Mixing oil and water: how diversity fosters innovation

May 21st, 2010 by

For months now stories of corporate greed have dominated the news. Replacing the faces of failed banks are the faces of enormously profitable ones. Politicians, the public, and media all love the blame game.

It seems their only respite comes when someone new is found for the chopping block: enter those responsible for the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pointing the finger
While the companies at the center of the disaster point the finger at each other, scientists are analyzing and debating just how bad it actually is. Although BP claims only 5,000 barrels of oil a day are leaking out, independent experts analyzing video of the ruptured pipe estimate that the rate may actually be up to 100,000 barrels a day.

Meanwhile, the race is on to seal the leak and contain the spill. BP’s efforts so far – including placing a giant dome over the broken pipe – have all failed. Kilometers below the surface, plugging the leak is incredibly difficult.

On the upside, BP has no shortage of assistance: it has enlisted the help of 200 fishing vessels, 15,000 fishermen and hundreds of government organizations, companies and NGOs. Big Oil competitors are lending a hand, and James Cameron even offered the use of the submarines he used in Titanic.

A helping hand
Along with local fishermen, and industry scientists, more than 200,000 people have also now been called upon to solve the problem. Most of these people work in roles unrelated to the oil industry. And that just might make the difference.

These people are the community of “Solvers” on the website InnoCentive. As many readers will know, InnoCentive is an open innovation platform that gives companies (“Seekers”) the opportunity to ask the world to help solve scientific and business problems. Since its launch in 2001 it has helped various companies solve over 400 problems (amounting to 40% of those posted), for which they have paid Solvers over $4m.

Among other things, InnoCentive has highlighted the value of diversity. Looking at those who had successfully solved problems, professor Karim Lakhani found that “the further the focal problem was from the solvers’ field of expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.”

The winning formula
This is not as counterintuitive as it sounds – according to a study published in the Wall St Journal, “to be truly innovative, companies sometimes have to change their frames of reference, extend their search space”. An example is a London hospital which consulted a pit-stop crew from the Ferrari Formula One motor-racing team to improve the way children are moved out of heart surgery and into intensive care.

Efforts to capture this diversity of thought are not limited to specialist platforms like InnoCentive either. Recognizing its value, BMW AG invites ideas from “small and medium-sized innovative companies” on its own website.

While the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is InnoCentive’s first Emergency Response Challenge, it is unlikely to be its last. “Our connected planet needs to take a fresh approach to disaster response,” said InnoCentive CEO Dwayne Spradlin. “All crisis situations are time-sensitive and we have the ability to quickly tap into our global Solver network to start looking for solutions immediately. It only takes one amazing idea to slow the Gulf oil leak or minimize its impact.”

Whether the diverse crowd of solvers will offer any timely solutions to the disaster remains to be seen, but if history is anything to go by, it is worth a shot: In 2007 the Ocean Spill Recovery Institute asked Solvers to find a way to separate frozen oil from water on oil recovery barges, cleaning up oil still left over from the Exxon Valdez spill. Rather than someone involved in the oil industry, it was a nanotechnology expert who came up with a solution, using a tool from cement industry.

With the growth of platforms like InnoCentive, and the exponential increase in people from all over the world accessing the internet, the diversity of smart people willing to lend a hand solving a problem is unparalleled in history. Blaming people for problems might be fun, but looking for a solution will always be more rewarding.