A crowdsourcing approach to innovation

I truly believe that, if people open up, collaborate and work together, they can achieve greater results than anyone working alone. This is why I have co-created Babele, an online crowdsourcing platform for social business planning. The concept of Babele was the subject of my MBA thesis in 2009 in Brazil. My research aimed at drawing a roadmap on how to harness collective brainpower to innovate in the area of sustainability for the common good. For example, this could be achieved by developing projects aiming to achieve the triple bottom line of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity. In a nutshell, the idea is to support projects which meet the needs of present society without compromising resources for future generations.

I met my co-founder, Ruxandra Creosteanu, in 2011. Since we both had a corporate job at the time, me at Procter & Gamble and Ruxandra at Deloitte, we could only work during our free time on the project. It was simply not sufficient to make it advance to a prototype stage. We realised that we had to allocate more resources to the project if we wanted to get it off the ground. And we left our jobs.

By December 2012, we moved to Romania, Ruxandra’s home country. The idea was to decrease our set-up costs and find high-quality web developers. Romania has never been a reference market for open innovation, nor for social entrepreneurship. But it was key in conceiving the first prototype of the platform and launch the alpha version of our site.

The social entrepreneurs we met in the country told us about a cultural resistance to everything labelled as social. Indeed, it had a negative connotation since the fall of the Communist regime. However, things are changing. The new generation is eager to participate to the conception and implementation of common good projects. This trend is further compounded by a higher sensibility to the social and environmental problems that governments appear to be unable to address. The best example is the wide citizen participation to protect the nature reserve of Rosia Montana against plans to create a gold mine there.

Clearly, open innovation, co-creation and crowdsourcing are becoming trendier and trendier. They are often used as synonyms, in different contexts. Therefore, there is a need to define what lies behind these words. Open innovation is based on the assumption that firms can and should use external ideas in their strategy. It is a term defined by Henry Chesbrough, a professor and executive director at the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. Open innovation is often correlated to crowdsourcing of business ideas and co-creation with stakeholders such as customers, suppliers and business partners.

Building on the concept of open innovation, Babele is designed to help social entrepreneurs, who wish to structure their ideas into a viable strategy while getting feedback from the community. Entrepreneurs follow a step-by-step methodology to easily convert their idea into a structured business map. And they receive support from the community of mentors and supporters. The platform is based on a crowdsourcing approach to innovation.

We strongly believe that the future will be collaborative. And we wish to contribute triggering this new era of collaborative culture. We can get people together to promote innovation in a more open and participative way. We are assisting to a worldwide start-up boom, with more ideas and projects being developed by more people than ever before. However, according to Bloomberg, eight out of ten entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months.

We believe that if people could seamlessly connect with the right competences and resources, several entrepreneurs would avoid failing at such an early stage. Innovation has to become collaborative and shared, interactive and peered with a wide international community of experts working together to support the best initiatives.

We have started one year ago. And we already have over 3,200 members, 350 social enterprises from 70 countries on the platform. The vision behind our project goes beyond open business planning. In the long run, Babele will support entrepreneurs throughout the whole project life-cycle, not only in the initial validation phase. We want to introduce a system where social entrepreneurs could easily set milestones for their business and communicate with supporters about their progress so that they can continue the co-creation process in the implementation phase of their start-up.

Our challenge so far, is that we are truly introducing a new concept on the market. And people do not always understand this new paradigm. As in every business, the audience is split between early adopters and all the others who join only when the approach becomes mainstream. In the past year, we have organised lean business workshops in over 14 countries, and we have tested with over 500 entrepreneurs how a collaborative approach on business development can produce greater results than working alone.

Unfortunately, our old economy rooted on rivalry is fuelling a generation of individuals who are terrified about sharing their ideas. Several entrepreneurs get very protective and prefer isolation instead of sharing their ideas and working collaboratively to increase their chances of success. Still, too many people do not understand that an idea is worth nothing but it is its execution that makes the difference.

However we also had some very positive experiences. We met several entrepreneurs who became excited about the opportunity of working together with like-minded people. They have opened their projects to the world and started asking everyone to give them feedback: this was a big thumb up.

We know that we are on the right track with our open innovation platform. There are millions of others that wish to make their part… all they need is the infrastructure to make it happen.

Emanuele Musa, co-founder of Babele, Bucharest, Romania.

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Emiliano

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