The open source movement of the 1980s – 1990s did wonders for the distribution of free, quality software like GNU and Linux. Best of all, open source allowed the public to continuously develop the code, allowing for rapid improvement and benefitting from “cheap failure.”  So what happens when we take the same principle of global collaboration and apply it to global issues? Can the methodology behind software development be useful in creating social innovation?

IDEO, a global design consultancy known for their implementation of design thinking to develop innovative solutions for various companies, has established an online community called OpenIDEO, an online platform designed for creative thinkers to collaborate and share ideas, information, inspiration, concepts, and evaluations. Its motto, “Where people design better, together,” shares its ideology with the open source system. OpenIDEO values an open exchange of all types of communication from a broad spectrum of users, amateur and professional, in order to continuously develop ideas and concepts, emphasizing how they are always “in BETA.” Members have the freedom of posting inspiration, providing critiques and encouragement, applying new frameworks, etc. … i.e., working socially with no hierarchal restrictions.

How it works:

Introduction to OpenIDEO / from IDEO on Vimeo.


Does having an open platform for the creation of ideas take away from actual IDEO employees being paid for doing the research within the company?

When IDEO partners with clients and external sources, they present OpenIDEOers with problems that require every type of solution imaginable: concepts, environments, businesses strategies, community learning, programs, publications, products, even entire business ventures. The purpose is to create social change, not free labor for the company. Past challenges have included:

  • What global challenge do you think innovation leaders should work to solve right now?
  • How might we improve maternal health with mobile technologies for low-income countries?
  • How might we increase the number of registered bone marrow donors to help save more lives?
  • How might we increase the availability of affordable learning tools & services for students in the developing world?
  • How can we raise kids’ awareness of the benefits of fresh food so they can make better choices?
  • How can we improve sanitation and better manage human waste in low-income urban communities?

Anyone who has even attempted to tackle these global problems would agree they cannot be solved by a small collective of individuals from one company. Global issues require a global collaborative, which is where OpenIDEO steps in. Furthermore,

“The design company IDEO is involved in mostly theoretical research, around design methodology, design science and ‘developing products.’ There is no real conflict between us ‘volunteers’ and they as ‘employees’ or the profitability with the commercial design company IDEO. We can parallely do different tasks and help each other to different extents.”

The Design Quotient

A Design Quotient is used as a distinguisher of involvement within the community. Members have different skill levels and areas of expertise, so the quotient is unique for everyone. It is comprised of four phases implemented in the challenge:

  • Inspiration
  • Concepting
  • Evaluation
  • Collaboration

To analyze how the four categories have influenced participation at OpenIDEO, I have traced a variety of individuals with the highest percentages in each quotient category (many actually overlap), and chronicled their overall involvement in OpenIDEO challenges. My data collection was a combination of diligent observation and written correspondence with some of the top design quotient scorers. Through email, in-blog mail, and Facebook messaging, I asked the OpenIDEOers the following questions:

  • As a top Inspirer, which places, locational and online, have most influenced your contributions to the inspiration facet of the challenges?
  • As a top Concepter, how did your idea (for your latest challenge) develop, what other alternatives did you have in mind, and how strongly do you feel about the value of your contribution?
  • As a top Evaluator, which ideas received the most of your praise/critiques, and what patterns have you noticed that incline you to comment favorably or negatively?
  • As a top Collaborator, which concepts did you collaborate most on, how did you respond to the open collaboration of others on your ideas, did you have any negative experiences with somebody claiming full credit for an idea you felt you originated?


In combination with my own exploration of the website and responses from OpenIDEOers, I have gathered the following information:

The above graphic depicts the sources of inspiration most prevalent in challenges. Global issues in many developing countries of Africa and high-tech initiatives from the UK and US are popular topics of interest. Other mediums include videos, news articles, images, and blog posts. Social networks specific to a cause, like Jumo, a social issue network, are also prevalent.

“I find the brainstorming process very fun, creative, democratic, constructive, and it always gets me inspired.”

The inspiration component generally creates the most contributions, and truly jumpstarts finding a solution to the challenge.

“Sometimes any little idea or inspiration can make me build on another old or new idea, sometimes into something completely different, as I am an artist, musician, writer, and designer: I thrive on ideas and creativity, and use my experiences in whatever shape or form in my different types of work or projects/products.”

Concepting and collaboration go hand in hand. Good ideas are built over time with constant input and revision. At OpenIDEO, one rarely creates a winning concept alone.

“I never feel ‘possessive’ or ownership about any of my ideas. I realize that ‘ideas, development, and creativity’ is my best field, and I understand that I am crap at all other sides of entrepreneurship and business. So I will not pursue those fields, or spend too much time or energy with that. So if I ever have an idea on a “product” that I have no potential in turning into a real ‘profitable industry,’ I still cannot make any money out of it if i just store it in my head!”

Furthermore, issues relating to ownership rarely arise.

