OpenIDEO: a new experiment in open innovation

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Lots of people in a crowd.

This week, those smart folks over at IDEO launched a new project they are calling OpenIDEO. If you aren't familiar with IDEO yet, you should be—they are the poster children for design thinking specifically and 21st century innovation more generally.

IDEO has been responsible for groundbreaking designs of everything from computer mice to toothbrushes to brand experiences, and it is the home of superstar thinkers like Tim Brown (author of the recent book called Change By Design) and Tom Kelley (author of The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation).

What is OpenIDEO? Here's what the website says:

OpenIDEO is a place where people design better, together for social good. It's an online platform for creative thinkers: the veteran designer and the new guy who just signed on, the critic and the MBA, the active participant and the curious lurker.

So it is basically an experiment in open innovation, a place where IDEO can be the catalyst of a conversation among really smart folks from different disciplines that might lead to solutions for big, complex social problems.

If you are a skeptic, you might immediately wonder what's in it for IDEO. One person asked whether IDEO planned to make money with the "crowd's" ideas, and Tim Brown answered like this:

All challenges posted on will be for social good, meaning we won’t make money off of the crowd’s ideas. In time, IDEO may use the platform as part of our client work for closed challenges, but those won’t appear on the OpenIDEO site.

Fair enough.

To date, they've posted three challenges: one to design their site logo, one to raise children's awareness of the benefits of fresh food, and one to increase the availability of affordable learning tools and services in the developing world.

The latter two projects are still in the inspiration stage, but the logo design has already launched, and is, I must say, pretty darned cool. The logo is a combination of the IDEO logo and the word "open" written in script. The kicker is that the word "open" changes to a new person's handwriting each time you load the page, and anyone can contribute. I dig.

But at the risk of sounding like a hater (because I think this could become a really neat project), I do quietly wonder whether IDEO is a little late to the game on this one. We've seen a rash of these sort of public good crowdsourcing efforts ever since (and probably before) Pepsi launched the Pepsi Refresh Project.

Maybe my expectations of IDEO are too high, or maybe, the more likely true answer, we are only seeing a sliver of the larger vision for the site. Tim Brown hints that IDEO is testing a theory. Here's what he says on his blog:

The idea of crowdsourcing innovation is, in my view, still a big experiment. Conventionally the question has been whether the crowd can outperform the internal team. Our view is that small teams are good for some things and the broader community is good for others. The goal of OpenIDEO is to find out whether it is possible to orchestrate a collaboration between the two to achieve better results.

If I read that right, it seems IDEO is attempting to find some unoccupied land in the middle ground between small group design-driven innovation (their specialty) and open innovation. And there's probably something there, too.

So, people, let's keep an eye on this. My guess is there is more going on than meets the eye, and some brilliant IDEO folks are fixing to blow our minds. Let's hope so!



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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


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