Everyone loves the crowd these days. The collective mind, proponents say, can do everything from mapping crime to funding wacky art projects to solving the world’s toughest mathematical conundrums. But even those who tout the wisdom of crowds for tasks that can be broken up into pieces, or for problems that have one right answer, might doubt those hordes could ever be truly creative.
Surely real creativity, the elusive stuff of game-changing ideas and innovative solutions, cannot be outsourced to the masses.
Oh yes it can, says Jeffery Nickerson, an information systems researcher at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. In recent paper presented at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference this May, he demonstrates how it might be possible to harness the energy of the crowd to produce creative ideas.
Starting with a pretty cool kid’s chair.
New online tools make assembling large crowds relatively easy, Nickerson says, but collaboration is a little trickier. With a crowd of hundreds of people scattered across the globe, a group discussion is somewhat unpractical. So instead of having people speak to each other, his system allows people to “speak through the things they produce.” All it takes is a crowdsourcing marketplace, free design software, and an organizational process that mimics natural evolution.
Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and the Google Docs drawing platform, Nickerson and colleagues first recruited a crowd to design a chair for children. The initial sketches became the “parents” of the next generation of designs, created by a new crowd combining and building upon what they liked from the first. In that way, each “generation” was a combination of the best features from the previous one.
This continued for three generations – an iterative process of design, selection and combination – until Nickerson had a total of 200 chair sketches. The last generation of chairs was rated (by yet another crowd) as more creative, practical, and superior to the first.