effect real change will continue to fall short unless alternative forms of organizing through digital technologies can be better understood. The study of SOO makes vital progress with this regard, by explaining how organizations can generate and scale positive impact through crowdsourcing. To learn more about their research, please contact Amanda Porter.

[1] Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L. C., Carson, H. S., Thiel, M., Moore, C. J., Borerro, J. C., … & Reisser, J. (2014). Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PloS one9(12), e111913.

[2] Pearce, F. (2009). ‘How 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world’. DailyMail. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1229857/How-16-ships-create-pollution-cars-world.html (accessed 27 Aug 2019)

[3] Porter, A. J., Tuertscher, P., & Huysman, M. (2019). Saving Our Oceans: Scaling the Impact of Robust Action Through Crowdsourcing. Journal of Management Studies. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12515.

Autor: Damla Diriker