07/15/2010 07:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tapping a Million Green Brains

This week, GE announced the Ecomagination Challenge, a "$200 million call to action for businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, and students to share their best ideas and come together to take on one of the world's toughest challenges -- building the next generation power grid to meet the needs of the 21st century."

The Challenge doesn't herald the death of innovative thinking inside the walls of GE. Instead, this is about the mainstreaming of mass collaboration. GE is acknowledging that no matter how brilliant their scientists and engineers are, they can never be as smart as the focused minds of millions of outsiders. Given the right incentive, these outsiders will greatly accelerate GE's green innovation process.

Mass collaboration in business was, until quite recently, a concept treated with suspicion. AG Lafley brought open innovation to Procter & Gamble in the 1990's, dramatically boosting new product success rates along the way. But Lafley admitted there were giant hurdles as he worked to shift the P&G problem-solving mentality away from internal R&D, to solutions gleaned from consumers, suppliers and independent innovators.

On a parallel track, Linus Torvalds introduced the concept of open source software with the Linux operating system. Developed under general public license, Linux code was freely available to everyone to embellish and augment as they wished. Initially dismissed by pundits as a project for hobbyists, it went on to become a core asset to companies like IBM and HP.

In early mission-oriented (and often green) cooperatives, collaboration was historically more widely accepted. From Mountain Equipment Co-op to Aura Cacia, the co-operative model demanded input from members on matters ranging from products to governance.

The new wave of collaboration

Today, we're seeing an explosion of collaboration that unabashedly taps the creative reservoir of the masses. Youtube and Flickr are, at their core, consumer-driven idea platforms. Advertising has crowdsourced ad concepts, even developing spots for Super Bowl. And more and more, initiatives like the Ecomagination Challenge are looking to consumers to create products that will - if they succeed - have a profound effect on issues as fundamental as clean energy generation.

In The Responsibility Revolution, Hollender and Breen note a new twist: green and socially responsible companies are now deepening the consumer's role, using social technologies to:

  1. Listen to consumers, and engage in real dialogues.
  2. Host a community of innovators -- both consumer and employee -- who share both unflattering company news and bat around new ideas.
  3. Transform consumers into activists.
  4. Put consumers at the heart of innovation.

Why the accelerated shift to consumer-generated innovation? As Hollender and Breen write, studies by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology confirm humans are hardwired to create by conferring. So while companies like Facebook may seem like anomalies, they are in fact far more normal -- and more human -- than the conventional company.

Accelerating sustainability

One obvious benefit of mass collaboration is the acceleration of sustainable technologies.

It seems humanity is up against a tight deadline to find viable alternatives to our fossil-fuel, cradle-to-grave culture.

In 2009, the Creative Commons, in partnership with Nike and Best Buy, formalized an agreement to speed the transfer of intellectual property in the interest of creating better sustainable solutions, faster. The GreenXchange operates on a simple but powerful premise: breakthrough sustainability innovations are more powerful when they're shared.

IBM has taken a different approach. In it's Eco-efficiency Jam, it invited individuals to contribute their ideas in a frenzied, two-day online forum on energy, the environment and sustainability.

Different as the two programs are, they both aim to deliver high-level thinking against new problems. Creating solutions that might not otherwise come from 'inside' -- at least not at the speed necessary to address the sustainability crisis.

Mass collaboration for your innovation

So how to effectively introduce mass collaboration to your innovation program?

A good start would be to tap outsiders as you explore needs, brainstorm, and even as you communicate your new products or services.

Another would be to bring experts from parallel industries into your innovation process. Their high-level thinking, applied to your problems, might provide a much-needed jumpstart.

And finally, engage the 'crowds' to help you fail forward. Even if you have an idea that seems dead, fresh eyes might unearth a new, successful twist.

As George Bernard Shaw said, "If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange, then you and I will still have an apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange, then we have two ideas."

In that spirit, go tap those million green brains.