Friday, October 22, 2010

Crowdsourcing & Exhibit Development

Justine Roberts, Principal
View of MOS second floor exhibit hall.
Wednesday next week (Oct. 27 2010) The Museum of Science Challenge being run by InnoCentive will officially close.  I am talking about an experiment in crowdsourcing exhibit ideas that MOS intends to include in a future blockbuster traveling exhibit about STEM.  

Paul Fontaine, VP of Education at MOS, is running the project and said the goal for MOS was to experiment with more collaborative methods of gathering ideas, prototyping exhibits, and really open the doors to the creative work of the museum:

"Museums in general are reinventing themselves in lots of ways – its a Cambrian explosion.  There are new methods of using technology, more input from community partners, venues for all types of experiences, and new methods of creative input is on that continuum of experimentation."

I agree with Paul.  I am following along with the Liberty Science Centers' Exhibit Chefs project - one of the many who have signed up to stay in the loop although I haven't really contributed to the effort.  And of course there was the Tech Museum's experiment in opening exhibit development up through second life.  And I think Science Buzz at SMM has proven its success in identifying ideas its audience is interested in, and using the web as a testing ground before incorporating topics into exhibits. In the children's museum community, The Building for Kids in Appleton WI is promoting itself as "designed by kids for kids". 

So many museums are thinking about this question and testing the waters.  It will be fascinating to see the profile of the person who wins the challenge.  But even more interesting to see if this is just a one-off or whether there are long-term implications within MOS for broad collaboration with the public.

Who is InnoCentive?

InnoCentive is a crowdsourcing company focused on solving problems.  They see crowdsourcing as an opportunity to bring new insight and fresh perspective to bear on a tough issue that professionals have been wrestling with for many years. This is often highly technical – finding new stem cell lines for instance

InnoCentive can be the public face of the challenge and their clients can remain anonymous. In many cases the people who win the challenge aren’t in the field that the seekers (companies sponsoring the challenge) are in.  Instead they work in an adjacent field and arrive at their proposals by taking technologies they use and adapting them to a new discipline.  As Kathryn Plazak, Manager of the Public Good Campaign at InnoCentive says: “That’s where leaps of innovation happen and breakthroughs happen.”

About the Challenge

InnoCentive approached MOS as part of an effort to build their non profit and public service portfolio.  When they heard about the opportunity to run a Challenge, the team at MOS immediately knew what they wanted to focus on.  For years at ASTC, internally, and in focus group feedback, the museum had been discussing how to solicit original ideas for large scale exhibits. 

So the MOS/InnoCentive Challenge is an opportunity to get lots of creative ideas, fresh thinking and new perspectives.  Although they won't see the results for another few days Paul is already excited about the outcome.  

"Like opening a present when you don’t know what's inside." 

Paul also said part of the fun of this project has also been in learning something new.  

"We encourage people to experiment and learn and have open-ended experiences and museums can too!" he said.  

Does it Work?

InnoCentive has worked with government and mission driven organizations before. Recently they worked with the NESTA Foundation (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, UK) to explore ways of increasing parental involvement in children’s education.  NESTA was particularly interested in urban disadvantaged communities.  This is an issue that the professionals closest to the issue, who work with the target populations and key institutions on a daily basis, have struggled to make the tools and strategies they were using effective. 

The InnoCentive partnership allowed NESTA to cast a wider net and bring new voices into the conversation.  Most than just a survey of attitudes and ideas, the format of the challenge acknowledged the untapped expertise of the educators, parents, and other community members to propose actionable solutions.  This just wrapped up so its not clear yet how any of the new ideas will play out.  But the challenge succeeded in raising awareness of the issue, stimulated a broad conversation, brought new partners and stakeholders to the table, and netted some new interesting proposals

For MOS it will be a big step to translate winning ideas into exhibits.  They see the submissions as the gem around which they will have to construct a visitor experience.  And that process can take years - it needs to be put into an educational framework, there is fundraising and prototyping to do, and then fabrication.  Plus there are other projects already in progress in the pipeline. But Paul expects the team to be inspired by what comes out of this process.  He is not expecting submissions to be fully formed exhibit interactives but does expect ideas for incredible vehicles for some aspect of STEM, an innovative math exhibit, or original science concepts.

Do you need a partner like InnoCentive to use crowdsourcing?

When I heard about this project I wondered how hard crowdsourcing really is, and what a company like InnoCentive contributes - why not just train your own staff and build this capacity as part of a general shift toward greater dialogue with visitors and more participatory processes?

InnoCentive clearly has some advantages - they have a base of 200,000 registered “solvers” who regularly check their site to see what’s come up.  In addition for each challenge they produce a marketing campaign including press releases, blogs and targeted outreach to particular communities that should be aware of any given challenge.  They frame the challenge to make sure its actionable and use their website to post and receive submissions.  They also handle legal agreements for intellectual property. Once a challenge is posted their staff answer questions, screen out inappropriate submissions, and package the ones that do meet requirements and send them to the seeker.  The seeker does the analysis, evaluates and picks the winner. InnoCentive will vett to make sure solvers are who they say they are.

For many organizations it does make sense to use a service like this.  As a one-off it’s a lot of infrastructure to put in place.  But if an organization is embedding crowdsourcing into its culture this kind of challenge is one way to get started down a new road.

Thanks to Paul Fontaine and Kathryn Plazak for talking to me about this fabulous project.

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