Why prizes work, and why they don't
Amid all the crowdsourcing discussion – whether things like CrowdSpring are good for creativity or not – there’s an interesting thing happening at the upper end of the innovation “market”, where big businesses (Netflix) and big investors (the X Prize folks) are offering up big prizes to people/groups able to solve a big problem. Fly to space twice in a two-week span? 10MM dollars awaits. The same is out there for whoever is able to design a car that gets 100mpg. This is old news, I know. But The Economist points to a couple interesting factors that complicate my opinion on crowdsourcing.
- This is really old news. Governments have been doing it since the early 18th century (see: The Longitude Prize), offering bounties to those creative/brainy souls able to solve a particularly vexing public problem.
- It’s good for everyone; even the losers win in the long run. “A study led by Liam Brunt of the Norwegian School of Economics scrutinised agricultural inventions in 19th-century Britain and found a link between prizes and subsequent patents. The Royal Agricultural Society awarded nearly 2,000 prizes from 1839 to 1939, some worth £1m ($1.6m) in today’s money. The study found that not only were prize-winners more likely to receive and renew patents, but that even losing contestants sought patents for more than 13,000 inventions. Today’s prizes appear to have a similar effect. The Ansari X Prize, for example, has attracted over $100m in investment into the (previously non-existent) private-sector space industry.”
Why games are good for the world
If you haven’t heard of FoldIt, and you work in marketing, you’re missing out on a really wonderful “for the common good” gaming case study. Again, via The Economist.
“[The] game is Foldit, in which players score points by squeezing proteins into the most chemically stable configuration. Proteins, which are the building blocks of life, come in long chains of molecules that work properly only once they have folded into their final, three-dimensional shape. Figuring out how they fold correctly is thus crucial to understanding biochemical processes, and to creating new drugs.
“To test the players’ shape-predicting ability the researchers used ten proteins whose structure had been discovered but not yet made public. The top humans outperformed the state-of-the-art Rosetta software in five puzzles, drew in three, and lost just twice (in both cases neither got close to the final shape). People excelled at problems requiring substantial remodelling, which often meant making the structure temporarily unstable, a ruse shunned by Rosetta. They were less good at starting from scratch, ie, a fully unfolded protein. That suggests that a balance will need to be struck between the inputs of man and machine.
“Intriguingly, few of the best performers were biochemists. To entice the non-scientific, the game comes with upbeat arcade music, bleeps, pops and colourful star confetti when you succeed (at least in the tutorial stages which tested your correspondent’s protein-folding skills). Players also get nifty tools with names like ‘shake’, ‘wiggle’ or ‘rubber band’. These tweak the basic structure into the optimal shape, though some players preferred to do that by hand.”
I heard about the game last year, after I’d been pointed to the Nature article about its launch. So it’s interesting to see some stats (57,000 players) and results on its success, especially given the abstract of the Nature report: “The integration of human visual problem-solving and strategy development capabilities with traditional computational algorithms through interactive multiplayer games is a powerful new approach to solving computationally-limited scientific problems.” I love the idea that gamers are better than computers at some tasks that require intermediary, iffy logic jumps. I also like that the scientists weren’t the best at figuring things out. That makes me feel good, and, yay interdisciplinary studies!
Small product development > big product development
Alex and I are doing a talk at Web2.0 about why smaller is better. Which is to say that more customized, more specific designs – in digital and real things – is better. The Economist this week writes about Panasonic’s recent changes in design philosophy to a more focused, more regional approach:
“To prosper on the new frontier, Japanese firms must adapt. Panasonic, an electronics firm, is overhauling both its products and its organisation. Instead of maintaining strict management divisions by territory, the company now thinks about product lines by temperate and tropical climate zones. Executives from South America visit their peers in Malaysia each quarter to swap ideas.
“The firm increasingly relies on local engineers to redesign products for local tastes. ‘If Japanese engineers did it, they would create a Japanese product,’ explains Hitoshi Otsuki, who heads Panasonic’s overseas operations. Now, only 10-20% of the products it sells in emerging markets are developed by Japanese teams, down from nearly all. ‘This is totally revolutionary for us,’ says Mr Otsuki.
“In Indonesia, Panasonic found that fridges need big compartments to store lots of two-litre water bottles: Indonesians boil water to purify it in the morning and then place it in the fridge to cool. They need less space for vegetables, however, since they tend to buy and eat them on the same day.
“In India, where power is unreliable, Panasonic is developing air-conditioners that operate with little energy. And because Indians tend to run the air-con all the time, the motors are designed to be quiet. In China, air-conditioners are a status symbol, so Panasonic’s are big and colourful enough to catch the neighbours’ envious eyes.
“In the most recent quarter, emerging-market sales helped Panasonic post a profit of ¥84 billion, reversing a ¥52 billion loss in the same period a year earlier. The firm expects revenue for electronics and appliances from emerging markets to increase from 25% of its total today to 31% in 2012.”
Totes. Design things that are relevant for local behavior and local needs. As the cost to create new things comes down, the value of creating something that’s incredibly specific – does one thing, and does it very well – goes up.
This Generation Gets Alter Egos
NPR had an interesting piece this morning about Gaga, Katy Perry, and assorted female pop-stars with alter egos. The author, Zoe Chace, makes the leap from the rise of alter-ego use to a generational mindset shift due to the use of digital profile-creation tools:
“This generation really gets alter egos. They also have a personal stash of identities for different situations — they’re constantly deploying different versions of themselves online: one for Facebook, one for Twitter, one for going out at night. … This is a modern phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean it’s new, says Judith Halberstam, who teaches media studies at the University of Southern California.
“‘Look back at the 19th century at people like Oscar Wilde,’ she suggests. ‘Oscar Wilde may well be one of the early people who created a public persona for himself and then was happy, when called upon, to perform this role of the glib dandy who was full of one-liners.’”
I’m not sure I’m 100% bought-in to the idea that the internet gets the credit for the glut of personas used by celebrities/singers, but it’s an interesting point nevertheless. Identity play is certainly a fertile field, and one that’s absolutely worth exploring…but I don’t think we can definitively say yet that things have changed. What say ye, dear readers?
Post-Digital Briefs on Slideshare
For the past couple years, I’ve felt increasingly iffy about the idea of a “brief”. Every format felt reductive to me, constraining, whatever. And I had the pleasure of working with a creative group at Odopod that didn’t need briefs (instead, they needed inspiration), so I could put together a messy book of thought and let them run with it.
That said, I rather like Gareth’s framework:
GET the audience
TO do, feel or think something
THROUGH the power of an idea
If you can’t summarize your thoughts using the above, you probably haven’t thought it through enough.