“I consider most of my ideas and contributing to be ‘open source/public domain,’ as far as if someone else in the world could have come up with a similar idea (then my idea was not that unique or ‘patentable’). Or if anyone found my idea be useful for them, and they go ahead and do much more work and build upon it into another concept or product: I appreciate them for working and putting the effort in (and if they work hard at it, it is more or less their work, and I do not demand them to give me credit or any payment as compensation).”

Most enjoy “helping out with elaborating the concept” and report “no negative experiences.” One member did however have an unfortunate story resulting from a language barrier and the failures of Google Translate. As a Swedish user, he is concerned about how his comments and criticism may come across when being translated into English through a third-party application, especially if the English is then translated into yet another language.

“I got acquainted with a person from OpenIDEO on Facebook, and we discussed some ideas around concepts on the two parallel platforms. We found out how our opinions on environment issues were similar (but we lived on opposite sides of the world).

I gave this person some ideas, some constructive criticism, and a few open-minded pointers and suggestions on how to improve one of his concepts. (I was only trying to ‘push’ him into working little harder to think more to develop it into a better concept).

He did not take it well, and sent me very angry and abusive letters, (lots of fourletter words and cursing, in ‘ALL-CAPS-LOCK’). I felt terrible. But I guess this person later became suspended and banned from IDEO.
(This experience still inhibits me in some ways, and it makes me think twice before I contribute with a comment or idea on a social forum).”

Such cases are to be expected from having an international collective communicating with each other across a multi-dimensional platform. This incident is hardly unique to OpenIDEO. Besides, miscommunication occurs even in closed workplaces, and is ever-present when dealing with large numbers of people.

For evaluations, positive or negative feedback was generally based on instinct rather than criteria. Evaluation also ties into the process of collaboration, so the entire OpenIDEO experience is extremely integrated.

“If I get a ‘good feeling’ about another concept, I will add a positive comment on it, to cheer them on. And later I can go back, re-read and think about it, and maybe bring with me any of the smallest details from that concept, perhaps later it evolves (together with other inspirations) into a new and completely different concept proposal.”


The purpose of this travelogue was to discover how online social collaboration – based on four principles of participation (inspiration, concepting, evaluation, and collaboration) – impacted the development of an idea within a community. In the development of this project, I have learned:

  • What were the pros and cons of finding a social solution to a problem
  • What features of social online collaboration are being utilized the most / least
  • What other social media was included in the process

It would appear that the OpenIDEO experience is overall very positive. The platform currently has 11,875 users, and the top members have continued participating in numerous, diverse challenges. Establishing an international community may have its limits in terms of cultural aspects of language and communication styles, but it nevertheless gathers a broad range of disciplines interested in finding solutions to today’s critical global issues. OpenIDEO is dedicated to creating social change, and innovate the way we as humans interact, learn, and behave. It has implemented a creative, unique community fueled by a passion to share talent and vision from all over the world.

Last Note:

You may be wondering what happens to the winning concept. Well that component is still under construction.

“I think that it takes a very long time from when the winning concepts are decided until they are publicly announced and when the world can find out about them. I have an idea that we collaborators could do more in that part of the process. The work really starts there, when the concept will be developed and put into practical use. We volunteers could help more in promoting those concepts and find new users, and perhaps some alternative different use, than what IDEO-staff could imagine.”

OpenIDEO is continuously under development, and as the introductory video states, the developers are “looking forward to seeing what it becomes.” The point is to get people thinking, communicating, collaborating, and enjoying themselves in a productive way.

Image credits: original title-graphics by Jana Kalnina, some icons courtesy of The Noun Project. All other images property of OpenIDEO.

One Response to “The Open Source of Social Innovation”

  1. mdeseriis says:

    Jana, thank you for this well-developed and insightful travelogue, I can tell you have been delving into this research and collected a lot of valuable information from primary resources. In this respect, I wish you quoted your sources if not by name at least by user name. As I said in class, your sources should remain anonymous only if you are interviewing them about sensitive topics or if they explicitly demand to stay anonymous. In any other case, by journalist standards an anonymous source is never desirable as its credibility can be questioned by anybody. Coming to the content of your travelogue linking OpenIDEO to the open source movement is certainly a smart move considering that ideas are by definition immaterial artifacts (or machines) that cannot flourish and evolve without collaboration and cross-pollination. What leaves me puzzled, however, is that this platform seems to foster a very defined and elegant four-step process that remains just… a process. As you say, none of the hundreds of concepts that have been so intensely discussed and evaluated on OpenIDEO are actually implemented. (In this respect, open source software seems much more effective and practical). It is as if users are fascinated with problem-solving, but do not really know and probably even care whether these social issues are going to be solved. Many of these issues, especially the ones that are located in developing countries, would require in fact a lot of dirty work on the ground that probably many IDEOers would consider too time-consuming and unrewarding to be undertaken. In other words, brainstorming can be a very creative activity, but operating in countries with deep social problems is an entirely different task. Finally, I wish you said a little more about how top inspirers, concepters, etc rise to the top, i.e. what are the criteria to assess a successful project considering that none of them are finally tested on the ground and implemented.

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