The harnessing of the crowd has become one of the most important tools for innovation over the past decade. It has allowed companies to monetize new ideas, crowd source innovative approaches, and even test products amongst a specific audience ahead of a public launch. However, the power of the crowd goes well beyond what many consider, as almost every person in the world is part of a crowd without necessarily realizing it.
One of the ways that the crowd has had a huge impact on how we all live is through traffic management. A prime example of this is Google Maps (although others such as Apple Maps and Waze do something similar), which can direct you to take a different route if there is a holdup ahead or if traffic is moving slowly. Unlike a decade ago where traffic flow was analyzed by roadside cameras or 'traffic-copters' today the crowd powers how people move around the world's roads. This is because whenever somebody has Google Maps open, they are transmitting their location and speed to Google, which can then analyze it based on averages and determine if there is a holdup, this actually takes place on every single Android phone regardless of whether there is an app open or not. According to Apple, there are over 1 billion iPhones in the world and Google have revealed there are over 2 billion phones that run on Android, which means that Google can know the average speed of almost any road at almost any time, which is then broadcast to everybody on the roads to improve their journey.
This kind of unconscious crowd creates huge opportunities for companies able to take advantage of it and there are already considerable efforts taking place in many industries. For instance, several festivals have begun experimenting with RFID chips within wristbands to give them an indication of how many people are in a specific area and then take actions based on this information. They can use this information to restock bars, clean toilets more frequently, or move law enforcement and medical units closer as the chances of trouble or medical emergencies could increase.
However, it is not only when people are unconscious of their participation in crowds that there is the potential to have an impact on innovation. The spread of the internet has meant that crowds are no longer based purely on geography. The internet has allowed like-minded people to join together and discuss problems, solutions, and mutual interests in one place, which has provided incredibly fertile ground for companies to grow and talk to their core customer bases.
For instance, Linkedin, seen by many individuals as little more than a recruiter's tool, has helped many B2B companies through their group function. By being able to talk through products, ideas, and the challenges their customers face, many companies have been able to pinpoint their products and mould them to what their customers need. For instance, Innovation Enterprise began as a singular focussed FP&A summit, but through building a large Linkedin group we quickly found out what our customers wanted and created it. This allowed us to move into analytics, big data, innovation, strategy, and innovation, and today we run over 150 events across the world and created The Channels based on the needs of these Linkedin Groups. Without this insider knowledge from the crowd, we would have been guessing what people want and missed out on a huge amount of insight.
It has also allowed for companies who wanted to stay outside of the traditional product development and sales models to operate, creating the opportunity for them to create more unconventional or specialist products and services than they would do if they went through a traditional sales process. For instance, Pebble, who were recently sold to Fitbit, became a major player in the smartwatch market thanks to their successful Kickstarter campaigns, making up three of the top 6 most funded projects of the crowd funding platform. Coming in as a small startup within an incredibly high-tech and well-funded industry would have been impossible without the up-front funding that Kickstarter offered them.
Companies can also safely diversify their product lines without the risk that is normally associated with this move. For instance, Knog - an Australian bike accessories company - were predominantly known for their lights, who wanted to launch the 'Oi' a new design of bike bell. Rather than risking the health of their already successful company, they simply funded it through Kickstarter, getting AU$1,078,634 from an initial goal of AU$20,000 - a 5293% increase on their initial projection. This not only meant that they knew they could fund the project, but allowed them to adjust their production based on the clear appetite for the product.
Looking at the crowd for monetary value or convenience is one thing, but it has also played a significant role in accelerating technologies. For instance, Hadoop, which has become something of a foundation for big data, was created thanks not to the efforts of a company, but instead a crowd of coders and data scientists who all worked together to develop the ecosystem. Over several years those with a passion for the project worked without pay to create it in their free time. This is the same across many different systems, with Github perhaps the best example of the crowd operating effectively. Here, coders submit code that is then critiqued, tested, and shared, meaning that an innovation made in the US could be checked, tested, and implemented at a company in Australia within only a few hours thanks to the power of the crowd operating on the site. It means that hundreds of man-hours can go into the creation of a product that's only a couple of hours old.
The power of crowds and the ease in which companies can harness them has already had a huge impact on the way we live our lives, from the simple things like getting from a to b quicker, through to the more oblique ways, like a website working better because the crowd helped to build effective code for it. We are only just at the start of this revolution and already the impacts have been huge, who knows where we could be in the future.