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Tackling grand challenges. Save the oceans with crowdsourcing?

17 January 2021
In an ever-changing and unpredictable world, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals beckon urgent action: organizations and citizens of all types are called upon to join forces to tackle the grand challenges facing our society. From improving health and well-being to making our communities more sustainable, there is great work to be done and goals to achieve when we cross boundaries to work together.

Combining knowledge and resources

A grand challenge is grand for a reason. It is a challenge that requires novel solutions that combine the expertise and resources of diverse actors. You need a complex network of stakeholders (business, government, and civil sector organizations). They all hold different views of the causes, responsibilities, or consequences of the problem, as well as the possible solutions. But to come to novel solutions, you need to collaborate and combine knowledge and resources.

These complex collaborations are notorious for failing to scale up and struggle to generate the momentum necessary to address grand challenges with the urgency these problems demand.

But this doesn’t mean it is impossible. 

Unraveling the secrets to crowdsourcing success

One so far unexplored yet surprisingly effective way to join forces is through the use of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is the practice of engaging a ‘crowd’ of individuals and organizations for a common goal — often innovation, problem-solving, or efficiency. It is powered by new technologies, social media, and web 2.0, enabling the crowd to collaboratively share and combine ideas to generate novel solutions.

But experience shows us that not all crowdsourcing initiatives succeed. Many initiatives result in half-baked ideas that never get implemented. Yet, without actually implementing ideas, grand challenges can’t be tackled. So, what is the key to successful crowdsourcing?

To unravel the potential of collaborative crowdsourcing for solving grand challenges, Amanda Porter, Philipp Tuertscher, and Marleen Huysman from the KIN Center for Digital Innovation at VU Amsterdam studied an award-winning initiative called Saving Our Oceans (SOO). SOO is a collaboration of more than two dozen diverse organizations in the maritime industry, aiming to make the sector more sustainable. SOO has successfully mobilized over 1,000 stakeholders to contribute their knowledge and expertise to solve pressing industry problems. For example, they tackled the issue of ocean plastic waste through low-tech recycling machines. These enable entrepreneurs in developing countries to make a living by turning discarded plastic bottles into sustainable building materials. Other innovations, such as a generator for renewable deep-sea wave energy, tackled the problem of how to harness the ocean as a resource responsibly.

Over two years, Amanda and her colleagues followed SOO closely as embedded researchers, which allowed them to gain deep insights into the processes that helped make the initiative so successful. The Journal of Management Studies, where they published their findings, recently selected their article as the Best Paper of this Year.

Two insights to ensure crowdsourcing with impact

Below we highlight the key insights from this study on designing collaborative crowdsourcing initiatives that generate and scale positive impact necessary for tackling grand challenges.

Insight 1: Engage the crowd throughout the complete process

Merely setting up a crowdsourcing platform is not sufficient alone to attract participants and generate engagement. Because you deal with different stakeholders with very diverse interests and knowledge, additional actions are needed to stimulate engagement and keep it going throughout the crowdsourcing initiative. Generating engagement can be done in a few ways:

Frame the challenge problem very broadly. Although this is counterintuitive from the perspective of crowdsourcing (where the problem is supposed to be clear and focused), using a broad challenge allows diverse participants to interpret the issue in their terms and proves valuable for provoking engagement of the various stakeholders.

Combine online (e.g., crowdsourcing platform) and offline forums (e.g., face-to-face feedback sessions, events, and meetings). These “hybrid” forums create opportunities for participants to connect over time and negotiate their diverse interests while still working together towards a common goal. 

Facilitate interactions. Individuals in the crowd may be hesitant to comment on ideas outside of their direct expertise. Our experience from SOO shows how coaching sessions, during which individuals learn how to enrich existing ideas with their knowledge, can jump-start crowd engagement.

Insight 2: Novel ideas need to be sustained across the different phases of a crowdsourcing initiative

Even when organizations succeed in engaging diverse actors, there is a risk that many of the novel ideas generated will get lost throughout the crowdsourcing process.

Continually generating novelty is crucial, but also important is making sure that participants throughout the process continue to build on this novelty. The actors necessary to develop and implement ideas are often not the actors who generated the initial ideas. This shift in actors makes it a challenge to sustain the generation of novel ideas over time, but can be done in a few ways:

Keep the process as flexible as possible. Using a crowdsourcing platform doesn’t mean you have to stick to a predetermined process. By deliberately keeping parameters for evaluation and selection open throughout the process, diverse actors can keep experimenting throughout the initiative.

Use the crowdsourcing platform as a source of collective memory. New participants joining the initiative can review and reflect on details of ideas as they are co-created in the platform. All actors can capitalize on valuable insights developed by others, preserving novel ideas generated for future use.

Collaborative crowdsourcing can be a powerful tool for tackling grand challenges 

Organizations play a vital role in addressing some of the world’s most pressing societal challenges. Yet, organizations’ ability to effect real change will continue to fall short unless alternative forms of organizing through digital technologies can be better understood. The study of SOO makes vital progress with this regard by explaining how organizations can generate and scale positive impact through crowdsourcing. To learn more about their research, please contact Amanda Porter. 

For the full article (open access): Porter, A. J., Tuertscher, P., & Huysman, M. (2019). Saving Our Oceans: Scaling the Impact of Robust Action Through Crowdsourcing. Journal of Management Studies. Available at:

The authors of this blog

Amanda J. Porter is an Associate Professor at the Vrije Universiteit, School of Business and Economics, in the KIN Center for Digital Innovation. Her research examines how digital technologies can support open, multi-stakeholder, problem-centered forms of organizing. Her current project examines the promise of crowdsourcing for tackling grand societal challenges. 

Philipp Tuertscher is Associate Professor of Technology and Innovation and a member of the KIN Center for Digital Innovation at the School of Business and Economics, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. In his research, Philipp studies collaborative innovation and design in a variety of settings, including large-scale scientific collaborations at CERN, open-source software projects, online communities, crowdsourcing initiatives, and science-industry collaborations.

Marleen H. Huysman is Professor of Knowledge and Organizations and heads the KIN Center for Digital Innovation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research interests include organizational knowledge, new ways of working, and digital technologies with a specific emphasis on the role of algorithmic technologies. Her research is published in books and journals such as Organization Studies, Organization Science, Journal of Management Studies, MIS Quarterly, and Journal of IT 

Christine Brauckmann coordinates Business and Public Engagement KIN Center for Digital Innovation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.