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Communications of the ACM


An Embarrassment of Riches

An Embarrassment of Riches, illustration


Open innovation systems represent an emerging collective intelligence success story. In such systems, a customer describes a problem they want to solve (for example, "we want ideas for new beverage products") and provides an online tool that allows the crowd to submit proposed solutions, as well as rate (and sometimes critique) other people's proposed solutions. Many open innovation platforms have emerged (such as ideascale, spigit, and imaginatik) and have been used widely in contexts that range from IBM to Starbucks, from the Danish central government to the White House. One recent survey2 found that one in four companies plan to utilize open innovation systems within the next 12 months, and this figure is growing. Such systems have proven they can elicit substantive contributions at a very large scale and very low cost. In the early weeks of his first term, for example, President Obama asked U.S. citizens to submit and vote on questions on the website, and promised to answer the top five questions in each category in a major press conference. This initiative engaged over 100,000 contributors, who submitted over 70,000 questions and four million votes. Google's 10 to the 100th project received over 150,000 suggestions on how to channel Google's charitable contributions. In IBM's Idea Jam in 2006, 46,000 ideas for possible IBM products and services were generated by 150,000 contributors. Such large-scale participation enables in turn, such powerful emergent phenomena as:

  • The long tail: Crowds can generate a much greater diversity of ideas, including potentially groundbreaking "out of the box" contributions, than we could easily access otherwise.
  • Idea synergy: Crowds can rapidly develop huge volumes of novel ideas by recombining and refining the ideas proposed by other participants.
  • Many eyes: Crowd participants can check and correct each other's contributions, enabling remarkably high-quality results very inexpensively.
  • Wisdom of the crowd: Crowds can collectively make better judgments than the individuals that comprise them, often exceeding the performance of experts.

Open innovation systems face, however, serious challenges that, paradoxically, are largely a result of how successful they have been at eliciting huge volumes of participation. In this Viewpoint, we review these challenges and propose some promising directions for moving forward.


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