What’s missing from crowdsourcing (some results of the Gates Foundation toilet competition)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation held a competition recently to design an ecologically sound, cost effective toilet for the poor in developing countries. It was done by crowdsourcing, and it pulled in people with unique expertises who developed fascinating approaches.  But as as recent New York Times OpEd piece said earlier this week, the results were simply not affordable for the people for whom they were designed.

Perhaps one of the issues is that the experts were working in isolation — not with a set of people (such as the OpEd author) who could have told them earlier on some things they didn’t know and helped them shape their approaches into some more practical. Perhaps shaping them into something more practical was infeasible — at least then the group could decide to either proceed with its “high cost” solution or drop it and look for another possible solution that might have a better mix of advantages and disadvantages.

At Collaborating Minds, we were very impressed by the Gates Foundation competition.  It’s the kind of problem we’d like to try to solve when we’ve got our group together. The people who did submit winning entries — and losing entries — are people with the kind of knowledge that we’d like to have in our group. The people with experience in the developing world would be great members too. But we’d like them to work together to make a good process – crowdsourcing – an even better one.

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